This England is a fascinating time capsule series, unearthed too soon
In the same way the pandemic shook up our lives, This England shakes up the very notion of TV drama.
I'll be honest, This England broke my brain a little bit. No series has played on my mind since watching it quite like this one, and I've never been quite so eager to talk about a drama. This show is an absolute enigma.
If you only know one thing about it ahead of time, it will likely be that the six-part series sees Kenneth Branagh play Boris Johnson. Yet the fact that this has become the main selling point for the drama obscures a larger truth.
This isn't the Boris Johnson show. It's the COVID show, charting the early months of the pandemic and not only the Government's response to it, but the UK's response at large. It's a sweeping drama told through multiple lenses as we watch Department of Health meetings, private chats between hospital workers and care home patients struggling to breathe.
First off, it's worth noting that This England is well made. It's engaging, well-paced and Branagh and the rest of the cast are all fantastic (Andrew Buchan is a particular stand-out as Matt Hancock). I also have no doubt everyone involved came to this with pure intentions; I'm just slightly confused as to what they were.
There's been a lot of talk about whether this series has been made too soon, whether we need a dramatic interpretation of events which were so traumatic and so widely experienced, and whether this should be left to news reports and documentaries. This is the question that has kept me up at night.
More like this
More than any other series I have seen, This England begs the question, "Why?".
Perhaps this is reductive, but there is usually a general assumption about the purpose of drama: that it is made either to entertain, inform or provoke some sort of reaction.
Here we have to assume the purpose wasn't primarily to "entertain". What we all experienced throughout the pandemic was a national trauma, and the series lays this out in devastating detail. The scenes of families torn apart by the virus, of goodbyes made over FaceTime and of care home workers breaking down at the end of a shift are truly gut-wrenching.
We next ask whether it was intended to inform. This explanation too falls apart, given that the pandemic was the biggest, most widely-acknowledged event the country has experienced in most of our lifetimes. Everyone saw Johnson's national addresses, everyone remembers Dominic Cummings's trip to Barnard Castle, and most are aware of how dire the situation was in the health service at the time.
Even the behind-the-scenes drama at Downing Street has been well-documented. And yes, perhaps not everyone is as tuned into the daily news agenda as others, but is anyone who's not at least somewhat interested in either politics or the state of the nation at the time really going to be tuning into Sky's new drama, which has been marketed on exactly those things?
So then, on to the third explanation: could it have been made to provoke a reaction? This at first seems like the most likely option. The depiction of the Government is not exactly a glowing one, as Number 10 is shown to focus almost all of its attention on PR alone, particularly before the worst hits.
Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain are shown to be the ones really in charge, while Johnson himself is presented as ineffectual, disinterested and, ultimately, inert, too busy writing his book on Shakespeare and perpetually quoting lines from his plays.
Anyone who's read Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott book Failures of State will recognise this depiction of events.
So, what is the point of it, then? Is the series intended to provoke righteous rage against the people and institutions who failed us? Well, not so fast - the show's writer Michael Winterbottom might have something to say about that.
In an interview with RadioTimes.com and other press, Winterbottom was asked what sort of reaction he was hoping for when viewers were finally able to see the series - and his answer was somewhat baffling.
"It’s difficult to say how you want people to respond to something like this. I think the first thing would be recognition. We obviously experienced it all, we’d seen it on the news every day and all had our own personal experience of it.
"So I suppose the idea is that when you watch it back, you remember it and recognise, and at the same time perhaps just feel like it's being told in a way that is respectful and trying to show people responding to an incredibly difficult situation, a novel virus that's spreading incredibly rapidly."
Winterbottom also said that the team behind the programme "all share the view that everyone wants to handle it as well as possible. Everyone wants to minimise the impact on people's lives and wants to minimise deaths and wants to be as rapid as possible. It's much more looking at exactly the detail of what happened."
So, at least from Winterbottom's perspective, it seems there was no agenda behind the drama, nothing he wanted to expose or to comment on. He simply wants people to recognise the experience. So, I return to my previous question: what's the point?
I found my own personal answer in something else Winterbottom said, that the series was intended to be a "day-by-day diary of events", as well as something Carrie actress Ophelia Lovibond said of the series.
She explained: "I was surprised that a show had come along this quickly, but pleased that it had and impressed that they had put it together so quickly. I was excited by the prospect of it. Because I think that with the passage of time you would forget the minutiae of what went on."
This, to my mind, is exactly why the series exists, and also how I came to answer that question everyone has been asking: "Was the series made too soon?" The answer, I believe, is no.
This England defies categorisation because it is, in fact, something entirely new. It's difficult to think of an event in recent memory which shaped our daily life in the way COVID did, or which was as all-consuming. Perhaps in response to that, this is not a drama in the traditional sense, nor is it a documentary or even a docudrama; it is a social document.
It's a day-by-day recreation of exactly what Winterbottom and his team understand to have been happening at the time, even down to individual experiences in care homes. Winterbottom revealed that some of those scenes featured real care workers recreating their exact interactions and day-by-day occurrences for the purposes of the drama, achieving the highest level of accuracy possible.
Yet a by-product, and perhaps one of the most interesting things about the drama being made when it was, is that potential inaccuracies have also creeped in.
Early on in the first episode, the action cuts to Wuhan where we are explicitly shown bats, both in caves and later killed and served in wet-markets. At the time when This England was first developed, it was the almost unquestioned consensus that the virus had developed in bats before being spread to humans.
Now, that theory has been thrown into doubt. It could have been bats, but the fact a source has not yet conclusively been determined means this remains an unknown.
Similarly, Winterbottom admits that the last episode strays into speculation due to the series being written so soon following the pandemic. Johnson is shown to reflect on and regret the failings of the Government's pandemic response following the first wave, something Winterbottom himself now seems to question, but which could well have been a reasonable assumption at the time.
Partygate is also absent (beyond some final text notes on the subject). Dominic Cummings's statement in the Downing Street garden, which took place on 25th May, is depicted, yet two parties which were reported to have taken place in Number 10 by then are not. When writing the series, Winterbottom didn't know about the parties and crucially, neither did any of us.
This England is a deep-dive into a period of time in British life, told through the lens of how we all viewed it and experienced it while it was happening. Everything has of course been re-contextualised since then. It's impossible to imagine anyone making a drama about Boris Johnson's government's handling of the pandemic now without putting an intense focus on the Partygate scandal.
There's also no way you would make one which stops in May. Yet, as Lovibond notes, so much granular detail would be lost with a wider scope, even if it was a more historically well-rounded assessment of our experience with COVID-19.
Those dramas and films will of course come, such as the more traditional historical analyses at least 10 years after the fact which interpret events through a different context. But this is something different which would and in fact could never be made later than it was.
This England gives a genuine sense of what it felt like at the time of the pandemic, the pace of the events and the sense we all got of just what was happening nationwide through news coverage, long-form reports and documentaries.
Even the bizarre Boris Johnson dream sequences spread throughout the programme offer an anachronistic view of the then-Prime Minister, where details of his private life and controversial statements were more associated with his premiership than the parliamentary scandals which would later become his downfall.
However, while the series may not have been made too soon to achieve what it does, I would argue that it has in fact been released too soon.
Of course no production company or broadcaster would ever sign off on filming a high profile series only to bury it in a vault, but imagine if this series had been stored away like a time capsule, only to be unveiled for the first time in five, 10, or 15 years.
Its view of events would be even more pronounced and our own memories more distorted, making the series even more uncanny, yet arguably more impactful and artful.
It would also potentially avoid two major issues brought up by releasing the drama now. The first is the politics of it all. With Johnson being such a divisive figure, and having only just left Number 10, some will likely be put off by any depiction of him which isn't entirely to their understanding.
Winterbottom argued that those who love Johnson will likely think the programme is too hard on him and those who hate him will think it was too soft. This is almost certainly the case, yet with time, even understandable knee-jerk reactions and intuitions can fade, and more viewers might be able to watch the drama soberly and judge it as such.
The second is, of course, the trauma. For those who lost loved ones to COVID or who are still deeply affected by the events of 2020, there's no doubt some of the scenes in This England will be deeply upsetting.
One could argue that honestly and openly exploring the real depth of trauma felt across the country during that time is only right in anything depicting that era - it would have been false and somewhat irresponsible not to.
But the sheer number of heartbreaking scenes and how utterly affecting they are will almost certainly be too much for some to watch. Given time, they might be more bearable.
I hope that no matter how This England is received upon its arrival on Sky this week, it can be properly reassessed at a later date. It might be that in 10 years time it is seen as a failure, or it could be seen as a triumph. It's just too raw to currently tell.
Either way, I can't help but get the feeling that would be the proper lens through which to view it. This series is an utterly curious endeavour which could only have been made when it was, but which should, for its own sake and just for now, have been buried.
The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for only £1. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times podcast with Jane Garvey.