Second referendum? Channel 4 Brexit film will leave you with second thoughts

PUBLISHED: 09:52 07 January 2019 | UPDATED: 11:28 07 January 2019

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings in Brexit The Uncivil War. Photograph: Channel 4.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings in Brexit The Uncivil War. Photograph: Channel 4.

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James Graham's new Channel 4 Brexit drama will leave Remainers questioning whether the movement is ready or not for a second referendum.

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The scriptwriter said while it was produced with a sympathetic view to Dominic Cummings in the beginning, he believes there is sufficient scrutiny by the end. He said that while he approached the film with a neutral mindset, it would be very difficult for viewers to watch without forming a view one way or another. He claimed viewers will either think Cummings is the “antichrist” or a “hero”.

At a preview screening of the film, Graham said that he had originally included bigger roles for Theresa May, George Osborne and David Cameron but took them out of the script after a first draft. Instead he ensured that they purposely took a backseat to the strategists with the film following in the footsteps of Cummings and Downing Street’s communications boss Craig Oliver.

MORE: BREX FACTOR: Why we’ll all struggle with Brexit film The Uncivil War

Despite the characters expressing frustrations about the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, he only features once, casting a vote at the polling station towards the end of the film. Theresa May features only in a montage of speeches supporting Remain and David Cameron only appears in delivering soundbites and delivering his resignation speech.

Graham uses both books written about the Brexit campaign, blogs from the Vote Leave strategist, and interviews with key figureheads to guide his script. His forensic questioning even went as far as asking what biscuits were served in focus groups during the campaign and asked a lot of painstaking questions to understand how Leave’s data was harvested and used.

However, the playwright revealed that it was not until late stages of the research that Cummings signed up to be interviewed… the moment it was announced Benedict Cumberbatch was cast to play him. It is claimed that Cumberbatch spent a long night with Cummings to get under the skin of the Vote Leave mastermind, with the pair bonding over late night falafel.

Brexit: The Uncivil War focuses mostly on the use of data to aid the Leave campaign and the art of their political messaging - such as the £350 million for the NHS, the ‘take back control’ mantra, and talk of Turkey joining the EU. While Graham accepts that it is common practice for political campaigns to use data, and there is a nod to this when referencing Obama’s election campaign, it is undoubtedly true that the Leave campaigns took it to a new level with AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica.

MORE: Cumberbatch: To understand Brexit’s present we must understand the past

Graham, however, did reveal that in separate occasions both Oliver and Cummings were in agreement that it was not the use of data that won the vote, but the sharp messaging in the battle for hearts and minds, something that should worry Remainers who overstate the use of social media.

There were some red faces at Channel 4 when Graham claimed in an earlier interview that the Brexit plot had all the hallmarks of being a thriller for rival Netflix, but Graham said he was not looking to delve any further into the issue. He instead is interested in a script on the Maastricht treaty to better understand where the arguments all began, and a more detailed look at the events that led up to Jo Cox’s death. While the film references her killing it does not attribute blame to either side, but the political vacuum that had been created just days before the vote.

Graham’s reluctance to follow up the Brexit drama appeared to be down, in part, due to the increased attention on his work and the criticisms before the film had even been aired. He said he was “saddened” and “disappointed” by those who have said now was not the time for a drama on one of the biggest political events of recent times. If not now, when? He said the issue could rumble on for decades, and felt that now was the best time to start to kick start questioning the events that led to the decision back in 2016.

Other criticisms have come from the Remain camp who fear that such a film could prejudice on-going criminal proceedings. It is notable that the film skips some of the big claims against the Brexit camp - the suggestion of Russian interference (although there are sly hints in the way Banks is pictured with Russian vodka) and very little is said about campaign funding or the involvement of splinter groups like pro-Brexit youth campaign BeLeave.

Graham recognised those “sincere” concerns about that element of the debate, but argued there was an important “philosophical” case he thought that been won for art to reflect real life and add more empathy and understanding to the wall-to-wall news coverage. He feared the criticisms of Brexit: The Uncivil War meant that the artistic argument had not yet been won.

On a personal level I found the film just as much of a rollercoaster as the EU referendum campaign. The satire - mostly aimed at Farage and Banks - makes the reminders bearable, but there is plenty that also provokes a sense of sadness and anger that will be felt by those sympathetic to Remain.

Beyond the theatrics this film will leave many questions for both Leave and Remain camps. For Brexiteers the film will leave questions about the ethics of their campaign, but even more prevalent for Remainers will be understanding why ‘Stronger In’ lost. As we head towards the distinct possibility of a second referendum, I cannot help thinking we still have yet to learn lessons from our defeat and that we still have not embraced the fact politics is now very different to back then.

Viewers will be able to make their own minds up when the film airs on Channel 4 on Monday 7th January.

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