Boris Johnson is getting a biopic. This week saw the first images released of Kenneth Branagh – hunched under a layer of gammon makeup and a mop of straw hair – in Michael Winterbottom’s upcoming Coronavirus mini-series, This Sceptred Isle. But even as the series promises a warts-and-all take on BoJo’s worst 12 months, you can almost feel the gleeful wringing of hands from inside Number 10. He might not get his own bronze statue standing defiantly next to Churchill in Parliament Square, but the Tory leader will get his own tragic and triumphant biopic to seal his place in the history books.
If there’s one thing Boris cares about (and there very well might only be one thing…), it’s legacy. Obsessed with history as a boy, he’s dedicated his whole career to walking in the footsteps of his idol, Winston Churchill. Carefully crafting his bumbling, blustering public image to fit the mould of a modern Eton Mess, he still manages to make reference to his wartime hero at almost every opportunity – writing a biography when he was the Mayor of London, name-dropping him into tweets and speeches, and vowing swift retribution to any hooligan who dared to desecrate his statue during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
You almost have to feel sorry for a man who spent his whole life waiting to be Prime Minister, and then gets the job right at the worst time in recent history. A committed libertarian forced to order the whole country to stay in their houses, you can practically hear his teeth grinding during the first few COVID press-conferences. But even as his botched handling of the pandemic has racked up a world-beating death rate you can also sense that Johnson still sees himself in the guise of a great wartime leader – dropping subtle WWII references into his addresses and steering a frightened country through another Blitz with a make-do-and-mend attitude and a stiff upper lip. Never mind that Johnson got a few things wrong along the way – Churchill helped to kill five million people in the Bengal famine but that didn’t stop him becoming a national hero, or from coming off like a bruised-but-brave legend in all the films made about his life.
Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, The Trip) has a strong track record with liberal-leaning, honestly-made histories, and there’s every reason to expect This Sceptred Isle will give Johnson the hard time he deserves.
“The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered for ever,” Winterbottom told The Guardian. “A time when the country came together to battle and invisible enemy. A time when people were more aware than ever of the importance of community.”
No, you’re not seeing things. That’s Kenneth Branagh as U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the first day of filming This Sceptred Isle.
This Sky Original drama will be coming to your TVs in Autumn 2022… pic.twitter.com/WR1Ig4BVRU
— Sky TV (@skytv) February 25, 2021
“Our series weaves together countless true stories – from Boris Johnson in No 10 to frontline workers around the country – chronicling the efforts of scientists, doctors, care home workers and policymakers to protect us.”
But even in the middle of a montage of stories about actual heroism, it’s impossible not to see the cinematic sweep of Johnson’s failed ambition and not make him look kingly by default. Even if Winterbottom digs deep into his mistakes and paints Johnson as a crumbling tyrant (failed marriage, baggy eyes, late-night chats with Churchill’s ghost), he’s still going to get to wear his tragedy like a Shakespearian prince (something Branagh will no doubt tease out even more in a grandstanding performance) – shuffling into the history books as a man who tried his best during the country’s greatest test of mettle, and sitting proudly on Johnson’s DVD shelf next to Darkest Hour.
It’s obviously far too soon to get any kind of proper perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic anyway, and Winterbottom would probably find a much better route into the heart of our real experience by narrowing his focus to a single day in the life of a key worker instead. But if Boris’ great struggle absolutely has to be immortalised on film, why not cast him as a Black African (or, as he calls them, “piccaninnies with watermelon smiles”), a Muslim woman (“looking like letter boxes”) or a gay man (“tank-topped bumboys”)? Better yet, why not just make a pandemic film and leave him out altogether? For a man so obsessed with his own legacy, nothing would sting more than being buried in the footnotes.