Review: This England episode one gives a chilling early look at the pandemic in Britain

Fresh off a resounding victory in the 2019 general election, Boris Johnson tweeted “This is going to be a fantastic year for Britain” on January 2, 2020.

In light of the pandemic, this tweet has been routinely and widely mocked. Boris Johnson’s crushing fall from grace this year has only made his previous proclamations more risible.

This England attempts to examine the early days of the pandemic from an insider’s perspective in Whitehall. A mere two years from the start of the pandemic and mere weeks from Johnson’s departure from office, some will no doubt decry this drama as coming too soon.

However, it is the very freshness of the topic that gives the show such visceral impact in its first episode. We see the steady terror unfolding as scenes in government are juxtaposed with the spread of Covid in China, the rest of Asia and toward Europe.

The creeping dread of what inevitably comes next is one we all felt in the early days of 2020, and this reminder is what gives the drama its immediacy.

For all the skilled direction in episode one, however, this first introduction has its share of letdowns.

Kenneth Branagh is near-unrecognisable as Boris Johnson – a fact which has been clear since the first promotional images were released.

His performance, however, is victim of the inevitable impossibility of portraying a figure like Johnson. A man who is himself a sheer caricature in his public persona, the ex-prime minister has often inoculated himself from critique by force of personality.

Any attempt to portray him is doomed to fall into impression over performance, and This England – so far – doesn’t avoid this trap. The trademark hair is there. The bumbling persona, the posture and mannerisms are all on point. He spouts classical references at an exhausting rate.

But it doesn’t add up to a well-rounded character suitable for such a heavy TV drama.

Of course, this is just episode one. Many viewers will no doubt find the fictionalised insider look fascinating. Others might be put off by the prospect of reliving the early days of the pandemic.

Ultimately, what will determine its worth will be its analysis of the government’s response to Covid – and how incisive its commentary is. Time will tell.

Featured Image: Sky Atlantic

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