This England, a new drama tracking the first three months of the pandemic, was originally meant to air on September 21. On the eighth day of that month, however, something else of historical significance happened: Queen Elizabeth II died. The show’s release got pushed back a week in the maelstrom that followed.
Creator Michael Winterbottom doesn’t think the British monarch’s death will radically alter how viewers react to the series, but the changeover is “obviously a big moment, after 70 years of one head of state”.
She was also prominent in the first wave of the pandemic, he reminds us, making “an important speech, where shared values and the positive aspects of monarchy were brought to the fore; that idea of a nation coming together”.
This England covers the fraught, often chaotic journey, from Covid’s inexorable spread abroad and arrival in Britain to a late-winter of discontent: lockdowns, care-home deaths, PPE shortages. The six-part series moves between prime minister Boris Johnson (played by Kenneth Branagh in heavy prosthetics) and his cabinet struggling with an unprecedented situation, to victims, families, medical staff, scientific advisers and factory workers making masks and gowns.
An exhaustively researched “fictionalisation” of real events, This England is labyrinthine in complexity and detail — though never confusing.
“For research, we talked to a lot of different people, with different experiences,” Winterbottom says. “And we had a timeline going from beginning to end of that first wave in a linear way. Things were shifting so quickly. Something done on March 5 might not have made sense a day later, so you had to be very clear when this was happening, not only what was happening — to understand how the virus changed, and how the response to it developed.”
With its propulsive rhythms, fast cuts and pulsing electronic soundtrack, This England doesn’t feel a million miles from the Jason Bourne movies. That sense of speed, Winterbottom adds, was important.
“People knew so little about the virus, they were trying to quickly find out how to combat it or come up with a vaccine, prepare hospitals and so on,” he says. “The only way to capture that sense of the speed at which it spread, and people had to react, was to keep our series moving at a fair old pace.”
He co-wrote and co-directed and did casting and editing. “I was probably more like — although it’s a term I hate — a ‘showrunner’ than director,” he says.
The script was partly based on actual testimony, albeit fictionalised, of government meetings and individuals’ stories, with a mixture of professional actors and people playing versions of themselves.
“One of the care homes, say, kindly allowed us to film there; the care workers are actually the real ones. They were re-enacting what had happened to them the year before: going in, staying with residents and so on. It was a privilege for us to be able to put that on film.”
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In the centre of it all is Branagh, capturing with cartoonish growl, gorilla posture and scarecrow hair the essence of Boris in all his eccentricity, bumptiousness and, in some odd way, affability. Certainly the ex-PM comes out of it far better than many others, especially Dominic Cummings. Did Winterbottom know he wanted Sir Ken as Boris from the start?
“Yeah, once we had the script done, we went to him pretty much straight away,” he says. “It’s tricky, thinking of who’d be a good Boris Johnson, because he’s quite a ‘big’ performer himself. We have a very strong, particular image of him. So it was incredibly lucky to get someone like Ken. I hope Boris is flattered.
“He writes a lot about himself, so you get a sense of how he might imagine himself. We tried to draw on that and make him as rounded as possible. And obviously Ken’s a great actor; he makes Boris very interesting.”
In 2020, Winterbottom contributed to C-19, an Italian collection of short films from different directors around Europe about Covid or lockdown. It’s “fictional, but based on reality”, like much of his work: from 1997’s Welcome to Sarajevo, through 24 Hour Party People, In This World, The Road to Guantanamo and A Mighty Heart (starring Angelina Jolie). There’s also been straight documentary — The Shock Doctrine, The Emperor’s New Clothes — while On the Road with Wolf Alice sort of blended the two.
“I don’t know why I get such inspiration from real life,” he says. “It’s not so much an aesthetic or ideological choice, more just engaging with things that are happening in the world that are interesting or that I care about. It feels like a fruitful place to start.”
Born in Blackburn in 1961, Winterbottom studied English at Oxford and film at Bristol, and has been writing and directing steadily since his twenties. Early jobs included a documentary about Ingmar Bergman and the first episodes of Robbie Coltrane’s seminal TV drama Cracker. A big break came with Family, the ground-breaking 1994 RTÉ/BBC drama scripted by Roddy Doyle.
“I directed all four episodes,” he says, “and it was definitely the biggest thing, and longest shoot, I’d done up to that point. We had a great cast and obviously Roddy is a great writer. We were in Dublin for three or four months — it was good fun.”
Winterbottom is amazingly prolific — doing “a film a year normally” — but he insists that he is “not that hard-working really”: the type of films he makes are “fairly low-budget” with shooting periods generally from six to eight weeks.
He often works with the same people — Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Shirley Henderson, John Simm — creating the sort of esprit de corps usually found in theatre companies.
Bergman, the legendary Swedish director, was an inspiration: “He made something like 50 films; some summers he’d shoot two. Then all winter he was running the major theatre in Sweden and directing plays. So film was like a side-hobby, yet he made dozens. He had a group of people he always worked with, so got rid of a lot of the hanging around and waiting, trying to persuade an actor or financier. He could concentrate on making films.
“It always struck me that that way of working would be perfect. We haven’t exactly managed to achieve that, but it’s the ideal. We have this little sort of company, to give us a bit of space. It’s obviously easier to work with people you know.”
He is fond of improvisation too, seen to best (and most comic) effect in Coogan and Brydon’s The Trip to… series of films. “I love it,” he says, “whether that’s Steve and Rob fooling around, or more an actor inhabiting a character. This England has some of that, for instance in hospitals where we have real nurses and doctors playing themselves. The stuff in government is less so, as it’s based on notes from meetings or whatever — that’s more scripted, though we still had to invent some stuff.”
The original title, incidentally, was This Sceptred Isle. It was not Winterbottom’s decision, he says, to change it to This England, though both come from the same speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II.
“It’s that idea of an island nation being separate, whereas the pandemic showed us we’re not that separate. Also the idea that no man is an island, whereas here we were all isolated — in our homes — but still sharing the same experience.”
‘This England’ airs on Sky Atlantic and streaming service Now on September 28