This England: Turning Branagh into Boris – how did they do it?

Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This England - Phil Fisk/Sky
Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This England - Phil Fisk/Sky

What does Boris Johnson see when he looks in the mirror? The jowls. The blonde mop. The heavy bags under the eyes. The fear deep in his gaze.

That fear may be an invention of Kenneth Branagh’s performance as the former Prime Minister in This England, Michael Winterbottom’s new drama. But the rest is the work of hair and make-up artist Vanessa White. For Sky’s six-part series – which premieres tomorrow, and dramatises the events of the first wave of Covid-19 from inside Number 10 – White transformed the star of Dunkirk and Death on the Nile into the 55th leader of the UK, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

This England is a rattling watch. Winterbottom, best known for The Trip and 24 Hour Party People, takes an intimate, documentary-style approach. Real-life news broadcasts of the unfolding pandemic are intercut with recreated COBRA and SAGE meetings, as well as irascible briefings by Simon Paisley Day’s Dominic Cummings and quieter domestic scenes between Johnson and Carrie Symonds, played by W1A actress Ophelia Lovibond. The pace is scalding: in the space of five minutes, we witness flooding in Yorkshire, worried scientists speaking to Matt Hancock (Andrew Buchan), and Dilyn the dog refusing to be housebroken.

But swimming through it all is Branagh’s great white whale of a performance. Against the otherwise sober backdrop, he’s outsized: shoulders hunched, hips cocked, part Falstaff, part Lear; a dramatic centre of Shakespearean gravity. He’s also the only member of the cast obviously in prosthetics. It’s less an attempt to see the man behind the mask, then, than an admission that the mask is the man.

At first, White says, “Michael [Winterbottom] didn’t want Boris at all. He wanted Branagh to play him without make-up – he was very keen to avoid a caricature.” But Branagh pushed for the full synthetic treatment. “He wanted to look in the mirror and think: ‘This is Boris.’ So he could embody him in a different way.”

Kenneth Branagh pushed for the full synthetic treatment, says make-up artist Vanessa White - Phil Fisk/Sky UK
Kenneth Branagh pushed for the full synthetic treatment, says make-up artist Vanessa White - Phil Fisk/Sky UK

Pre-production began during the lockdown Christmas of 2020. As such, the usual extensive screen tests were shortened to just two shoots before filming began. A 3D model of Branagh’s face was created before White and her team began adding “bits of Boris”, culled from extensive study of still and video footage of him. “It’s not like sculpture,” White notes, “you can only add – not take away.”

Usually the rough edges of prosthetics can be smoothed out with sympathetic lighting and canny angles. Winterbottom’s documentary style, though, left nowhere to hide. The jaw, the forehead, the small kink in Johnson’s nose – all were sculpted in clay before disposable silicone molds were made. Five prosthetic pieces were stuck to Branagh’s face, for all 42 days of shooting: a two-hour process, before and after each shoot.

“Once we were done, the only thing[s] that [were] Branagh were three moles on his chin and the eyes,” says White. But what feature best captures the ineffable essence of Johnson – what makes Boris, Boris?

It’s not his hair. “Everyone thinks you can slap on a blonde wig, and that’s Boris,” she chuckles. “But actually it’s his eyes and forehead – he has these heavy drooping eyes and as soon as Branagh put on the eyes and forehead prosthetics he became Boris.”

Branagh remained in make-up throughout shooting. The moment he walked in on the first day, it “took everyone aback,” remembers White. “Boris is very charismatic, and Ken is an Oscar winner. He has this glamour about him. So even though he was performing through these layers of silicone, there was always this twinkle of Branagh in his eyes.”

Kenneth Branagh in This England - Phil Fisk/Sky UK
Kenneth Branagh in This England - Phil Fisk/Sky UK

It was trickier to keep Branagh’s Boris under wraps away from the set. Largely filmed in an aircraft hanger in Norfolk, for scenes near Number 10, Branagh wore a “a black beehive headdress” to avoid rumours that Johnson had mastered the art of bilocation. Driving between locations, he would pull on a large flat cap.

This England is sympathetic to the weight of power. It also feels refreshingly free of political axes to grind. Did helping Branagh transform affect how White saw the ex-PM?

White considers: “I just saw it as a job. But everyone took the process of making this drama extremely seriously – we were still in lockdown while filming, and there were no parties! And while we were shooting Branagh’s scenes, the second unit was gathering footage from inside hospitals. We were still living [with] Covid.”

Winterbottom’s past work has had a notably lefty bent. But White argues: “This is not a hatchet job. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but everyone was just trying to do their best, and it was an extraordinary time. Think of it as a political version of The Crown. No one knows what was really said in those rooms – but that’s what the drama is about.”

Some early criticism has been cruel about Branagh’s make-up, however. Was White stung? “I hope people understand it was done under limitations. But, of course, it’s make-believe – whether they accept it or not, this is our Boris.”

This England starts tomorrow on Sky Atlantic and Now