There has been an almighty build-up to Channel 4s 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 Trumps 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, its 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 anyones 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 thats 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, heres your guide to how to watch Brexit: The Uncivil War.
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 hes painted as a hero – iconoclastic, irreverent, brilliant.
But really, as Graham told journalists at the films press screening, he was reflecting differing views hed heard about Cummings in Westminster – from “antichrist” to “pseudo-intellectual” to “genius” to “the messiah”.
Remainers might at first think hes lionised in the film, but hes 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 didnt have much influence in the writing – he was “initially sceptical” about the film, eventually meeting Graham a couple of times towards 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 didnt read the scripts beforehand either.
Craig Oliver gets a much better hearing
As our TV critic Rachel Cooke writes, the films “strength lies in the way it exposes the Remain campaigns smug complacency – an enamelled disregard for the disenfranchised”. This is true. Led by the shiny, suited former Downing Street communications chief Craig Oliver (played by Rory Kinnear), Stronger Ins first strategy meeting in the film portrays Remain as a done deal.
All photos: Channel 4
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 havent quite engaged with the Treasurys Brexit warnings). During an imagined pint with Cummings on the evening of Jo Coxs murder, Oliver warns his adversary that he could be unleashing something “you wont 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 on a bottle of Russian vodka, which may or may not be a cheeky reference to the row over his campaigns 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 Carswells mouth) in that they are cartoonish impersonations rather than three-dimensional portrayals. While its 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 cant just go to the pub”
Cummings is shown having lots of conversations with voters in different pubs to find out what they dont like about the EU, and its 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 cant 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, which appeared to put general pub chat prejudice above sensible policymaking.
He 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 DOESNT EXIST!” yells an exasperated Craig Oliver) and Turkey on the brink of joining the EU are relentlessly repeated.
Watch out for how Grahams 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. “Thats just the entire population of Turkey,” is Johnsons slow reply. Such a shameless politician probably doesnt deserve the flickers of regret and uncertainty Graham grants him, but the ever-measured playwright was keen to bring a “necessary empathy thats 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, wed 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 Grahams other characters point out, Vote Leave does use Leave.EU for its dirty work to “keep its hands clean” – ie Cummings relies on the likes of Farage to send out the unsavoury and often offensive anti-immigration messages.
In some of the dramas 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 arent 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 Callaghans dying government – rather than the Prime Minister himself and other big names from the time.
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 happens in a series of credits at the end of the film, hastily trying to explain the data harvesting and campaign spending scandals that have ensued since the result. Note how youre still none the wiser at the end of these explanations – and thats because the campaigns are still under investigation.
Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.