Behind the scenes on Benedict Cumberbatch's Vote Leave drama Brexit: The Uncivil War

Brexit: The Drama, as we have come to know it, has been relentless. It’s caused many a sleepless night. Not least for James Graham.

While what has often felt like a very real civil war raged around him, the playwright has persisted in a brave attempt to let art have a say in trying to make sense of the madness. The result is Brexit: The Uncivil War, a drama that, despite its title, feels rather like the much needed equivalent of the 1914 Christmas truce during the First World War.

This is Brexit with humour, empathy and, of course, Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. When I visited the set last summer it was the end of a week in which Brexit dominated the headlines: Vote Leave had just been accused by the Electoral Commission of breaching electoral law. 

I caught up with Cumberbatch in his trailer in a break between scenes. He had physically, and to some extent mentally, morphed into his role as Dominic Cummings, the man at the centre of the Vote Leave campaign, the so called “brains behind Brexit”, who was Michael Gove’s controversial and hard-hitting special adviser during his years in education.

In character: Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings (Channel 4 / Nick Wall)

How did Cumberbatch find being part of such a live news event? “Two days ago I was coming in to work and my character’s name was the first thing mentioned in the lead story of the Today programme,” he says. “It is sort of titillating but at the same time, weirdly, I am finding it hard to engage with. As a citizen, of course, I am engaged but as an actor with a busy schedule you get on. I don’t have time to absorb all the complexities of it — and my God is it complex.”

Graham was also on set. “I’m nervous,” he tells me. “This is such a dangerous and controversial space to enter. From writers, to actors, to producers and costume designers — we all feel a sense of anxiety. We know this is a world that, quite rightly, people feel passionately and often tribal about. It’s hard to get people into a space where they can enjoy a story about it. I hope we’ve done that. We want the audience to feel that no matter what their political stripe is, they are being given a fair hearing and asked to question their beliefs.”

So far there’s been a certain reluctance from the arts industry to engage with Brexit, he says. “I did think there would be thousands queuing up to go: ‘How do we make sense of this?’ so I was glad and surprised that this is sort of first out of the gate.”

Brexit: The Uncivil War charts the frenzied months of campaigning in the run-up to the 2016 referendum and centres on the controversial figure at the heart of the vote

Originally, Graham says his scope was wide, taking in everything from Downing Street to the Electoral Commission, “but this character was emerging who was just too compelling to ignore — obviously you want to be with the person who is creating the most change. That was always going to be Cummings.”

What drew Cumberbatch to the role? “James, relevancy and the examination of a character — hitherto only known by specialists — who w as so instrumental in the way things went. Being part of something that explores the nuances of what became a tribal and binary moment in our history.

Feature length: The Channel 4 docudrama tells the story of the referendum (Channel 4 / Nick Wall)

“The script reads like a thriller,” he continues. “You get to vote night [in the show] and you genuinely don’t know what the outcome is going to be. Because James builds this expectation — this moment of jumping into the unknown — to the point that you forget what actually happened.

“I want people to be entertained by this. I mean the full panoply of it. To be moved, enthralled, educated, repulsed, amused. OK, to be educated sounds terrible. But I just mean that there’s great nuance in this.”

Rory Kinnear, who plays Craig Oliver, Cummings’s counterpart in the Remain camp, agrees. “It’s a great intellectual challenge to make an argument equitable so that you feel provoked and open yourself up to sides of the argument that you maybe had closed yourself down to,” he says. 

Cummings is certainly no charmer — in the drama at least. He doesn’t suffer fools — and to him everyone in the political establishment is one. But he’s perceptive, savvy and committed.  In the show he strives to understand voters’ woes and agonises over the semantics of the campaign slogan until one night in bed, while reading a book about preparing to be a father, the words “take back control” leap out at him. 

And it’s Cummings who recognises the more shadowy potential of data electioneering to win over millions of unregistered voters — a controversial subject at the heart of the drama and one that remains the source of much real-life investigation and debate.

Cumberbatch has met Cummings. It was “instructive as to how complex his character is”. “I think he felt the real frustrations of the bureaucratic status quo — how hard it was to get things shifted into a new vision.” He felt “the Establishment wasn’t fit for purpose, wasn’t light enough on its feet”.

Brexit Bus: The drama centres on the Vote Leave campaign (Channel 4 / Joss Barratt)

Brexit: The Uncivil War has attracted controversy from the start. When an early draft of the script was leaked last July the drama came under fire both from journalists worried it would mislead the public while investigations into the campaigns were ongoing, and by figures on the Right who were offended by the portrayal of them. Steve Bannon called it “bulls***” and Andy Wigmore, an ally of Arron Banks, worried that they would come across as “bellends”.

Graham is not so troubled by the latter. “I don’t mind saying we’ve had a bit more fun with the side of it that people were familiar with.” He’s alluding to Banks and Nigel Farage, whose characters here are on the comic, larger -than-life side. 

“I get more nervous the other way and worry what the hard Remainers and second referendum guys will think. I suspect they will want blood and accountability, and I don’t know how much we could satisfy them. I didn’t want to string these people up and put them in the stocks. I wanted to understand them. And hold them to account.

Pictured: Boris Johnson (Richard Goulding), Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Michael Gove (Oliver Maltman) (Channel 4 / Joss Barratt)

“I understand that people who have spent the past year of their lives working on this story, like I have, are desperately keen to find the truth. But I don’t think drama acts in opposition to the truth.”

The drama is richer both for viewer and playwright when approached through the prism of hindsight. “The joy of being able to have a longer view of that crazy summer of 2016 is that you can — with a new knowledge about what has happened since, project some of that back into the story.”

In May 2018 Cummings warned that Brexit was destined to be a train wreck. “I don’t know whether he feels responsible for putting into action a train of events that could never satisfactorily be concluded, or if he thinks his vision was perfect and others have let him down,” says Graham.

“But we know he’s unhappy with how it’s gone. Nearly everyone is. We’re not saying this is the single objective truth, and we’ve found a style that acknowledges it’s drama, not documentary.”

This, after all, is Brexit with Ode to Joy as its soundtrack. Graham chose the 1812 overture because of cultural references to A Clockwork Orange. “It feels punky and anarchic — the spirit I wanted to convey,” he says. “Even though Brexit does raise peoples’ hackles I wanted to protect myself from making something too worthy. We need an antidote to that.”

It may focus on one of the most seismic issues of our age but there’s a lively sense of fun in much of the drama and superb acting. So however much you wish the real-life drama would hurry up and reach a conclusion, do not let that stop you watching. For one thing, it’s all wrapped up in under two hours — and there’s not one mention of backstops.

Brexit: The Uncivil War is on Channel 4 at 9pm on January 7.

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