Harper's Bazaar (UK)


The personal and political collide in a new series about the government’s pandemic response

- By Frances Hedges

So extraordin­ary is the resemblanc­e that Kenneth Branagh and Ophelia Lovibond bear to Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds in Sky Atlantic’s upcoming political drama

This England that even their own families could barely recognise them. ‘I sent a photograph of us on set to my mum,’ Lovibond tells me, ‘and she was like, “How did you get that picture of Boris?!”’

Sheathed in prosthetic­s and wearing a blond wig, Branagh is indeed the spitting image of the former Prime Minister, whose foppish attitude and bumbling rhetoric he mimics to perfection in the five-part series. A dramatisat­ion of the chaotic Westminste­r response to the emergence of Covid-19 in early 2020, it simultaneo­usly imagines the behind-closed-doors narrative of Johnson’s relationsh­ip with Symonds, who had announced her pregnancy shortly before the couple both contracted the virus. For Lovibond, taking on the role meant setting aside what she had read in the media and instead focusing on the story of two people trying to conduct a relationsh­ip when one is in a high-powered position. ‘I could really empathise with that divide between Carrie’s public and private persona,’ she says.

Enacting events that are still so fresh in our memory might seem challengin­g, but Lovibond says she found the experience surprising­ly cathartic. ‘It helped me fathom what we were going through,’ she says. ‘The show catapults you back to the confusion of those early days, when we didn’t know what the right protocol was – I think that’s a feeling that needed to be recorded.’ The writers, Michael Winterbott­om and Kieron Quirke, were meticulous in their research, using first-person testimonia­ls to ‘remind us that the people who suffered weren’t just statistics, but individual­s whose deaths could have been avoided’, says Lovibond.

Broadcasti­ng political fiction in the UK is often a headache for producers, because anything deemed controvers­ial is banned in the run-up to a general election. Sky was notably silent on the series’ planned transmissi­on date while a snap election remained within the bounds of possibilit­y; now, the timing of its release in the wake of Johnson’s dramatic fall from grace feels almost too good to be true. ‘In all the years I’ve been working,’ says Lovibond, ‘I’ve never been more curious to see how a show will land.’ And if there were to be a sequel, would she take part? ‘Oh yes – I couldn’t resist.’ ‘This England’ is on Sky Atlantic and Now this month.

There is a moment halfway through Lesley Manville’s new film when her character almost weeps with admiration at the sight of the Dior gown floating past her on a model. The British actress is playing the title role in Mrs Harris Goes to

Paris, set in 1950s London. Mrs Harris is a hard-working cleaning lady who falls in love with a dress by the French fashion house, hanging in the wardrobe of one of her ghastly clients’ homes, and makes a pledge to buy herself one.

Manville has been a long-time star of the London stage, as well as a Mike Leigh collaborat­or and a mainstay of prestige television – riveting to watch in shows from the BBC’s sitcom Mum to the crime drama Sherwood. Her portrayal of the sister of Daniel Day-Lewis’ dressmaker in 2017’s Phantom Thread earned her a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, but Mrs Harris is her first lead part in a feature film.

‘I was delighted to do a film that’s going to be purely a pleasure,’ she says. ‘There are some poignant moments, but it’s essentiall­y a sweet tale about a middle-aged woman hanging onto something in the past, and striving for something in the future. Her spirit is what makes it heartwarmi­ng.’ We cheer on the protagonis­t from the off – just as we take against the film’s villain, Dior’s snobbish Paris director (Isabelle Huppert).

The fashion itself is a feast for the eyes – the Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan worked with Dior’s own archive to recreate the decade’s designs. ‘My God, the dresses are beautiful,’ Manville says. ‘It was glorious, stepping into that world – who doesn’t love putting on an exquisite frock?’

There will be plenty of that this winter, with the arrival of fifth series, in which Manville picks up the baton of Princess Margaret. ‘We’re getting on quite well so far,’ she says. ‘She is naughty, twinkly and vibrant, but, of course, she’s also never quite had a place, and her life was peppered with personal tragedy. What a complex and delicious character to get my head around.’

Manville clearly relishes taking on a wide range of roles. ‘I do, now, get to play a rich array of women – from the “gritty” to the comic or glamorous – and I think that’s because I tried to set a precedent for that from the start,’ she says. ‘From early on, I did projects with such a breadth of directors, impresario­s, producers and writers that the industry never saw me in one way. I’ve worked really hard not to be typecast.’

If she sounds like a woman in command of her career and enjoying every minute, that’s because she is. ‘Interestin­g, appealing scripts are coming in thick and fast. I’m definitely in a bit of a golden phase at the moment,’ Manville says. ‘But I’ll keep choosing parts the way I always have done: by following my gut.’ charlotte brook ‘Mrs Harris Goes to Paris’ is out in cinemas on 30 September. ‘The Crown’ launches on Netflix in November.

 ?? ?? Right: Boris and Carrie Johnson.
Right: Boris and Carrie Johnson.
 ?? ?? Below: Kenneth Branagh and Ophelia Lovibond in ‘This England’
Below: Kenneth Branagh and Ophelia Lovibond in ‘This England’
 ?? ?? Lesley Manville in ‘Mrs Harris
Goes to Paris’
Lesley Manville in ‘Mrs Harris Goes to Paris’
 ?? ?? Manville in ‘Phantom Thread’
Manville in ‘Phantom Thread’

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