Even better than the real thing?

This article was written for the Irish Independent the other week, nosed on the new drama, This England, in which Kenneth Branagh plays Boris Johnson. Now read on . . . ideally in a gruff, bumptious Boris-type voice.

How, as an actor, do you play someone like Boris Johnson? That’s the challenge faced – and, for the most part, met in style – by Kenneth Branagh in This England, Sky’s six-part drama series which landed this week and chronicles the first months of the pandemic in late 2019 and early ’20.

It might seem straightforward enough. Boris, after all, is famously identifiable in so many ways: scarecrow hair, lumbering-gorilla gait, plummy voice, poshness, all that Eton eccentricity. Stick on prosthetics and a daft wig, start babbling Classical allusions in a deep burr, and away you go.

Except that would be mere impersonation – caricature, even – rather than a proper portrayal, something that captures the essence of the man. More than this, you need something that fits into a broader dramatic piece: here, a dizzying twist of various storylines, of which Boris is but one.

There’s a further complication, the very fact that the former Prime Minister is, as mentioned, instantly identifiable in a variety of ways: the look, the sound, the mannerisms, the whole persona. As show creator Michael Winterbottom told this paper, Johnson is “quite a ‘big’ performer himself…we have a very strong, particular image of him.”

So not only did Branagh have to avoid delivering a caricature – in some ways, the subject is already a caricature of himself. Caricature of a caricature: how post-modern, but not quite the right fit here.

This England may be fictionalising history to an extent, but only an extent. It’s based on extensive research, some characters play themselves, some dialogue is improvised. Scenes of Cabinet meetings were based on notes of what was actually said in real-life.

Overall, with its handheld cameras and breathless “breaking news come to life” pace, there’s a definite “cinema verité” aesthetic to This England. No room, then, for outsized impressions of anyone, let alone the main character.

So Branagh does the usual Boris shtick – up to a point. He sounds, looks and bumbles along like BoJo, enough that the viewer’s subconscious forgets this is an actor in makeup and believe they’re watching a real person going through a time we all remember.

But Branagh also brings an undercurrent, hints of things unsaid; there’s an intriguing kind of strangeness, you feel, beneath the surface. Often, this is physically manifested: moments where the actor will stop and frown into space, do a barely perceptible shoulder-slump or jolt awake from weird dreams, take the performance from potential parody to something that feels artistically true, even if not necessarily “real” – and no, that’s not a contradiction.

It’s tricky, getting that balance, and testament to Branagh’s skill that he mostly pulls it off. I suppose, though, it’s tricky in general, producing these semi-fictionalised accounts of real events and people.

There’s casting all the other familiar characters, for starters; in this case, the likes of Rishi Sunak, Carrie Symonds, Chris Whitty, Matt Hancock and – coming across as villain of the piece – Dominic Cummings. The actors must look, speak and act like them…but again, we’re back to “impersonation vs portrayal”.

Vast tracts of information must be consumed, parsed and regurgitated, made clear and comprehensible. Agendas need to be scrutinised and ideologies questioned. In fairness to This England, it doesn’t take a hard line or point the finger of judgment at anyone (not even Ken/Boris); rather, it presents a narrative – “this is what happened” – and lets viewers make up their own mind as to how, why…and who, if anyone, was to blame.

Then there’s the question of how “reverentially” a filmmaker should treat something like a pandemic. Crisis, unfolding tragedy, people dying – you want to be respectful and sensitive.

At the same time, ultimately, This England is a drama, not a lecture or book or documentary. It’s entertainment and so, by definition, must be entertaining, or at least strive for that. It has to work on its own merits as a piece of dramatic art, or else it’s pointless, not to mention unwatchable.

In This England’s case, they walk that tightrope pretty well. The show has the excitement of a thriller but with large measures of thoughtfulness, compassion and hard facts adding ballast.

Not everyone will be interested in tuning in – if nothing else, many of us want to forget about that surreal nightmare as quickly as possible – but it all works well. You’d just love to be a fly on the wall in Boris’ sitting-room when he’s watching…


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