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Andrew Buchan on playing Matt Hancock in This England: ‘If it’s too raw and too soon... steer clear’

The actor talks to Nick Hilton about playing the former health secretary alongside Kenneth Branagh’s Boris Johnson, why drama can do things a documentary can’t, and how ‘you can either act or you can’t’, wherever you went to drama school

Wednesday 28 September 2022 07:40 BST
‘I only met Kenneth Branagh as Boris, which was surreal’: Andrew Buchan, who plays Matt Hancock in ‘This England’, discusses the new series
‘I only met Kenneth Branagh as Boris, which was surreal’: Andrew Buchan, who plays Matt Hancock in ‘This England’, discusses the new series (PA)

Andrew Buchan is not getting political.

This is despite the actor, who played Andrew Parker Bowles in The Crown, taking on the role of Matt Hancock, alongside Kenneth Branagh’s Boris Johnson, in Sky’s This England. This impartiality is both by edict of the show’s publicity department – which has forbidden questions about politics – and the actor himself. “I’m definitely not one of those people who sits down at a dinner party and opens up the chat with political debate,” he tells me. “I’m not that guy.”

Perhaps that’s not what you’d expect to hear from an actor who cut his teeth in the BBC’s Westminster drama Party Animals, starred in Sky One’s Cabinet Office thriller COBRA and now brings his chops to Michael Winterbottom’s dramatisation of the early months of the Covid-19 crisis. Yet for this character, he thinks his indifference to politics might have helped him “because I might have been tempted to colour Matt in a certain way”, he muses. “If I had an incredibly strong opinion of him one way or the other, maybe that would’ve filtered in.”

His equivocal stance on Hancock (whom he exclusively refers to as “Matt”, like an old, slightly trying, friend), a man who has divided family gatherings – both literally and figuratively – for the past two years, is typical of the studied neutrality of This England. The project’s progenitor, Winterbottom, has made overtly political (and overtly left-wing) films before, like The Road to Guantanamo and The Shock Doctrine, alongside movies such as 24 Hour Party People and TV series The Trip. But for all that This England highlights the mistakes made in the government’s handling of the crisis, it is not the raging anti-Boris polemic that many were expecting. And Hancock gets off very lightly. “With Matt, the main thing for me playing the man was not to go in there and play people’s opinions of the man,” says Buchan, “but literally purely and simply to play what was written for me on the page.”

This involved turning to some of Hancock’s former colleagues to punch through a public perception now overshadowed by grainy CCTV footage of him snogging his lover in the midst of the pandemic. “What I’d gleaned from certain people who worked closely with him,” he tells me, “[was] that the man was obsessed with planning. I think that definitely comes across in the script.”

Of course, the biggest story about This England – other than Kenneth Branagh’s extraordinarily distracting prosthetics – has been its timing. Not only does it follow hot on the heels of Johnson’s plummet from power, but, by most scientific reckoning, we are not entirely out of the woods with the pandemic either. We certainly weren’t when the project was announced back in January 2021 (when the UK was still in a national lockdown): is it too soon to tell this story? “I’m not really sure I can comment on that,” replies Buchan, succinctly. “It’s just a factual piece of history. One of the biggest things to happen for a generation. It’s a story that needs to be told. If it’s too raw and too soon, understandably, for people, then obviously steer clear. But if ever a story needed to be told about what went on behind the thought process that led to certain decisions, it’s this, surely.”

I’m not wholly convinced. I ask him what this dramatisation has achieved that a documentary, for example, wouldn’t have. “I think Michael obviously has his own reasons,” he says. “The characters are bringing more of a fictional licence to it. So you can maybe explore a little more than just in a black and white documentary.” And black and white This England is not: it’s a vision of British politics in billowing technicolour, led by a Kenneth Branagh performance of cartoonish grandeur.

Andrew Buchan as Matt Hancock in ‘This England’ (Sky)

“I’ve never actually met Ken,” he tells me. “I’ve met someone dressed as Boris Johnson. And the person dressed as Boris Johnson, who claimed to be Ken Branagh, would chat out of character between scenes and I’d think to myself, I mean, this sounds like Kenneth Branagh…” This was despite the cast and crew being sequestered away in Norfolk for the duration of production, staying in brick and flint cottages and spending weekends enjoying solitary walks. “[Branagh’s] prosthetics call was so early that he was in there way before the rest of us, and he’d leave way after the rest. I never actually met Ken as Ken. I only met Ken as Boris, which was surreal.”

Like the characters depicted in This England, Buchan is no stranger to the privilege associated with esteemed institutions. After a modern languages degree at Durham University, he trained at Rada, Britain’s most famous drama school. Future Hollywood stars like Tom Hiddleston and Andrea Riseborough were in his graduating class. But it was a far cry from most of his upbringing. It was his father who received the call to say that he had been admitted to the illustrious acting course. “I was working as a concierge at a hotel in Bolton at the time,” he says. “And he had got a call from the principal and said, ‘he’s actually at work at the minute.’ So he phoned the hotel receptionists, who were on the other side of the lobby, and they screamed, ‘Andy! Someone’s on the phone! He sounds quite important!’ And that’s how I found out about getting into Rada. As the concierge at a hotel. In Bolton.”

If ever a story needed to be told about what went on behind the thought process that led to certain decisions, it’s this

Andrew Buchan

I want to draw parallels between Oxford – alma mater of both Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock – and Rada, but Buchan isn’t really having it. “I’m not gonna place too much importance on it,” he demurs. “You can either act or you can’t, and that’s what all the teachers tell you. In drama school, what they do is give you little devices for your kitbag that may help you in the future.” And his post-Rada career exhibited a similar lack of affect.

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“I came out of drama school and had to get a part-time job, which was with Bulldog Broadband. And I worked with about seven Ghanaians and just had the absolute time of my life.” At no point in our conversation – which is conducted by phone, with Buchan tucked away in a Marylebone churchyard where the bells seem to toll every time I ask a particularly penetrating question – does Buchan light up as much as when talking about his time at Bulldog Broadband. “My agent would phone and say, ‘Oh, you’ve been offered this at the RSC.’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t think I want to do that; I’m having a lovely time here.’”

“The Ghanaians would bring me Jollof rice every day to eat. They’d change the screensaver on my computer to the famous waterfalls in Accra. I literally just had the best time,” he says, with a sigh.

And if you doubt the sincerity of this seemingly incongruous story – he is, after all, no longer working for Bulldog Broadband, having starred in dozens of TV shows, from playing the lead in Garrow’s Law to his turn as grieving father Mark Latimer in Broadchurch, and Hollywood movies, such as All the Money in the World – as we conclude our call, the publicist jumps back on the line and tells him that her family is from Ghana. Hearing this, I suspect as I listen in, is a source of far greater interest and excitement to him than talking about Matt Hancock.

Andrew Buchan as the grief-stricken Mark Latimer in ‘Broadchurch’ (ITV)

It’s a transformation that Hancock himself is possibly undergoing. He sounds more excited talking now about crypto than he ever did when defending the NHS. “He’s obviously a clever chap but he’s also very ambitious,” is Buchan’s judgement, which is as close as he comes to volunteering a political opinion. And so how did he feel when, after wrapping filming, Hancock’s clinch with aide Gina Coladangelo made front-page news and ended both his marriage and tenure at the Department of Health? “This should be a huge box set if you think about it,” he tells me, “that’s where my head went at that moment. It was slightly ridiculous to think that we could cover the whole thing because it was such a long chapter in history, and ongoing.”

So he wouldn’t be tempted then, to don the NHS pin or the black turtleneck, and reprise his role as Hancock, perhaps in an office romcom about Matt and Gina? “I think that would be a no. I’ve got rid of him.”

‘This England’ begins on Sky Atlantic tonight at 9pm. It is also available on NOW

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