The writer of a controversial new TV drama about Brexit has said he first had the idea for the film on the day Jo Cox was murdered, when he burst into tears and was seized by the question: “What the hell has gone wrong?” On hearing about the Labour MP’s murder, a week before the…
The writer of a controversial new TV drama about Brexit has said he first had the idea for the film on the day Jo Cox was murdered, when he burst into tears and was seized by the question: “What the hell has gone wrong?”
On hearing about the Labour MP’s murder, a week before the EU referendum in June 2016, James Graham said he resolved “to somehow make sense of that summer. What was that summer? What had gone wrong there?”
Cox’s death is dealt with only briefly in the Channel 4 film, which focuses instead on the Vote Leave campaign and in particular its provocative leader Dominic Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. “And I’m absolutely not attributing [her murder] to anything we portray,” Graham said. “But something obviously goes wrong when a political question is asked, and that happens.”
The film, entitled Brexit: The Uncivil War, has attracted controversy since it was first announced last year, with supporters of both campaigns fearing it would present a one-sided view.
Others, including the Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who has reported on the leave campaign’s use of data analytics, have argued that a fictional film is inappropriate given that Vote Leave and other leave campaigners have been reported to police after the Electoral Commission found they had broken the law.
Speaking at a screening ahead of its broadcast next week, Graham – an acclaimed playwright who frequently focuses on recent political history – said he had expected his film to provoke strong reactions: “I didn’t go into this blindly. I realise people feel very strongly about this, and the consequences of that decision, whatever your politics, are very real and very serious.”
But he had been surprised by those who questioned the drama’s right to exist at all, he said. “As inquiries continue, and in some cases police investigations, of course people don’t want to disrupt that. I understand that, but I disagree. I think it is absolutely possible to tackle a story and leave some things to one side for another day. But you have to start at some point, and the idea that you have to wait until Brexit is over – when the hell is that going to be? A century’s time?”
The highly entertaining two-hour drama shows Cumberbatch’s Cummings devising an anarchic campaign that dismays the establishment figures on his own side as much as it unsettles the opposing remain campaign, led by Craig Oliver, played by Rory Kinnear. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and the millionaire businessman Arron Banks also all feature, with the MPs, in many cases, providing the comic relief.
Cummings is shown settling on the slogan “Take back control” and the figure of £350m (“How much does it cost us each week to be members of the EU? Biggest number wins”) which would be emblazoned on the side of the campaign’s bus. “Dominic Cummings is basically mental – he’s just an egotist with a wrecking ball,” says the Craig Oliver character at one point.
But the film also dramatises the frustration of voters who feel they have been ignored by the political class, particularly in one scene in which a focus group spills over into angry argument and tears. Reviews so far, on both sides of the political spectrum, have been enthusiastic.
Graham, whose previous plays include the parliamentary drama This House, Ink, about the birth of the Sun newspaper, and the Channel 4 drama Coalition, said the real life Cummings had not yet seen the finished drama, but that after being initially uncertain about the project, he had been “happy to let us get on with it”.
To the question “will anyone be able to watch this entirely neutrally, the answer of course is no”, Graham said. “I’m quite pleased so far that some people who think I treated Dom like a hero or like an antichrist have no idea which one is true. We all come to it with our own baggage, and that is entirely expected and entirely right.”
• Brexit: The Uncivil War is on Channel 4 on Monday 7 January at 9pm