Benedict Cumberbatch on Brexit: The Uncivil War – 'This drama reveals and unearths. It doesn't lecture'

The Sherlock star and writer James Graham talk to James Rampton on the set of Channel 4's controversial drama about the EU Referendum. ‘I wanted to play devil's advocate,’ says the political playwright

Monday 07 January 2019 22:27
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First trailer for Brexit drama about Leave campaign features bald Benedict Cumberbatch

When the trailer for Channel 4’s new one-off drama, Brexit: the Uncivil War, dropped last month, it whipped up a Twitter storm measuring 12 on the Beaufort Scale.

Users attacked the idea of making a drama about the 2016 EU Referendum at this moment. “Its timing couldn’t be worse,” wrote one. “It’s far too soon to be dealing with this as ‘drama’ when the very real impact for many of us is still waiting in the wings.”‎ Another complained that ‎”I still lose sleep over Brexit, so I can’t imagine anything I want to see less!”

Do they have a point? With the terms of our withdrawal from the EU very much undecided and the future of the whole country up in the air, might it be too soon for a dramatist to tackle a subject that is still so raw and so incendiary? Not according to James Graham, the writer of Brexit: the Uncivil War, who also wrote The Vote, which was performed on stage and shown on More4 on the night of the 2015 General Election, and Channel 4’s Coalition, which examined what happened after the Conservatives failed to win an overall majority in 2010.

“Some people have said, ‘Should we wait?’ But I completely reject that,” says Graham. “For thousands of years, it’s been the job of dramatists to insert themselves into the epicentre of difficult national moments and help people interrogate them.

“When has drama not engaged with the politics of the day? Do they need to be quarantined? Dramatists should always be right in the middle of event.”

Brexit: the Uncivil War recounts a previously untold chapter from the most important political story of our time: the exceedingly bitter and divisive 2016 referendum campaign on our membership of the EU.

The film, which airs on Channel 4 at 9pm on Monday, homes in on Dominic Cummings (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a Brexiteer policy adviser whom David Cameron once called “a career sociopath”, as he takes on the Government-backed Remain campaign headed by Number 10’s urbane director of communications, Craig Oliver (Rory Kinnear).

In tackling such a polarising subject, the drama could easily be didactic, but Cumberbatch maintains that is not its aim.‎ Between takes on set in a windswept car park in the London Docklands, the 42-year-old actor argues, ”This is about a specific aspect of the referendum campaign. It’s about revealing and unearthing that.

“It is not about how to solve it or what went wrong or right, it’s just about how those moments occurred. It doesn’t lecture. It’s not censorious, and it’s certainly not didactic.”

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In Brexit: the Uncivil War, Cummings is portrayed as a disruptive force of nature set on overturning the established order. He’s aiming, he says, “to create the biggest political upset the world has seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It looks like an insurgency against the Establishment. It’s total war!”

The drama, which also takes in such highly topical subjects as data mining, the power of social media and fake news, shows that even though Cummings is largely unknown to the general public, he had an enormous influence on the campaign. He dreamt up, for instance, the famous slogan, “Take back control.”

But, as Brexit: the Uncivil War demonstrates, his masterstroke was pioneering a completely new kind of campaign. Drawing on state-of-the-art data analytics, he discovered that there were three million disillusioned voters who were not registered to any political party.

In the drama, Cummings bombards them with one billion targeted pro-Leave online advertisements during the campaign. These previously undetected voters may well have helped tip the referendum in favour of Brexit.

However, the drama suggests, Cummings’s victory came at a heavy price. As Oliver tells his adversary in the one scene where they meet face-to-face, in the wake of the shocking murder of the MP Jo Cox: “I’m worried that we won’t be able to heal. It’s about the soul of our country. This has created a type of politics that is unsophisticated, uncivilised and, worst of all, unkind. You’re feeding a toxic culture where no one can believe or trust anything.”

‎Cummings remains a controversial figure, but Cumberbatch, who met his alter ego while preparing for the role, stresses that he was anxious not to turn his character into a stereotypical, moustache-twirling baddie.

Displaying an almost Robert De Niro-like commitment to his art by shaving his head to create Cummings’s distinctive bald pate and sporting a gilet that fashion forgot. “As with any character you play as an actor, you suspend judgement,” he says. “I have to be able to have empathy for my character. At whatever level that may exist, you have to understand as well as is possible.”

Although a confirmed Remainer, Cumberbatch is equally adamant that his personal opinions on the subject should not impinge on the drama. “It’s not going to enhance anyone’s viewing experience if I or anyone else is talking about what their personal feelings are about it,” he says. “This is an examination of key players who weren’t necessarily in the public eye, behind the closed doors of the campaign. So that is what is fascinating.”

In the same way, Graham underlines that he was eager not to let his own views on the referendum intrude on the drama. Although the vote has exposed profound fractures in our society that may take generations to repair, the writer would like Brexit: the Uncivil War to help us towards a greater understanding of those on the opposing side. “I have my thoughts, but with this drama I wanted to play devil’s advocate.

“Through drama, you get to walk in the footsteps of people who are different from you. You might get to understand more about what drove people who voted differently from you when you witness what those people believe.”

Kinnear, 40, a brilliant stage actor, who has performed as Hamlet, Iago and Macbeth at the National Theatre, but is still probably best known for playing Bill Tanner in recent Bond films, chips in. “It is very important to give voices to both sides and show the psychological elements behind the main players,“ he says. ”The way so many disparate voices are heard makes this a richly compelling drama.”

Rory Kinnear as Remain campaign leader Craig Oliver

The drama does not hesitate to emphasise the mistakes that Remain made during the campaign, either. “Craig had run the 2015 General Election campaign and been successful,” says Kinnear, who consulted Oliver during the making of Brexit: the Uncivil War. “But he’s well aware that the way he ran the referendum campaign will be his legacy.

“In his book, Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit, he explores ways they might have done things differently. At the time he believed that all elections were won by appealing to people’s heads, rather than their hearts. But for the first time in British political history, people in the referendum voted for the unknown, rather than the known.

Kinnear continues: “Craig now recognises that Remain were too slow to adjust to that and realise that for Leave it was a vote against the Establishment. ‎Remain were also too concerned with constantly countering the arguments and inaccuracies that Leave came up with. By countering them, they reinforced Leave’s message by repeating the buzzwords they wanted voters to hear.‎”

Brexit: the Uncivil War also explores the toxicity that the referendum has stirred up in this country. Graham expresses the hope that, “The drama is asking serious questions about how the use of data is changing the way we campaign, how we can be targeted and how it’s changing the tone and quality of our discourse. It is becoming more tribal, angry and toxic because we are being divided into bubbles.”

He adds that the angry nature of our political debate concerns him. “There has been a wider cultural shift to something that worries me, the death of objective truth and shared reality. Something is really shifting in politics and the way we talk to each other.

The 36-year-old, who was also written such absorbing political plays as This House (2012), tracing events in the House of Commons during the period of Labour government between 1974 and 1979, and Labour of Love (2017), which follows a fictional Labour MP over the course of 25 years, continues, “We used to watch the same news and share the same objective reality. But that’s broken down. There’s no way of agreeing anymore.”

In addition, the drama does not shy away from tackling the serious ramifications of what happened in the summer of 2016. “By the end, Brexit: the Uncivil War becomes very dramatic with the unbelievably tragic death of Jo Cox,“ says Kinnear. ”It touches on the notion that if political life appeals to the worst of humanity, you can’t be surprised if people show the worst of humanity.”

Finally, we can reveal that Graham has a Hitchcockian cameo in Brexit: the Uncivil War as a man tapping away on his laptop in a park while the significance of data analysis dawns on the nearby Cummings. But it doesn’t seem as though this on-screen appearance heralds a dramatic career change. The writer says with some regret that, “I’m still waiting for my Oscar nomination. Sadly, I have had no nod yet.”

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Sad for him, maybe, but good news for the rest of us. We should all be delighted that Graham is not going to be giving up the day job any time soon.

Brexit: the Uncivil War airs on Channel 4 at 9pm on Monday 7 January

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