‘This England’: why this Covid TV drama isn’t too premature

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House

Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Monday 3 October 2022   By Matt d’Ancona

I am unimpressed by the charge that This England (Sky Atlantic, Now), the new six-part dramatisation of the pandemic’s first wave, directed by Michael Winterbottom and Julian Jarrold, is tastelessly premature. On the contrary: it’s about time.
For a start, the notion that creativity should be governed by such arbitrary criteria – that pearl-clutching decorum has a power of veto in art – is patently absurd. In any case, where coronavirus is concerned, the work of producing the first draft of cultural recollection began some time ago: David Hare’s Beat The Devil: A Covid Monologue, for instance, was first performed in August 2020.
This England is a vivid portrayal of what was going on – and not going on – in Downing Street as the virus first struck these shores in January 2020. We see Boris Johnson (Kenneth Branagh) ambling about Number 10, a mess of pleasantries, mutterings and grumblings about his dog, Dilyn. The sense of lethal unpreparedness is appallingly palpable. This is a gang still high on their recent election victory.
Branagh’s performance is astonishing. He nails not only Johnson’s distinctive gait and body language, but his voice. (A great shame, then, that the heavy prosthetics he wears are such a distraction. In this case, less would have been more.)
Ophelia Lovibond is excellent as Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s then fiancée, and Andrew Buchan perfectly captures Matt Hancock, desperately trying to meet Covid test targets at the Department of Health and all too aware that he is in permanent danger of being the fall guy when it all goes wrong. Simon Paisley Day’s take on Dominic Cummings is more sinuous and menacing than Benedict Cumberbatch’s in Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019).
Spliced into this are frequently traumatic scenes from hospital wards and care homes, as the government’s response strategy unravels and those on the front line – and those they care for – are left to pay the price for gross incompetence at the centre. It is hard to watch these sequences, hard to revisit the suffering of our fellow Britons at a time of crisis. All the more reason to do so. We have no right to avert our gaze.
What drama adds to our understanding – if it succeeds – is humanity, nuance and meaning. In This England Johnson is indeed portrayed as a tragic figure, but only in the formal sense: a man doomed by his fatal flaws to a terrible reckoning. The series poses the question: how much, if any guilt, does this now-departed crew of narcissists feel over their chronic mishandling of the greatest challenge to face their generation?
The sheer scale of what happened in this country during the pandemic has yet, I think, to sink in fully. Or, to put it another way, we were so busy at the time putting one foot in front of the other – worrying about our children, about our elderly friends and relatives, about the mental health and physical safety of those locked down in cramped conditions for weeks, about what one Cabinet minister described to me at the time as the ‘abattoirs’ of care homes – that we could not wait, once Covid restrictions were lifted fully (at least in England) in February, to say ‘goodbye all that’.
Yet that is not really an option, if we are honest. According to the Office for National Statistics, more than 200,000 people in the UK have had Covid cited on their death certificates. To put this figure in perspective, 454,000 British soldiers and civilians were killed in the Second World War: more than twice as many as fell victim to Covid, but over a period of nearly six years. No, the pandemic was not a military conflict; but its human cost was colossal. We have to keep reminding ourselves of this, as painful as it is. And art and creativity have a central role to play in that enduring process of memorialisation.
Why? To honour the dead, of course. But also to prepare ourselves better for the next time that the mighty let us down so prodigiously. John of Gaunt’s speech has a sting in its tail: ‘That England, that was wont to conquer others,’ he declares, ‘Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.’ Yes, it did. And, incredibly, it is, already, all happening again. For further details, just turn on the news.
Tortoise Lates
Last Thursday we held the inaugural edition of Tortoise Lates, in partnership with the Uncommon Wines. We’ll be back this week with a session exploring power and the press, with guests including Alastair Campbell, Philip Collins and Sam McAlister.
Here are this week’s recommendations:

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House


Jungle (Prime Video, 30 September)
Set in the world of grime music and London gangland, this six-episode drama eschews all the standard tropes and formats of the gangsta rap genre. At the heart of Jungle is the dilemma faced by Gogo (Ezra Elliott, superb) as he tries to extricate himself from the aftermath of a robbery gone horribly wrong, to placate his pregnant girlfriend Jessica (Nadia A’Rubea), and to smooth things over with his partner Slim (played by the rapper RA). But such a summary does not even begin to convey the strangeness, beauty and audacity of this drama.
The characters shift from conversation to rap and back again as they drive through a neon city that owes more to Blade Runner (1982) than to, say, Kidulthood (2006). In crepuscular, dreamlike rooms, we witness a lethal oscillation between money and poverty, life and death, friendship and betrayal. This is an extraordinary work of creativity – rooted in hard reality – that defines its own terms with majestic results.

Creative Sensemaker | Soho House
Creative Sensemaker | Soho House


What Just Happened?!: Dispatches From Turbulent Times by Marina Hyde 
The words ‘laugh out loud’ have been debased into meaninglessness, but I really did find myself wiping away tears of mirth as I read (or rather, re-read) this marvellous collection of Marina Hyde’s Guardian pieces from 2016 to 2022. As is the case with all the greatest satirists, her genius as a writer is that she is deadly serious, driven by Juvenal’s saeva indignatio – fierce indignation. 
Rarely does a commentator come along who is absolutely equal to her times; but Marina Hyde is one of them. I’d call her a national treasure, but she’d only write a ferociously funny piece of satire, tearing that very notion and her own public image to pieces. And we need her too much.


Hold The Girl by Rina Sawayama
Two years after her acclaimed debut, Rina Sawayama returns with 13 tracks that should propel her towards true stardom. With a voice that seems, at different moments, to channel Shania Twain, Karen Carpenter and Lady Gaga, the Japanese-British singer explores isolation, the price exacted by religious pressure and feminist rage.
The standout number is ‘Send My Love To John’, a gentle country ballad sung from the perspective of a conservative mother who now accepts her gay son and his partner. The whole album exudes talent, intelligence and stadium-ready catchiness. Tour details can be found here.
Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media

Interested in becoming a member?