Brexit: Uncivil War review - enjoyable but troubling viewing

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Channel 4 docu-drama on how Brexit happened makes for both enjoyable and troubling viewing, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.

There’s a contrast at the heart of James Graham’s drama Brexit: The Uncivil War that tells you everything you need to know about why Leave won and Remain lost - which is what makes it such great television.

Early on, soon after being asked to mastermind the Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings - played by Benedict Cumberbatch - heads to the pub. “What about immigration?” he asks drinkers, a puggy flashing in the background. “Is it the numbers?”

Later on, David Cameron’s former spin doctor Craig Oliver (Rory Kinnear) lectures an awkward focus group of voters about tax receipts under cold strip lighting.

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One campaign went for the heart, the other for the mind. One did things differently, the other followed the same old formula.

Brexit campaign chief Dominic Cummings is played by Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War

Brexit campaign chief Dominic Cummings is played by Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War

One did everything it could, while the other played by the rules.

Graham’s film isn’t a documentary or history - although thé script was informed by Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman’s forensic account of the campaign in his book All Out War.

What Graham has produced is compelling drama and brilliant television. With the right amount of hindsight, he gets viewers to ask themselves what was gained and what was lost in a campaign that engaged more voters than ever before, but left them angrier and less informed than when they started.

Many of the big set pieces are glossed over in this inside story of the Brexit campaign. Some key figures - David Cameron, for instance - don’t appear except in archive footage, while others like Michael Gove (Oliver Maltman) and Boris Johnson (Richard Goulding) are peripheral figures and don’t add much to the drama.

Instead, the focus is on Cummings, the sociopathic, cerebral former special adviser, and his Napoleonic drive to overthrow the political system. Cumberbatch’s portrayal leans towards the sympathetic, but you’re left in no doubt about what motivates him: it’s bitterness. “The establishment betrayed you,” he’s told by the Ukip MP Douglas Carswell (Simon Paisley Day) on a visit to his plush North London townhouse. Cummings is hooked.

The characters of Arron Banks (Lee Boardman) and Nigel Farage (Paul Ryan) pop champagne at the chance to “make a right bloody mess”, but when software gurus approach Cummings with troublingly powerful technology to target new voters on social media, he doesn’t think twice before harnessing it to spread misinformation. When the consequences of his tactics become clear, Cummings always has someone else to blame.

The Remain side are arrogant and complacent. Oliver marches into his first campaign meeting saying how the Tories “won the Scottish ref” - although he acknowledges that “like in Scotland, we could unleash something we can’t control”.

In other hands, and like in so many other political dramas, Uncivil War could so easily have been dull, full of talking. It must because of Graham’s background in the stage that when the big moments happen, the main characters are always doing something - not just saying it.

One brilliant scene has Kinnear trying to keep the peace on a conference call between Labour and Tory grandees, while trying to get his young daughter and her friends to eat their fish fingers peas. It’s a distracted, chaotic mess - like the Remain campaign. You feel you know immediately what even the minor characters are like - and Brexiteer MPs really are like that.

With the Uncivil War over Brexit still raging, both sides will claim the film fails to do justice to their own triumphs and their opponents’ crimes.

For everyone else, still caught in the middle, it offers a way to reflect on the way we got here that manages to be enjoyable as well as troubling. In other words, if you’re going to watch Brexit on TV, better this than the news.