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7 January 2019

What to look out for in Channel 4’s Brexit drama, The Uncivil War

Key details not to miss.

By Anoosh Chakelian

There has been an almighty build-up to Channel 4’s one-off drama about the EU referendum campaign. Its writer James Graham has been under attack for his film ever since an early draft of the script was stolen and leaked last July. This prompted a range of public figures, from Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon to the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Chris Wylie to mock the accuracy of events depicted in the draft.

Since then, much like Brexit itself, it’s been constant headaches for the broadcaster and writer. Director of Programmes at Channel 4 Ian Katz described “arguments that have raged around James’ film before anyone’s seen it”, and praised him for being “brave enough to wander into the Brexit minefield”.

“Rupert Murdoch was nothing on Brexit,” said Graham, who had a West End play called Ink about the media mogul. “This was terrifying.”

Indeed, people online from all sides debated the morality of airing a programme about a political campaign that’s under investigation, and at a time when the country is so divided. Even just from the trailer, some seemed outraged at the very concept of the film.

In that fraught context, here’s your guide to how to watch Brexit: The Uncivil War.

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Chill out about Dominic Cummings’ portrayal

You may never have heard of him, but the former special adviser to Michael Gove who ran the Vote Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, is the protagonist. You might see the portrayal of Cummings (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) as unflattering – he seems arrogant, irresponsible, slightly unhinged. Or equally you might think he’s painted as a hero – iconoclastic, irreverent, brilliant.

All photos: Channel 4

But really, as Graham told journalists at the film’s press screening, he was reflecting differing views he’d heard about Cummings in Westminster – from “antichrist” to “pseudo-intellectual” to “genius” to “the messiah”.

Remainers might at first think he’s lionised in the film, but he’s the main character for a reason. Graham said he needed “a protagonist who effects change”, and admitted that Cummings was simply more interesting than most political advisers in his character (“in a Heath Ledger-y Joker way”, is how he describes the “self-confessed disruptor”).

Cummings also didn’t have much influence in the writing – he was “initially sceptical” about the film, eventually meeting Graham a couple of times before the end of the process (apparently agreeing the day Cumberbatch was cast – the two stayed up talking and eating falafel together at Cummings’ house until 3am). He didn’t read the scripts beforehand either.

Craig Oliver gets a much better hearing

As our TV critic Rachel Cooke writes, the film’s “strength lies in the way it exposes the Remain campaign’s smug complacency – an enamelled disregard for the disenfranchised”. This is true. Led by the shiny, suited Downing Street communications chief Craig Oliver (played by Rory Kinnear), Stronger In’s first strategy meeting in the film suggests they see Remain as a done deal.

But as the film progresses, Oliver – who was one of the key consultants on the film – develops more into the conscience of the campaign, despite his flaws (including passionately losing his temper at a focus group when the participants haven’t quite engaged with the Treasury’s Brexit warnings). During an imagined pint with Cummings on the evening of Jo Cox’s murder, Oliver warns his adversary that he could be unleashing something “you won’t be able to control”.

Arron Banks has some Russian vodka

Arron Banks, the founder of alternative Ukippy leave campaign Leave.EU, is seen towards the beginning of the film swigging from a bottle of Russian vodka, which may or may not be a mischeivous reference to the row over his campaign’s funding that has recently been rampaging (Banks denies any Russian involvement, and is facing a criminal inquiry over the Brexit campaign).

Banks and his buddy Nigel Farage differ from the other characters (aside, perhaps, from Douglas Carswell’s mouth) in that they are cartoonish impersonations rather than three-dimensional portrayals. While it’s fitting that figures who rely on clownish public personas are made to look grotesque, it does somewhat suggest they are a joke rather than very influential – and in the view of many, including those on the Brexit side, sinister.

“You can’t just go to the pub”

Cummings is shown having lots of conversations with voters in different pubs to find out what they don’t like about the EU, and it’s these little snapshots of the public that Graham uses to symbolise the broader debate happening in the country (as most of the drama takes place among backroom operators). “You can’t just go to the pub”, an exasperated member of his team tells him. I thought this sounded like a little dig at the Brexit reporting, and maybe even the referendum process as a whole, which appeared to put general pub chat prejudice above sensible policymaking.

Graham does this with portrayals of focus groups too. In fact, this was one of the processes that most fascinated the writer – he even researched what kind of biscuits they serve at focus groups (he opts for Jammy Dodgers in this film).

£350m and Turkey

As the Vote Leave campaign gains momentum during the film, its two most notorious untruths about £350m to the NHS (“IT DOESN’T EXIST!” yells an exasperated Craig Oliver) and Turkey on the brink of joining the EU are relentlessly repeated.

Watch out for how Graham’s Boris Johnson (seen as a fair-weather Brexiteer at the time) reacts when a voter shows him his own campaign material, expressing terror at “77 million” Turks migrating to the UK. “That’s… the entire population of Turkey,” is Johnson’s slow reply. Such a shameless politician probably doesn’t deserve the flickers of regret and uncertainty Graham grants him, but the ever-measured playwright was keen to bring a “necessary empathy that’s lacking on other platforms” when it comes to Brexit.

“One bullet was fired, you moronic little c**t”

In his pre-emptive victory speech as the referendum results unfolded, Nigel Farage infamously declared, “we will have done it without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired, we’d have done it by damned hard work on the ground”.

Dominic Cummings, watching this speech, is depicted by Graham as muttering “one bullet was fired, you moronic little cunt” – a reference to the murder of MP Jo Cox.

Throughout the film, Cummings is hostile towards Farage and Arron Banks, refusing to work with them as one campaign. But, as some of Graham’s other characters point out, Vote Leave does use Leave.EU for its dirty work and to “keep its hands clean” – ie Cummings relies on the likes of Farage to send out the unsavoury and often offensive anti-immigration messages.

Pointless MPs

In some of the drama’s most enjoyable scenes, Dominic Cummings is spectacularly dismissive towards MPs who are trying to get in on the pro-Brexit action. He sees them as “pointless” divas who aren’t clever enough to understand his campaign. He smiles when Arron Banks growls: “Fuck the MPs”.

Although Graham admits he likes MPs himself, this absence of the most famous figures is very much in his style of drama. In his break-out play, This House, Graham only showed the behind-the-scenes drama in the backrooms of parliament during Jim Callaghan’s dying government – rather than the Prime Minister himself and other big names from the time.

A cheeky glimpse of BeLeave

During a Vote Leave press conference addressed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the camera lingers very briefly on a few young people in blue t-shirts standing at the back of the room. Their t-shirts read “BeLeave”. “Who’s funding them?” asks a baffled campaign figure. This is a wry reference from Graham to the funding scandal that led to Vote Leave and BeLeave, a youth group, being investigated and fined (Vote Leave was accused of exceeding its legal spending limit by making a big donation to the group towards the end of the campaign – both groups deny coordination).

The mini politics lesson

One downside of writing a political drama when there are still so many moving parts is that you have to somehow bring your viewers up to speed. This is attempted in a series of credits at the close of the film, hastily trying to explain the data harvesting and campaign spending scandals that have ensued since the result. Note how you’re still none the wiser at the end of these explanations – and that’s because the campaigns are still under investigation.

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