“Everyone knows who won. But not everyone knows how.” It is this provocative statement that opens James Graham’s most recent political drama, an enticing invitation to delve even further into the ever-present and ever-unfolding Brexit horror story that has framed so much of recent political debate.
Brexit: The Uncivil War is certainly an ambitious project. Outlining the strategies of the Vote Leave, Leave.EU and Remain campaigns, the viewer is taken from boardrooms to bedrooms as Graham attempts to leave no stone unturned. There are many familiar characters, with Gove, Johnson and Farage all making appearances. However, the real strength of this show perhaps lies in its ability to bring the viewer ‘behind the scenes’; it is here that the ‘uncivil’ nature of the referendum is exposed. From the involvement of Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ to the various dodgy donors behind the Leave campaigns, this show brings us closer to an understanding of the circumstances that have shaped the course of British politics.
That said, it is possible that in this case, Brexit’s strength is also its greatest weakness. Though impressive in its breadth, this representation often feels superficial. Cumberbatch is as charismatic and clever as ever in his role as Cummings, but his performance acts only as a smokescreen eclipsing the fact that the actual Dominic Cummings is no Sherlock-esque troubled genius, but a man whose (illegal) actions have impacted all our lives. The greatest problem with this show is that this distance is perceivable. Throughout, the audience feels they are watching Cumberbatch as Cummings, and not Cummings himself.
In her rather scathing review of Brexit: The Uncivil War for the Guardian, Lucy Mangan accuses Graham of irresponsible writing, of representing clever and dangerous political figures such as Farage and Johnson simply as blundering buffoons, and of adding to, rather than diminishing, the deluge of misinformation surrounding the Brexit debate. Indeed, there are many moments in Brexit where everyone but Cummings seems to be a clueless fool, caught up in political currents greater than they are. This representation does not do justice to the engaged and purposeful ways in which both sides of the Brexit campaign exploited and exacerbated the fears of the Great British public.
Perhaps, however, this lack of nuance is par for the course. Perhaps this is what happens when you condense years, arguably decades, of overlapping political, economic, social and personal issues into a 90-minute special. Perhaps this is what happens when you create a television protagonist from a real, complex political figure. Overall, Brexit: The Uncivil War is a valiant attempt to unpack the confusion many of us experience when we think back to the 2016 referendum. Sadly, this task may itself be impossible.
Image: Immanuel Giel viaWikimedia Commons