TV Interview: Kenneth Branagh – This England, Or Brexit Strategies

March 3, 2023

 

Written by Michael Winterbottom and Kieron Quirke, directed by Michael Winterbottom, Julian Jarrold, Anthony Wilcox and Mat Whitecross and starring BAFTA and Academy Award-
winner Kenneth Branagh, This England (on Showmax), based on Boris Johnson’s tumultuous first months as Prime Minister, traces the impact on the country of the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic. The drama takes us inside the halls of power, as Johnson (Branagh) grapples with Covid-19, Brexit, and a controversial personal and political life. The events in government are interwoven with stories from around the country, from the experts and scientists racing against time to understand the virus; the doctors, nurses and care-home workers on the frontline working tirelessly and heroically to contain and overcome it; and ordinary people whose
lives were thrown into turmoil.

 

How did you come to play Boris Johnson in This England?

Michael Winterbottom approached me about doing it and sent the scripts – in bits at that point because they were still working on them even as we spoke. This was back in the autumn of 2020 and I perhaps like some people wondered whether it was too soon to be doing something like this: that it was too close to the events. But what I was really drawn by was seeing so many different strata of society side by side, with this sense of how authentically they had researched it, particularly with people involved — with the care homes, with national health workers, with people who just had their own powerful pandemic stories. It did seem to me that it was like a chronicle of our nation’s life at a moment of crisis. So I was impressed
and affected by the breadth of the story. I was taken in a way much more with that — with the sort of completeness of that; with the panorama of that — than I was by the Whitehall story which, although critically important, for obvious reasons, was just one strand of what was happening. It trounced my concerns about this being done too hastily: it seemed to me that it was important to try and capture something while it was still almost white hot. And I think they’ve managed to do that well.

 

Did you have any doubts or trepidation about playing such a well-known figure — a man whose life is almost a performance in itself?

I’ve had experience of playing real life people, historical figures, and there’s always an element of what you’ve described depending on that degree of fame or ubiquity. On some level, I suppose, it made it clear to me that the goal in trying to play Boris Johnson would be to go to the source. So my clear instinct was to read everything that he had written or that was attributed to him. That’s all the many books about Churchill, about the Greeks, about London and all of the collected newspaper articles; other things written when he was younger, and when he was at university; radio appearances, panel show appearances; places where he is either writing in his own hand or expressing himself without any sort of intermediary. I also felt that he was, as you say, so famous and so part of everybody’s life that if I went down the road of asking key person X who knew him, you’d need to balance that up with other people who’d encountered him, and I thought that that was probably prone to exaggeration and hyperbole and partisanship. So I tried to consider that much of what Michael [Winterbottom] and Kieran’s [Quirke] script required was to recreate moments that really happened. And then beyond that there was a legitimate speculation, which is in the nature of drama, about what happens behind closed doors among the lives of rulers, be they ancient Greeks, or the Shakespearean history cycles looking at the behind-closed-doors worlds of rulers from that time. I tried to keep myself honest by taking myself out of the equation, realising more than ever that this is not something to bring spin to. The audience don’t need that because Britons have their own view about Boris Johnson and what happened during this pandemic. So if we could stick as closely to the facts as Michael and Kieron understood them, then the audience would make up their own minds about what they felt about the imagined reconstructions of behind the scenes life. My job was to try and stay on as straight and narrow a course as possible.

 

Most people have an image of Boris Johnson in their mind already. What challenges did that create for you and what were you trying to achieve?

Well, I suppose the physical size isn’t so different — we’re about the same height. He’s a stockier individual than me, a sort of swift and some would say lumbering rugger forward. We all saw him take out that young schoolboy playing street rugby in Japan…that’s a sort of extreme example of a man who leans forward, who barrels rather. That’s the impression you have — he leads with the shoulders, head down. That physicality, the walk and the hurry of the walk as well, was something that came in early on. He has a slight hunch to the shoulders and there’s a sort of sense of somebody taking things on. A combative posture seems to be part of the physicality and a certain sort of physical restlessness. He’s not such a still individual when it comes to being a public speaker: one saw that at the press conferences for the various pandemic crisis responses. So there is a lot to go on. Also there are many examples of the sort of rhythmic element of his speaking. The kind of charging up, the galvanising in short, cheerleading phrases. He loves alliteration and recognises and serves up pithy phrases. We all know many of them. So there’s a kind of physical movement and then a sort of vocal energy that are all wrapped up in the same kind of combative ‘lean in’ to the world that seems to be part of the way he goes through life.

 

Have you met him? Did you try and contact people who know him?

Never met him and decided not to go down that route. It seemed as though that would probably be an infinite rabbit hole of possibility. As it is, when you read any biography, you will hear what someone like Michael Howard or Max Hastings has to say about him so you get some sense of the diverging opinions. We know in any case that most leaders, most politicians are divisive figures. So I decided that that would be such a balancing act to do
what I did think was required, which was to not judge; it was to leave anything like that to one side. The job was to try and create a physical picture of the man and then try as best you can to recreate everything in this drama that was real, that happened on particular days at particular times. I did a very minute study of the way he delivered his speech when he came out of hospital, when we left Europe…and hopefully you build up a kind of vocabulary of tone that in the imagined pieces allows you to maybe get somewhere near the spirit of something truthful.

 

Did you need to ascribe motives or try and work out what makes him tick?

I think Michael and Kieron’s script demanded that we do what happened in the pandemic. You leave the judgments about what the motives were to an audience. If indeed motives were conscious or unconscious. I think the sense that Michael had, and maybe most of us had, was at the very least in that early part of the pandemic, which was such a vulnerable moment for the world — we didn’t know quite what was coming, how fast it was coming, how deadly it was, what the real existential threat was to our lives or to our economic futures — everyone felt that most people were doing the very best they could. Although subsequently you might argue about whether that best was good enough, against the rush of events much of it was reactive. So a sense of anything motivational in any larger context was slightly separate to dealing with the onslaught of information, of a raging, viral spread and these new and extensive and highly unusual, unique arrangements for rearranging the national life. I think it
was largely reactive. We did not, in this case, go further than trying to put ourselves in the place of those trying to cope with something that was coming at them at a rate of knots.

 

What physical transformation did you undergo?

It took about three hours each day to first get into a suit that bulked up the physicality and then to wear various prosthetics. One was like a balaclava of a neck piece and a lot of the time consumption was then just making sure that prosthetic skin pieces were blended seamlessly into my own skin so you couldn’t see the join. Then we had to pull down the eyelids to have the sort of slight slope in the way the eyelids hang that is a Johnsonian family trait and then, yes, there was obviously a hairpiece to wear, skullcaps to sort out and generally from a pair of Y-fronts upwards they stuck on the bits of Boris to me. I have thin – or some people would say I have no – lips and Boris has quite a big upper lip so I had a new one of those. It was brilliantly done, but it meant that you were definitely a soup-consuming person during the day. It was not a prosthetic that allowed you to be in a world of chewing.

 

How did you find working underneath all of that?

Because we built up the shoulders a bit, inevitably you started to walk in that way we talked about: you leant forward. Also the nature of the series is short scenes, many of them fast-moving. So on any given day there were lots and lots of scenes in different places. The sense of being in a permanent hurry was something that meant that, for instance, I don’t know that I met anyone beyond Opehlia [Lovibond] and maybe Andrew Buchan by chance ahead of time for some rehearsals, who played Carrie and Matt Hancock. I don’t think I ever saw anybody else when I wasn’t Boris. So I didn’t really have any small talk with anybody. Once I was on set as Boris, on the whole that’s how they treated you. Obviously, the people working on the show knew who you were. But for instance, where we were working, if there were some people on set who were new to the job, and you walked out of the loo and walked past them, that would suddenly remind you for a moment as their faces hung with jaws open at the idea that the Prime Minister had just walked out to the loo. That was when you were reminded of how it worked. But yes, once you started, it was the day spent as Boris Johnson. You were there with the team that were making the prosthetics work earlier than everybody else, and you left later than everybody else.

 

How did you find working with Michael Winterbottom?

I trusted Michael Winterbottom completely. I knew that he had great taste and judgement. He likes to work quickly. There’s no hanging around. He doesn’t rehearse. He moves on to setups
quickly. He doesn’t like any ‘acting,’ he wants it to be real and quick. I entirely trusted him for how he would put it together. I had no interest or say in trying to even discuss that: my job was
completely to try and do the best job I could as Boris Johnson and serve his vision for the piece.

 

How did it feel recording some of these scenes given that you filmed in lockdown and the memory was so fresh in your and the public mind?

Well, for me, it was interesting, when I watched it back. Episode three is the beginning of what I think is a phenomenally affecting account of the care home situation that continues through four and five. I was shocked and moved by the particulars of those many stories. What I was happy about was that this panorama of what the nation was going through — it’s hard
to achieve when you’re compressing something that involves all of these islands and the first six months of that experience in six hours of television — but I did think that they found a virtue in the compression of that style. To me what was clear on the page and it is in the finished version is that although the Whitehall story is critical, at times it’s almost peripheral to the seismic effect of what’s happening with this pandemic in other parts of the country. I found being involved with all of that was very… I find it salutary to be aware of the extent and depth and nature of the way it affected everybody because of course we all have our own separate accounts of how we spent the time. I was grateful that this was not merely a documentary style account of how politicians dealt with it. It was more about the cataclysmic effect of the rapidity, the ferocious rapidity at which things moved. We weren’t ready for the volatility, for the changing information and seeing that impact across the country was what was continually striking as you did it.

 

Boris Johnson is a hugely divisive figure but This England doesn’t look to apportion blame or censure. Were you conscious in your portrayal that this wasn’t meant to take sides?

It doesn’t matter whether we do or not, because people who love or hate Boris Johnson will probably find that this corresponds to exactly what they feel about him. For some it will glorify him, for others it will have libelled him — they’ll see what they see. But certainly, in the doing of it the goal was decidedly not to bring any additional spin or commentary on something that was much, much bigger than Boris Johnson; certainly a zillion times bigger than any actor. There was a desire to find a way through that was, as far as we can understand it, just being, as opposed to attributing or imagining or defining some sort of larger motivational key to the heart of his mystery. What I followed was what Michael Winterbottom and Kieron Quirke knew about how the first six months of that crisis unfolded. And I think the more interesting thing, even in the case as you’ll see in later episodes with the Barnard Castle incident and all of that, is there’s a rich complexity to the way that things are presented. It doesn’t duck out of anything, but it just doesn’t quite so easily get on any kind of high horse one way or another. It’s feels as though the piece puts the viewer in the battlefield somehow. And sometimes
battlefield decisions are wrong.

 

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