What links This England to Angelina Jolie, via Matt Hancock?

With the five-part drama coming to screens soon, we go down the pandemic rabbit hole with Michael Winterbottom, Daniel Pearl and Kenneth Branagh

History repeating

Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This England …
Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This England … Photograph: Phil Fisk/Sky UK Ltd

Grim headlines; national and global crises; overpromoted Tory dweebs vaguely running the UK. OK, that could be summer 2022, but what we’re talking about here is the early stage of the pandemic. Forthcoming five-part Sky Atlantic drama This England (21 September) relives the dark days in 2020 when the government scrambled to respond to an unprecedented global health emergency.

The trips

Michael Winterbottom
… co-written and co-directed by Michael Winterbottom … Photograph: Getty Images

The new series was co-written and co-directed by Michael Winterbottom, whose extensive back catalogue is often drawn from real life: from the Bosnian war in Welcome to Sarajevo and the “war on terror” docudrama The Road to Guantánamo, to the fantastic postmodern Tony Wilson biopic 24 Hour Party People.

Daniel variations

Angelina Jolie
… whose A Mighty Heart starring Angelina Jolie revisited the murder of Daniel Pearl … Photograph: Reuters

Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart revisited the 2002 kidnap and murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl. Angelina Jolie played his wife, Marianne, desperately trying to locate him in Karachi. Pearl’s life also inspired the Steve Reich orchestral work Daniel Variations, which premiered at the Barbican in London in 2006.

Turing tests

Judea Pearl
… whose father Judea Pearl won the Turing prize for contributions to AI, fudning for which was announced by Matt Hancock … Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

In 2011, Pearl’s computer scientist father, Judea Pearl, won the Turing prize for “fundamental contributions” to AI. The list of winners in the “Nobel prize for computing” could be a who’s who of people name-checked on Dominic Cummings’ blog. Politicians love to herald the promise of AI: in June 2021 the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced funding for AI projects to “completely revolutionise” NHS care. A week later he was revolutionised out of a job, after being caught “canoodling” with an aide, in breach of his own social distancing rules.

Key workers

Andrew Buchan
… who is played by Andrew Buchan in This England. Photograph: Shutterstock

That episode may not make it into This England, but Hancock is played by Andrew Buchan (also returning soon in Industry). Kenneth Branagh takes on Boris Johnson as he “grapples with Covid-19, Brexit and a controversial personal and political life”. This feels suspiciously like the sympathetic and credulous template of Brexit: The Uncivil War, which bolstered the mad genius myth of Dominic Cummings – but judgment is reserved until we fully test and trace this new series.

Pairing notes

Read There will be countless artistic attempts to render the pandemic experience. A strong early contender is Gary Shteyngart’s tragicomic lockdown novel, Our Country Friends, out in paperback this month. Shteyngart has also recently started a newsletter, Gary’s Journey Through Hell.

Drink Lockdown featured much talk of banana bread and sourdough starters, but really it was a booze-filled time. Revisiting it on the small screen, maybe a shot of whisky will be needed every time “following the science” is uttered. Drink to forget!


Larry Ryan

The GuardianTramp

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