Politics on the small screen: Brexit according to James Graham and Benedict Cumberbatch
How Graham dealt with the 2016 referendum battle - and having a global superstar portraying Dominic Cummings.
For any screen writer, it’s a delightfully sticky problem to be confronted with: what happens when you’re intent on creating a completely fair, unbiased depiction of real-life events, pitting one side against another and giving them rich, equal coverage, but then a charismatic Hollywood star goes and bags one of the lead roles. Surely, if this were ever a level playing field, it just tipped onto a slope?
Add to that the context of a generation-defining, nation-splitting decision whose wounds will continue to be felt for years to come, and the stakes are unprecedently high for a dramatist – which could explain why James Graham, author of ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’, has decided to leave it to the audience.
The lead role in his drama of campaign strategist Dominic Cummings is taken by Benedict Cumberbatch, and fans will be able to draw a clear line to this – the shambolic style, the forensic mind, the lonely, brilliant mutterings - from the actor’s previous outings as Sherlock Holmes, Stephen Hawking, even Julian Assange. Rumours abound that Remainer Cumberbatch wanted some ‘darker lines’ for his protagonist, although by all accounts he found Cummings perfectly appealing when they spent the evening together. But in the final edit, solution-seeker or snake oil salesman? Apparently, it is we who will decide.
“What I hope it does is ask the question, is this man a genius or is he a fraud?” James Graham nimbly proffers in chat with Total Politics. “I hope the audience can answer it. I take your point though, that if you get somebody as cerebral, articulate and interesting to watch as Benedict Cumberbatch, the suggestion becomes that he’s your hero, that you root for him. But that’s the risk you have to take.
“On the other hand, he brings pain and empathy and compassion to it, and I think often people in the political sphere aren’t humanised when it comes to dramatic representations of them, so that’s the trade-off.”
Of Dominic Cummings himself, James Graham remains more circumspect, only saying, “I spent time with him, I found myself personally quite impressed by him, but I still don’t know.
“His ‘Take Back Control’ as a slogan, is it a really crude offensive blunt instrument to fight something very complex, or is it a work of art, one of the best unifying slogans ever created? Does it come from a really intelligent, philosophical place or was it a guess? I don’t know!”
If the jury’s still out on Cummings, what’s all too clear here is the chaos in both camps in the months and weeks leading up to June 2016. Recreated on screen are those key moments we’ve come to associate with the story, Cummings’ reveal of the big red bus with the memorable if misleading NHS banner, as well as the apparent brainstorming that went into the Leave campaign’s defining three-word mantra.
Elsewhere, the same light touch James Graham brought to ‘Coalition’ on TV and ‘This House’ on stage is apparent in the scene-stealing of actors Paul Ryan and Lee Boardman as Nigel Farage and Arron Banks respectively. David Cameron, George Osborne and Theresa May all failed to make the final cut of the script – merciful or insulting? Perhaps we must again decide.
“I tried to be fair and open-minded,” says Graham of his rogue Leavers and their cowboy antics. “But I do confess to having less sympathy towards their end of the spectrum, because of the damage they’ve done – that kind of politicking I find very ugly.”
Equally bulbous and bumbling on screen are Messrs Gove and Johnson, played by actors Oliver Maltman and Richard Goulding.
“There’s a great tradition in British art of using satire and caricature as a weapon, reflects Graham. “It brings these people down off their pedestal and to our level, but they are also faintly ridiculous.
“Plus, if you think of someone like Boris Johnson, it does seem sometimes as they though they’re affecting a fictional character, depicting themselves as vaguely ‘pastichy’. I’m not sure I believe Boris Johnson is really that character he presents himself to be on television and interviews. It seems a construct, so I think that gives us some latitude with the characters they’ve created for themselves.”
Graham admits his often wry tone gave him some sleepless nights before Christmas, as it seemed the nation was getting angrier each day about how its leaders were conducting the whole affair.
“I was waking up in cold sweats, thinking we’d gone too light, we’d gone too comic. It seemed the nation felt quite angry and upset about the path we were being led down, whether you were Leave or Remain.
“That worried me, how to pitch the tone in a way that could be helpful. I want this drama, I don’t want it to divide and infuriate, although I think it can provoke, and that’s its job. I want it to be a cathartic experience, a common ground for people to gather, reflect and say, ‘Oh that’s interesting that you think this.’ It may be naïve, but that’s what I wish for.”
More serious are the issues of campaign manipulation whose ripples continue to this day. In fact, long before it went to air, this drama had its critics. Journalist Carole Cadwalladr expressed her fear, anger in fact, that it could disrupt any future criminal trial on the subject of her own longterm focus, Cambridge Analytica. Others simply said it was too soon.
“In a way, I expected it,” says Graham now. “People feel very strongly, many are pained and very scared by the outcome of this, and they’re entitled to have a strong emotional response. I was disappointed by the tone. If there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that discussions around Brexit aren’t always the most civil and helpful and nuanced, and I don’t think people listen. I was disappointed by the conjecture and predictions, the feeling of bad faith about what the drama would do.
“There was this narrative of cynical opportunism, my commercial exploitation of this event. That’s not where I come from. I come from a stage background, where your obligation is to put the world around you on stage and make sense of it, difficult as that may be. Now it’s on television and there’s a big star in, it’s become a cynical exercise did upset me but you try not to take it personally.” Despite this, Graham warms to his theme. “I’m not sure I’m going to be earning millions of dollars, moving to LA and sitting by a pool because of everything I made out of a Channel 4 Brexit drama.”
In fact, although the drama is deliberately time-proofed by its focus on the events leading up to the referendum and closes its curtains very soon after that dramatic night, we do see a bunch of nameless men punching data into keyboards, and coming up with intimate algorithms for targeted social media advertising – a clear nod to tech company Aggregate IQ.
And it’s clear in talking to him that for James Graham, these issues tax him as much as anyone. “It’s one of the most important conversations that we’re not really having. There’s a danger in how we present data and views," he says.
“I don’t want to accidentally stray into conspiracy theory. There’s no part of me believes in one singular Bond villain living in a lair in a volcano, pulling levers and manipulating how we think. I don’t think that’s true.
“I think there’s an accident of technological advancement which means these platforms are now the places we conduct our political discourse, and they are by definition intuitive, and I worry about how the tradition of advertising which has always existed, but the sophistication of these tools is such that we need a conversation about whether we want our politics sold to us in the same way as a holiday or a fancy shoe.
“Maybe it’s fine, I have no idea, but I do think the technology has leapt ahead of our understanding of it. To be honest, my biggest fear for the future is less about the power of these weapons, but how we are using them as the electorate, as citizens. It’s changing our behaviour, it’s changing how we speak to each other, how we listen and how we project, and by definition, lack any real empathy. We all know how cruel political conversation has become online, and I don’t know how you fix that, how you reengineer them for more compassion and understanding, when they’re almost designed to give you a microphone, to put you on ‘broadcast’ rather than ‘receive’.”
For James Graham, finding time to do both in this heady political era is a challenge he didn’t see coming: “When I first started writing in this type of territory 10 or 12 years ago, theatre about the political process wasn’t terribly fashionable. There seemed to be a consensus that domestic politics wasn’t particularly revelatory or divisive, the one big issue dominating art and drama then was the Iraq War, so I could never have imagined this.
“I thought I’d have to reach back into the distant past to get my material, and now I’m scrabbling around every single day to gather all these Easter eggs and saying, ‘What do I do to make sense of it?’”
‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’ is on Monday 7th January, 9pm, Channel 4.