This column doesn’t usually preview television; I write about stuff once it has aired, so that everyone might join in the conversation (ugh, I sound like I’m on some gruesome phone-in). But for Channel 4’s controversial drama Brexit: The Uncivil War (7 January, 9pm) I make an exception. Why wait any longer? Even before Christmas, people had their knickers in a twist about this one – people, I should add, who’d only seen a trailer – on the grounds that the official Leave campaign, around which James Graham’s screenplay revolves, is under police investigation. Personally, I think we need to be careful when it comes to telling writers what they can, and can’t, use as material (unless an individual has been charged with a crime, at which point the case is sub judice). But my duty here is only to tell you whether Brexit: The Uncivil War is any good.
Well, as it turns out, it is good. This isn’t to say that it has no flaws. Clearly, it does. Matters that are complex (the gathering of electoral data) are often made to seem overly straightforward; matters that are horribly simple are occasionally imbued with an import – and thus a sense of sympathy – they simply don’t deserve (in a focus group, a white, vaguely racist leaver weeps pitiably, insistent that in modern Britain she’s made to feel like “nothing”). A certain cartoonish-ness abounds, which can be pretty sickening: Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, for instance, are depicted as comic rather than sinister. But in context these are small things. Its strength lies in the way it exposes the Remain campaign’s smug complacency – an enamelled disregard for the disenfranchised that Graham gives a human shape in the form of Craig Oliver (Rory Kinnear), David Cameron’s former director of communications – and in its determination, if not to make a hero of Dominic Cummings, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, then at least to render him a fully formed character.
By Graham’s telling, Cummings is at once both utterly monstrous and peculiarly vulnerable; highly intelligent and incredibly stupid; deeply amoral and yet oddly virtuous. In other words, he’s a human being, if not exactly a terribly regular one. All this, however, is not only in the writing. At times, in fact, it’s not in the writing at all. Brexit: The Uncivil War is utterly and completely Benedict Cumberbatch’s show – and when it goes out, perhaps all the dumbos out there will finally understand why he, a firm Remainer, took the part.
What an irresistible performance he turns in: weird, committed, minutely observed. He even manages a decent County Durham accent: close your eyes, and he could be Gina McKee (or my late Auntie Vera before her first sherry of the day). Did Cummings, as Graham suggests, hear noises in his head, a low-level hum that was the ghostly sound of the Britain that politicians long ago stopped listening to? I don’t know. But when you see Cumberbatch tuning into it, you feel no scepticism or disbelief. It’s a bit like Hamlet. You wonder about his character, and in that wondering is part of your enjoyment and satisfaction at what is on stage. This could be madness (Cummings is considered a psychopath by his enemies), or it could be something else entirely: an aural vision; a performative trance; the beginnings of a neurasthenia brought on by workaholism (to his admirers, he’s a genius).
Repulsive as he often is, Cummings certainly has his qualities. When he tells the twittish Bernard Jenkin MP (busy trying to oust him from his job at Vote Leave on the grounds that he’s uncivilised) to get stuffed, you want nothing more than to cheer him on. Ditto when he informs Daniel Hannan, the Eurosceptic MEP, that his (Cummings’s) team are “intelligent, unlike you, Dan”; or when he mutters that Farage is a “stupid c***”. Given the state of our current political culture, this stuff practically counts as nuance. Channel 4’s youngish, urban audience will likely regard Cummings as the antichrist, and yet here he is: right about at least three things. Between them, Graham and Cumberbatch have delivered what amounts to an act of radical empathy. You may not like it at all, but this doesn’t mean that it won’t also do you some good.
Brexit: The Uncivil War
This article appears in the 02 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions