Kenneth Branagh to Play U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Michael Winterbottom Drama for Sky
Variety, 23 January 2021
Kenneth Branagh will play U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a new Sky TV series detailing Britain’s muddled response to the COVID-19 crisis. The five-part drama will be directed and written by “The Trip” helmer Michael Winterbottom.
Entitled “This Sceptred Isle,” the show will be produced by Fremantle, Richard Brown’s Passenger and Winterbottom’s Revolution Films. The project — which was announced in June but had yet to secure a broadcast partner and announce casting — will chart the events surrounding Johnson and his government in the face of the first wave of the global pandemic. The U.K. leader in late March was hospitalized with COVID-19 for over a week, with a number of days spent in intensive care.
The series will launch on Sky in fall 2022.
“The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered forever,” said Winterbottom. “A time when the country came together to battle an invisible enemy. A time when people were more aware than ever of the importance of community. Our series weaves together countless true stories — from Boris Johnson in Number 10 to front line workers around the country — chronicling the efforts of scientists, doctors, care home workers and policy makers to protect us from the virus.”
The show promises to “tell the tale of some of the most devastating events to ever befall the United Kingdom, and of a Prime Minister leading in these unprecedented times.” The series will cover the impact of the virus, and the response of the country’s medical community to overcome the pandemic. The series is based on the first-hand testimony from members of the government, the Department of Health, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), and hospitals and care homes across the country.
Ten months since the start of the pandemic, the U.K. is now in its third national lockdown. On Friday, 1,401 deaths were recorded. The total death toll so far is 95,981.
Winterbottom’s previous factual-based dramas include “Welcome to Sarajevo,” “A Mighty Heart,” “24 Hour Party People” and “The Road to Guantanamo.” News that the director was helming a series about Johnson made national headlines in the summer, with great speculation about which actor might play him. Comedian and “Great British Bake Off” host Matt Lucas, whose uproarious parodies of the Prime Minister’s confused COVID-19 messaging have gone viral, was among the fan favorites.
Branagh most recently starred in Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” and will also feature in the forthcoming “Death on the Nile,” which he directed.
“This Sceptred Isle” was commissioned for Sky by Zai Bennett, Sky U.K.’s managing director of content. Gabriel Silver is senior commissioning editor for Sky Studios. Shooting begins early this year, and the series is expected to premiere on Sky Atlantic across all Sky territories (U.K., Germany, Italy, Austria and Ireland) next fall.
Winterbottom has co-written the series with Kieron Quirke, and will direct all five episodes. He will also executive produce alongside Richard Brown (Passenger). Melissa Parmenter (Revolution Films) will produce alongside Josh Hyams and Anthony Wilcox. “This Sceptred Isle” is the first project to emerge from a multi-year first look deal for scripted drama series struck by Fremantle and Passenger with Revolution Films.
Tim Shipman, political editor of The Sunday Times, is acting as a consultant on the series.
“COVID-19 has presented once-in-a-generation challenges to the world, and in the U.K. the resilience and fortitude of the public over the past year has been nothing short of extraordinary,” said Sky U.K.’s Zai Bennett. “Portraying NHS staff and key workers on the frontlines of the extraordinary fight, to those in government facing unprecedented challenges, Michael Winterbottom has a clear and compelling vision in telling this remarkable story. The incredible creative talent Fremantle have assembled including the central performance from Kenneth Branagh will make ‘This Sceptred Isle’ a drama we are proud to be part of telling.”
Executive producer Richard Brown added: “Michael is a master of weaving compelling drama from factual stories and he has an undeniable, distinct vision for this project. He and Kieron have written remarkable and meticulously researched scripts which powerfully dramatise these extraordinary events that continue to affect us all.”
The series will be a huge draw for Sky, and comes at a time when the Comcast-backed pay-TV broadcaster is driving aggressively into original drama.