A television drama starring Sherlock Holmes star Benedict Cumberbatch as the mastermind of the divisive campaign to pull Britain out of the European Union hits UK screens just as lawmakers gather for a momentous Brexit vote.
“Brexit: The Uncivil War”, which airs on Monday, dramatises the characters and strategies behind the historic 2016 vote, under the tagline: “Everyone knows who won. But hardly anyone knows how.”
Commissioned in 2017, its creators could hardly have dreamed of a better moment to release the two-hour political drama, with Britain at a critical juncture in the Brexit process.
Lawmakers will in mid-January finally vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s draft deal with Brussels, after she delayed a December vote amid staunch opposition to her plan.
With no alternatives on offer, and the looming threat of Britain crashing out of the bloc in March without an agreement, the stakes could not appear higher for May and the country.
Those behind the Channel 4 portrayal see it as an opportune moment for a dramatisation of how it all began.
“I believe that art, drama and storytelling has a civic purpose as well as being entertainment,” said the show’s writer James Graham at a preview screening on Thursday.
“It can contribute to our understanding of what’s happening at the moment in a different way… than journalism or social media.”
– ‘The real decision-makers’ –
Cumberbatch plays Dominic Cummings, a former political adviser to eurosceptic MPs who was the director of Vote Leave, the official pro-Brexit group that helped win the referendum despite all the mainstream political parties backing continued EU membership.
Little known by the wider public, Cummings is credited with playing a decisive role spearheading the campaign, particularly through his insistence on a data-driven social media campaign rather than traditional electioneering.
The film portrays him as an intense, self-described disruptor, deploying tactics gleaned from Chinese general Sun Tzu’s ancient treatise “The Art of War” and who would retreat to an office cleaning cupboard to war-game his Brexit strategy undisturbed.
Graham said he chose to spotlight the referendum’s strategists because they were “the real decision-makers” and yet “people you’ve never really heard of”.
“It became clear to me that (Cummings)… was the most interesting character, because he’s the agent of change,” he said.
“You always want a protagonist who makes decisions and there are consequences of those decisions.”
The tactics employed by Brexit campaigners have come under intense scrutiny since the referendum, particularly the use of misleading slogans and targeted political ads.
In July, the Electoral Commission watchdog fined Vote Leave for breaking campaign spending rules.
Graham said he was eager not to pass judgement on the digital strategies deployed by Brexit supporters as police and official inquiries continue.
“I hope what we’re suggesting is not that tech and data is this evil manipulative tool, but that it is now the platforms through which we have our political discourse.”
– Not a ‘stitch-up’ –
The characters colourfully portrayed in the film include Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, two leading Brexit campaigners, as well as businessman Arron Banks, an influential pro-Leave donor who is under investigation over his finances.
Graham’s behind-the-scenes account is based on books by Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman and Craig Oliver, the head of the Remain campaign.
He also interviewed staffers from both camps and managed to win over an initially sceptical Cummings to meet with both him and then Cumberbatch.
“I just had to understandably persuade him it wasn’t a stitch-up job,” he said, adding that the actor then spent an evening at the Vote Leave director’s home eating falafel and talking until dawn.
The writer added that he was “baffled” by media reports that Cumberbatch was uncomfortable with how sympathetically Cummings is ultimately portrayed in the finished film.
“Anybody who knows anything about acting knows that you can’t inhabit a role unless you can empathise with them — and that was Benedict’s chief obsession,” added Graham.
With a background in theatre writing, the 37-year-old penned last year’s hit play “Ink” about media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid The Sun.
Graham admitted taking on the divisive issue of Brexit, which has exposed deep-seated fault lines in British society, was a more “terrifying” prospect.
“Rupert Murdoch is nothing compared to Brexit, in terms of the emotions it unleashes,” he said.