The main, motivating thesis of Brexit: The Uncivil War – an unpicking of the Vote Leave campaign’s success in getting Britain to … well, vote to leave the EU – was that nobody got the right information to the right people in the right way, or fully recognised it as their job to make sure this happened. And when that is a drama’s thesis, a heavy duty hangs on the writer, in this case James Graham. It is incumbent upon him, in an era besieged and almost defined by misinformation, not to add to the chaos.
That duty was not clearly fulfilled. Brexit: The Uncivil War focuses on events from the point of view of the Leave campaign director, Dominic Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch with his customary wit, intelligence and energy. You can see why he was catnip to a dramatist otherwise looking out at a sea of grey suits and wondering how to get inside the heads of shapeshifters like Cameron or Gove (as Gertrude Stein famously said of her old home, torn down to make way for something new – “there is no there there”) or persuade viewers that Boris Johnson is real enough to be a protagonist in anything other than the rolling Boris Johnson show that is his life.
Cummings elicits strong feelings in everyone who deals with him. They either think (like Dominic Cummings) that he’s a maverick genius who the establishment conspires to keep from greatness, or that he’s a self-aggrandising pillock who should confine himself to the 8,000 blogposts about how thick everyone else is he likes to churn out, instead of insinuating himself into British politics. No doubt Graham began with his scepticism tanks brimming o’er, but somewhere along the line he seems to have succumbed to the dramatist’s temptation of falling in love with his subject. His Cummings – who closes his eyes in a store cupboard so he can calibrate the nation’s needs from the “hum” Britain gives off, which is quite a dramatic device to gift anyone, and who has so many eureka moments that Greece should slap a tariff on them as soon as it can – seems overall to be one that derives from taking Cummings at his own visionary valuation. A trick many people manage to pull off, of course (see Boris Johnson, above) and one that is probably responsible for as much entrenched privilege in the world as any public school network. But it’s never a good thing, and particularly not here.
As a result of Cummings’ centrality and portrayal as a political savant, everyone around him is reduced to a cipher. Farage and Banks become cartoonish buffoons instead of dangerous shit-stirrers (a definite dereliction of duty), Gove and Johnson puppets worked by the unseen hand instead of senior Tory ministers with practical and moral responsibilities they abandoned in piles by the roadside to what both at one stage believed (and in Johnson’s case stated in a newspaper column) to be ruin, and everyone else enthralled – or in Daniel Hannan’s case, pathetically bleating – lackeys. I’d especially like to know how Matthew Elliott feels about being portrayed as a borderline simpleton whenever Cummings heaves into view.
While it wasn’t simplistic in the sense that everyone involved with leave was pure evil while everyone remaining was an angel guarding the truth and democracy with flaming sword, it was superficial. All the main issues are touched but never dwelled on. We get a glimpse of the old versus new guard divide, a brief dissection of the difference between the official campaign and Farage’s fascistic version, Leave.EU, and touch on the usefulness of the latter in allowing the former to keep its hands (technically) clean, and the willingness of those (like billionaire Robert Mercer) to chuck spanners in the democratic works knowing the consequences will never affect them.
Then we get working-class characters who sport either emotive speeches on their alienation from society and the political process in unlikely detail (unlikely, I mean, because people are rarely so articulate about the ineffable, not because they are working class) or faces full of dumb despair. Data manipulation by AggregateIQ gets more of a look-in, but even that felt oddly skimmed over now we have learned so much about it and the company’s links with Cambridge Analytica. Captions, including one that informed us Vote Leave had since been found guilty of breaking electoral law, were added presumably in haste before the end credits, heightening the sense of boxes being ticked; of dramatised headlines rushing past you rather than issues being embodied or explored; above all, of opportunities wasted.
Still, as the title notes, Brexit is a war, and we are only at the beginning. Dramatists should find the next decade or so a grimly fertile one for narrative crops. Possibly the only native one we will actually be self-sufficient in. Take back control!