James Graham’s Diary: Defending my Brexit drama, I could hear myself spouting like a politician

The writer of Channel 4’s Brexit: The Uncivil War on becoming an accidental political expert. 

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For many lobby reporters, 3 January was their first day back after Christmas. And so, in a mirror image of the last-day-of-school tradition, we screened a movie to ease them back into what might be the most dramatic few weeks in modern British politics. Which, on recent form, is saying something. Unfortunately we may have accidentally traumatised them.

The film was the drama I’ve written for Channel 4, Brexit: The Uncivil War, which generated a lot of strong opinions even before it aired. I was disproportionately desirous of getting the thumbs up from journalists who live and breathe this stuff, fragile snowflaky playwright that I am. These are the brains who make sense of the politically insensible for me and others, including – or should I say especially – this here fine publication.

Playing at politics

I’ve wanged on a bit recently about the poor state of political conversation, both in the tribal, empathy-free zones of social media (where the currency is in insult over inquiry) or on the airwaves, where politicians retreat into simplistic talking points and relentless messaging instead of embracing the complexity of our current predicament. So it’s fitting that I’ve been getting a taste of my own medicine this week, and I can now say that the politicians have my sympathy.

For writer types it can be discombobulating when you’re wheeled out to speak publicly. But I wanted to embrace the debate that our film would generate and respond to concerns about its timing . My own view is that drama once created the very conditions for democracy to exist. For 2,000 years, it has been at the very heart of public life, putting democratic dilemmas and systems on stage so that we may reflect upon them. Not just after an event has unfolded, but while it unfolds.

But Brexit is Brexit and so I haven’t received the usual fluffy, end-of-the-programme interviews that the arts normally enjoy. I found myself disappointingly falling back on talking points and repeated phrases I abhor. I suppose it’s because you’re there to defend something. Me, a play; politicians, a policy.

On the Today programme I was due to speak after the infamously combative 8.10 slot, but the prison minister Rory Stewart’s phone got cut off so Mishal Husain had to jump to me. And despite my inner excitement that I can now claim to have been “an 8.10”, the tone, by default, became… well, quite eight-tenny.

Under such pressure I wish I could learn to relax, not talk so damn fast, and put words to how I actually feel. It’s a skill. The opportunities to misrepresent yourself are huge. On Channel 4 News I tried to express how, if there is another referendum, we can’t conduct it in the manner of the last toxic shit-show. I came across as being against another referendum, which I’m not, necessarily, so I was then keen to correct the record, and was subsequently lambasted for that – and so on.

It’s important to face scrutiny, but not being A Professional at all this, I admit to getting quite overwhelmed. On a train to Manchester after a long day of putting my foot in it I found myself welling up as I stared out the window. Told you. Snowflake.

Northern Powerhouse

To Manchester, though, and on Friday I enjoyed having dinner with Andy Harries, producer of the Netflix series The Crown. He treated me to a meal at trendy Tast, which is co-owned by Pep Guardiola, who is apparently the manager of Manchester City, but thankfully I wasn’t called upon to bluff my way through football chat. (Although I do have ambitions to write an epic play about Gareth Southgate.)

Andy was from the great generation of Granada television drama giants such as Paul Greengrass, making shows such as Cracker and Prime Suspect. So being in the city with him made me wistful about the age when proper regional drama production was a thing, giving voice to communities outside the capital. I grew up north of Nottingham and remember my dad’s excitement at getting to go to Central Studios for an episode of The Price is Right. Now, despite honourable attempts to correct it, culture across the board is unforgivably London-centric.

Rumours of a super-ministry

I was taken aback by a story last week that the government planned to merge the Department for Culture, Media and Sport with the Department for Business and the Department of Transport to create a super-department of all the jobs most ministers hope they don’t get at the reshuffle.

No 10 denies it’s happening, but it speaks to a wider anxiety I have about the prominence and importance of art in public and civic life. (Here I go again.)

I witnessed at first hand last year how becoming City of Culture regenerated Hull, not just through a boost in visitors and jobs, but in self-esteem and pride, and through its people being given a platform from which to speak and express themselves.

We now know that drama and music teaching is drastically shrinking in our state schools, which is a national scandal. If we want the performers, the songwriters, the playwrights of the future to come from all walks of life then we have to stop school orchestras and school plays becoming the preserve of private schools alone.

Otherwise there’ll be no more British success stories at…

… The Golden Globes

At the awards ceremony on Sunday night, we saw actors who cut their teeth on stage, such as Olivia Colman and Ben Whishaw, enjoying recognition. Whishaw won for his performance in the masterful political drama A Very English Scandal, which was written by Russell T Davies, another giant to come out of Granada television. Everything is connected.

“Brexit: The Uncivil War” is available on All 4. James Graham is a playwright and author of “This House”, “Labour of Love” and “Ink”

This article appears in the 11 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown