Vote Leave boss Dominic Cummings believes the government was wrong to trigger Article 50 how it did, the writer behind Brexit: The Uncivil War has revealed.
Award-winning writer James Graham, who wrote both This House and Coalition, has produced the script for the new Channel 4 film to air on January 9th.
As part of his research he spoke to key individuals from both sides of the EU referendum campaigns including the boss of Vote Leave as well as studying books written about Brexit.
Ahead of the film’s airing James Graham explains his thinking behind the script – including the dilemma as to whether or not to reference the murder of Jo Cox in the drama.
Why did you want to turn the Brexit campaign into a drama?
Because I believe that drama and art should engage with the world around it. To be tapping into political and social anxieties and trying to make sense of it through narrative and character. With this I think what happened in that particular summer and the consequences that are still playing out today and will be playing out long into the future seem like the most important issue to be tackling as a dramatist. In particular because most people don’t really know or have access to the people behind the scenes of the campaign… when we think about the referendum campaign we think about the very public figures of Boris Johnson or David Cameron, but I think what’s more interesting is to get behind the curtain and interrogate the strategies and the people who came up with ideas and messages and how a campaign works in the 21st century.
How did you go about researching it?
We looked first at two books to get started; Tim Shipman’s All Out War and Craig Oliver’s Unleashing Demons. Thrilling and detailed reads. That gave me some starting points for the chronology and the characters involved behind the scenes. Then like everything else I’ve written I just went and tried to meet the people myself, including Dominic Cummings. It was through meeting him, reading his blog, getting into his head that made me realise I thought he would be the most interesting protagonist to put on screen.
Did you go into it knowing you’d focus more on Dominic than on Craig, or did you initially think it would be an evenly balanced two-hander?
God, actually, the very first draft I wrote covered more than those two arenas. There was a draft that featured Cameron and Osborne and the Downing Street machine. But because Vote Leave won, my interest and the audience’s interest is more in what went on behind the campaign that won the referendum. As a writer characters that are disruptive are the most exciting to write and the most distinct to watch and Dominic Cummings is a self-styled disrupter whose way of working and his transgressions, his radical thinking and ultimately his impact and influence on the campaign and therefore the future of the country feels like the right choice to place at the forefront of the drama.
What were Dominic Cummings’ and Craig Oliver’s responses to being in the drama?
I think curiosity and intrigue. I think they didn’t imagine they would ever be captured in a TV movie. Craig had published a book and had already put himself out there. Dominic is more… he doesn’t mind putting words to his thoughts in what happened but he normally prefers to do that on his own terms. He has blogs which he writes and he can control and curate that himself to an extent. He has previously resisted interviews and invitations to appear at enquiries. So I think perhaps he was a little more reticent about it. But he was very generous with his time and he was willing to meet me on a couple of occasions and meet Benedict, the actor who is playing him. So I think he’s open to it.
Did you have to give either of them any guarantees about how they’d be portrayed and how the story would be told?
No and I would never do that anyway. Obviously I always promise out of integrity that I would treat everyone fairly and not try to misrepresent their views. These projects for me are never stitch-up jobs. I’m not trying to catch people out or discredit them. I want to understand what motivates them. I want to a certain extent to empathise with someone who you politically disagree with. I’ve done stage plays on figures like Rupert Murdoch, who audiences may imagine they wouldn’t normally be able to particularly empathise with or understand but it’s important for simply interrogate what these people want and why they behave how they behave. But no I didn’t limit myself creatively when I met them.
You focus on the social media and data-mining side of the campaign. Do you think that’s what won it? Do you see it as long-term unhealthy for democracy?
It certainly playing a huge part in the way that we now campaign in our politics. The extent to which it won on its own rights? Not necessarily. I think the arguments and the messages that Vote Leave crafted for whatever reason cut through to a larger part of the electorate than the other side did. I think there was something genuinely simplistic and effective about that one particular slogan, ‘Take Back Control’, which we dramatise in the movie. It’s really important to talk about data and particularly how it allows messages to be targeted and distributed. It’s clearly affecting our politics. It’s affecting how we think and talk to each other and our political discourse. There are obviously benefits to this technology. It gives certain people a voice and provides an egalitarian platform. But I do think there are huge downsides. There’s a toxicity to our discourse on these platforms now which is fuelled by how data channels and intercepts certain thoughts. And it’s still so new, the Wild West period of this technology at the moment, I imagine in five, 10 years’ time we’ll look back in mild horror at how unregulated and uncontrolled it was. I hope in the future we will find a system to make it more accountable.
What do you think Cummings’ motivations were during the campaign? Was he driven by being passionately anti-Europe or getting one over on the establishment, or was it an intellectual challenge for him?
That’s a really good question. It’s possibly a mix of all of them. That’s the question the drama poses – what does he want? What does he believe in? He definitely believes in the cause; I think that’s fair to say. He’s been anti-EU for the majority of his life. At the Department of Education with Michael Gove he witnessed, as he perceived it, the limitations of what ministers could do because of what he saw as being European bureaucracy and the illusion of British sovereignty and cabinet power. So he definitely believed it. He definitely wanted Britain to leave. But I also think he had wider visions. He’s someone who doesn’t believe the political system works. He wants to burn Whitehall to the ground as a system and rebuild something else. He did see within the chaos that would emerge from Brexit the opportunity to rebuild something in his own vision.
Talk to me about dramatising real events and real people. What’s the balance between what really happened and the fiction created for dramatic effect?
First of all, an audience always understands what’s going on. You can patronise an audience by implying they don’t understand this is a drama; that they’re going to be misled or manipulated by the fictionalising of facts. I never believe that to be true. They’re very aware of the laws and the language of fact-based fiction. It does provide you some latitude. As a dramatist you have to take artistic licence to make the thing function and work. The referendum campaign that we cover lasted many, many months, and the drama can’t be many months long. You have to make certain choices in terms of editing and combining certain meetings into one meeting, conflating moments and characters into fewer characters, just so the audience is able to access the dense information and understand it and enjoy it. I also have rules. For example, if people are ever at a lectern or being interviewed on television, in a drama roughly speaking you will use a base of language that the real people used at the time, so you don’t misrepresent them. But once they close the door then what the audience recognises is the baton being passed to me and I’m now imagining what may have happened based on as much evidence as I can gather. So of course you have a responsibility to capture the essence of truth, but art in itself has its own responsibilities to entertain, to move, to challenge, to provoke, to make sense of what happened in a different way.
Did you write this with Benedict or Rory in mind?
Actually I don’t really do that. I’m so obsessed with the real life people I can’t imagine anyone playing them, so when I’m writing them I imagine the real figures which is why it takes genius directors and producers to find the right people. But as soon as those two names were mentioned they made immediate sense to me. Coming from a theatre background, these are two of the greatest stage actors on the planet.
There’s a good deal of comedy in the programme. Why did you introduce an element of the comic?
There’s a great tradition in British political drama for satire. For comedy being a weapon by which, yes, to mock and needle but also understand hold to account. For me the central focus were the people we’re less familiar with – the Dominic Cummings and the Lucy Thomas’s, the Matthew Elliott’s – in a way it was a deliberate choice to inject those characters with a slightly stronger element of reality and naturalism. For the public figures we’re more familiar with, we contrast those with something slightly more heightened. Also I think there’s a danger that you treat this subject matter with kid gloves and too much reverence because obviously the consequences of what happened are very serious, and the mood at the moment in the nation is understandably is very worried and concerned, and I recognise that. But equally I think you can’t treat it too earnestly. The director Toby Haynes and I wanted to replicate the slightly anarchic, slightly punky energy that came out of that summer, that felt like a really anarchic time. To reflect that in the tone felt really important.
The flipside of that, was it difficult to know how to handle the Jo Cox element in the script?
Yes, without a doubt. Obviously we had many, many long conversations about whether it should be included, how it should be included if so. We made sure we did all the right things in terms of letting family know we were considering doing this, speaking to people about their memories at that time and how it felt so it could be replicated as truthfully as possible. Ultimately for me it is one of the most shocking things to have happened in British politics in the past few years. The idea that a question is posed to the electorate and it descends into such an unhealthy place somebody loses their life. That for me is one of the main questions the drama has to pose: what failed to allow this to happen and how are we all complicit in such an ugly political environment that such a tragedy took place?
Has it been a difficult experience writing this in terms of revelations keep coming out about the campaign? Have you had to adapt the script as you’ve gone along?
To an extent yes. In a way the choice to focus entirely on that particular summer and pretty much end when the vote happens slightly protects the drama from events. It doesn’t matter what deal Theresa May strikes or if the government falls or if there’s a second referendum. That isolated moment of history still has value to interrogate and look at it in its own separate context. But of course I can’t pretend that revelations about people’s conduct or alleged illegality don’t infuse the drama to an extent. The main thing is the tone. How you try and project forwards to the broadcast date and where the nation will be in its mood and how you might reflect that even though you’re writing and making it months and months in advance.
We mentioned you’re drawn to real world events for a lot of your projects. How do you think drama can examine real life events in a way factual can’t?
That’s a great question! I think they’re not competing. Fact and fiction aren’t competing for the limelight. Nor do they impact on each other. They can all contribute to a national conversation and an understanding about what happened. Journalism is a really important tool to be reacting quickly and responding urgently to what’s happening in the moment. I think the benefits of drama is that it can take a slightly longer view and look at it from a more human point of view, a more character-led examination that has potential to generate more empathy. We are lacking in empathy a lot in the way we talk about politics and the way we examine these things. And also the power of narrative; you get to place a story within a framework and walk through it moment by moment, beat by beat. And it’s long form. Most of our discourse exists in short form, in short bursts. Tweets or the odd comment or the quick blog. With long form plays and films and television dramas, over the course of a couple of hours you get to arrive in the space as an audience that’s possible more reasonable and more open, where you listen more and you can engage in a more considered way with something that’s very complicated and normally handled quite aggressively. So hopefully drama provides a space where you can empathise, where you can understand, take a breath and see something from a longer view with greater perspective. If that doesn’t sound too wanky!
Do you see Brexit as having irreparably polarised something about British society?
Maybe. It either revealed a polarisation that was already there or yes it provoked a new form of tribalism which we’re living with today. As the characters discuss in the drama there’s a false binary to the referendum which pretends something is either this or that. It’s way more complicated than that. I don’t think anybody in the country was either 100% remain and loves the EU entirely, or 100% leave and wants to get out. But that’s what a referendum forces. It forces us to retreat into a kind of simplicity. I loathe the terminology around leavers and remainers. If anyone calls me a remainer, the idea that my identity now is based on a thing I was forced to do by David Cameron two years ago. It’s complete nonsense and it’s more nuanced and complicated than that. If only we embraced how complicated it was and how contradictory and difficult these things are we might have a more intelligent and empathetic dialogue. But the consequences of that referendum make it almost impossible at the moment.