It was mid-2020, the first (hoped to be the last) wave of the pandemic caused by the coronavirus was receding. The firm Fremantle, a multinational program producer, approached Michael Winterbottom to offer him the idea of designing and directing a miniseries relating the storm that Great Britain had just gone through.
Joined by videoconference in London, the filmmaker (Welcome to Sarajevoin 1997, In this Worldin 2002, The Trip, in 2010…) explains why he answered the call: “It was said at the time that we had each just lived in our bubble – an experience comparable to survival during a war – that it had been a unique experience for our generations. These are clichés, but there is some truth. In Britain, a lot of people spend a lot of time re-enacting the Second World War. But that was seventy years ago and what is the use of serving up the thousandth version of this story? There, I was offered the opportunity to engage in the story of an experience that will remain, immediately afterwards. »
ThisEngland should be called This Sceptered Isle (“this scepter-bearing island”), two expressions borrowed from William Shakespeare who, in Richard II, puts them in the mouth of Jean de Ghent, throughout a famous tirade which celebrates the British singularity while deploring its corruption. The series’ protagonist, Boris Johnson, happens to like to quote the bard (and the classics, Latin and Greek, in the text).
Michael Winterbottom and his team have engaged in a tremendous work of documentation to evoke life during the first three months of the pandemic. “We spoke to the people of Downing Streetsays the screenwriter and director, to the officials of the ministry of health, to the scientists of the committees, to the researchers who worked on the vaccine. »
From this material emerges a narrative which its author wants to be called “chronicle”, and to which he refuses the qualification of fiction. Fact, ThisEngland sometimes depends on re-enactment, artistic or therapeutic process by which the actors of a real situation re-enact it. This is the case for certain sequences shot in the “care homes”British equivalents of nursing homes, where caregivers and residents found, in front of the camera, the gestures of the pandemic.
Multiplication of characters
Michael Winterbottom concedes that his project borrows from fiction the capacity to pass instantaneously from one world to another, to bring together lives that have never met. One of the singularities of the series is due to the multiplication of characters, figures rather, since each and everyone – with the exception of the Prime Minister and his entourage – only appears briefly on the screen, often at the moment of his death. “It’s a way of telling the speed of the spread of the virusexplains Michael Winterbottom, but also the speed of the strategies developed against him. These different reaction speeds have built history. It’s a rhythmic element that made me think that it would be better to have a lot of characters, of perspectives – scientists, doctors, nurses, patients –, rather than concentrating on a doctor or a patient whose wonders what will happen next. »
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