kenneth branagh This england showmax boris Johnson

Boris Johnson, left, and actor Kenneth Branagh playing the role of the former UK prime minister in ‘This England’. Images: ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP and Showmax/ Supplied

Hasta la vista, baby: Branagh brings back Boris in ‘This England’

‘Prosthetics and a very good, very bad hairpiece’: Kenneth Branagh’s Boris Johnson transformation is something to behold in ‘This England’.

kenneth branagh This england showmax boris Johnson

Boris Johnson, left, and actor Kenneth Branagh playing the role of the former UK prime minister in ‘This England’. Images: ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP and Showmax/ Supplied

Boris Johnson may have stepped down as British prime minister with the cheeky words “Hasta la vista, baby!” after he was ousted as Tory leader, but he has returned in a different on-screen guise. Now streaming on Showmax, This England stars the 2022 Oscar winner Sir Kenneth Branagh (BelfastDunkirk) as Johnson with the help of  heavy facial prosthetics, a barelling hunch and a very good, very bad hairpiece!  

According to Mail Online, a total of 42 complex prosthetic faces was especially made for Branagh. Makeup artist Vanessa White is quoted as stating:

“There are so many pieces…The only thing you see of Ken is his eyes and his chin, the rest is fake…We had to tape him in, literally tape up the back of his neck, his head.” 

Kenneth Branagh, winner of the Writing (Original Screenplay) award for ‘Belfast’, poses backstage during the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on 27 March 2022 in Hollywood, California. Image: Mike Coppola/Getty Images/AFP

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‘This England’: Boris a ‘life-changing part’ for Branagh

Co-written and directed by BAFTA winner Michael Winterbottom (The TripIn This World), This England blends dramatisation with real documentary footage of the tumultuous first wave of COVID-19 in Britain that engulfed Johnson during his first months as prime minister. 

As per Radio Times, Branagh confessed that playing Johnson in the Sky series was a “life-changing part” for him.

Star-studded cast and rave reviews

  • In their five-star review, The Evening Standard calls This England, “splendid television, history distilled on screen,” saying, “Watch it and weep”. 
  • Times (UK) has already praised “Kenneth Branagh’s barrelling, air-punching, at times uncanny Boris Johnson impression, while bloated with pouchy prosthetics and fat pads” as well as the series’ “heart-breaking authenticity”.

As Gabriel Silver, Sky’s director of drama, described it: This England is “a broad and deep factual drama about those tasked to shepherd a nation through the crisis – exposing humanity at its most scared, neglectful, ingenious, desperate, and hopeful…” 

The rest of the cast includes Ophelia Lovibond (Minx) co-stars as Johnson’s wife, Carrie Symonds, with award winner Andrew Buchan (BroadchurchIndustry, Andrew Parker Bowles in The Crown) as Matt Hancock. Emmy nominee Charles Dance (The Crown’s Lord Mountbatten and Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones) steps in as newspaper editor Max Hastings in episode 1.

Ophelia Lovibond and Kenneth Branagh in a scene from ‘This England’. Image: Supplied

This England’: Much bigger than Boris Johnson…much bigger than the actor

Winterbottom approached Branagh about the project in late 2020. Despite the show’s scope, Johnson is central to the story, and the challenge to portray this hugely divisive public figure without taking sides, became one of Branagh’s biggest challenges.

As the actor himself put it:

“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.” 

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Kenneth Branagh as former UK prime minister Boris Johnson in ‘This England’. Image: Supplied

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The pandemic world

Branagh had the following to say about the vulnerable state of the world that inspired the gripping pandemic drama series,

“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.

“It was more about the cataclysmic effect of the rapidity, the ferocious rapidity at which things moved. We really weren’t ready for the volatility, for the changing information and seeing that impact across the country,” Branagh added 

ALSO READ: 1.1m people infected with Covid-19 in England, daily cases top 60,000 for first time

From Branagh to Boris: Masterful combination of acting and makeup

Just like Brendan Fraser, who transformed into the morbidly obese English teacher Charlie in The Whale with the heavy use of prosthetics, Branagh’s physical transformation into Johnson took a combination of acting and extensive makeup.

Although they’re of similar height, the actor explained that Johnson is “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.” 

Walk the talk

“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.”

Branagh would also need to master Johnson’s distinctive speech rhythms.

“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. 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.” 

In this file photo, Britain’s outgoing prime minister Boris Johnson and his wife, Carrie, walk away after Johnson has delivered his final speech outside 10 Downing Street in central London on 6 September 2022, before heading to Balmoral to tender his resignation to the late Queen Elizabeth II, handing over power to Liz Truss after his momentous tenure dominated by Brexit and COVID was cut short by scandal. Image: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP

Gruelling makeup routine

Then there was the daily makeup routine.

“It took about three hours each day to first get into a suit that bulked up the physicality and then to wear various prosthetics,” Branagh said.

“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 very 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 very 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,” Branagh explained. 

WATCH the Sky featurette with interviews with cast members and Winterbottom, explaining how the Branagh-Boris transformation was achieved.

All six episodes of ‘This England’ are available now on Showmax.