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'Brexit: The Uncivil War' Believes Too Much of Its Own Bullshit

Channel 4's Brexit dramatisation is entertaining enough, but is too infatuated with the idea of an outsider genius changing the course of history.

by Oscar Rickett
08 January 2019, 7:45am

Boris Johnson (Richard Goulding), Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Michael Gove (Oliver Maltman) in 'Brexit: The Uncivil War'. Photograph: Nick Wall/Channel 4

It seems fitting in an entertainment-hungry world, in which we shuffle from our work to our shelter and search for something – anything – to distract us, that the biggest and most boring news story of the day has already been turned into sleekly packaged television.

Brexit, a legacy drama whose plot lines and cast of characters have barely changed for what feels like the last 400 years, has been mined for content and turned into Brexit: The Uncivil War, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of Vote Leave and the man who came up with the slogan, “Take Back Control”. He dismisses referendums as stupid but says he’ll do whatever it takes to win.

Without perhaps meaning to, the programme shows Brexit for what it so often seems to be: a debate between two sets of wankers. On one side, you have tax-dodging criminal racists who tell people the answer to their problems is for the country to leave a vast institution they often don’t know much about. On the other, you have a banal and exploitative establishment that thinks nothing needs to change and that anyone who disagrees with them is a criminal racist.

The plot in this uncivil war begins with lobbyist Matthew Elliott and then-UKIP MP Douglas Carswell on the lookout for a mastermind to win the referendum. Elliott has an idea but, he warns Carswell, it’s risky – the guy he’s thinking of is a maverick, an outsider. Some call him crazy, some call him a genius, some call him both.

We call him Benedict Cumberbatch, the man you turn to when you’re a British TV producer aspiring to make a classy show about an oddball genius whose outside-the-box thinking gets the establishment all riled up.

We’ve already seen a pre-titles him using phrases like "Apollonian rationality and Dionysian intuition" as he tells two different pairs of think-tank idiots that the world is ending and that they don’t know what the hell is going on. Now we get to see him in the front room of his terraced Georgian house (being a maverick pays, apparently) telling Elliott and Carswell that he’s spent the last two years on his dad’s farm reading Thucydides, Kipling and Tolstoy, and that everyone in politics is an idiot.

The drama proceeds from there, with Cumberbatch in familiar form as the kind of self-proclaimed genius who likes to write on walls and brainstorm in small, dark cupboards. He locates Zack Massingham, of the Canadian data firm AggregateIQ, who tells Cummings he’s already found 3 million unregistered voters the Remain campaign have no idea exist. He reminds us this all began with Obama.

It’s easy to see why the film’s writer, James Graham, would be drawn to Cummings – or the idea of Cummings. Genius outsider characters are staples of mainstream entertainment.

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Lee Boardman as Arron Banks, funder of Leave.EU and Paul Ryan as its leader Nigel Farage in 'Brexit: The Uncivil War'. Photograph: Nick Wall/Channel 4

But when Cummings’s real life wife, the Spectator journalist Mary Wakefield, is writing gushing articles about just how good and accurate the show is, and when the show itself seems to endorse the idea that the Leave strategist “hacked the system” and duped over 17 million people into voting for Brexit, it seems clear that television has once again gone too far in its infatuation with the men it believes change the world.

Elsewhere, frontline politicians like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are portrayed as well-meaning pawns, people who are saying divisive things they sometimes know not to be true, but who are really rather painfully troubled by it all.

The drama to be found in the Remain campaign is one of groupthink and inertia: this was the establishment at its worst, full of Westminster village types who thought that repeating the same message about the economy would terrify the electorate into falling into line. Some fun is had with this brigade of blue suits, but they end up being portrayed as the adults in the room. Craig Oliver (the always excellent Rory Kinnear), David Cameron’s director of communications, is given a bland and plaintive speech about the values of civility and decorum that essentially doubles up as a defence of the status quo.

By that point the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox has taken place and we can see that Cummings has created an environment in which deadening technocratic oppression under the guise of fair debate has morphed not into something more democratic and enlivening, but into uncontrollable rage.

And that’s what we are left with. An issue that was the obsession of a small group of politicians has become a vessel for seemingly every problem facing Britain and, in truly modern style, we are going to watch a programme about it.

What Channel 4 and HBO have done here is often entertaining, occasionally informative and generally balanced. The film’s problems could be thought of as the problems of the medium – a fixation on individuals, a cannibalising of loaded ongoing events for entertainment, an unconscious belief in the impossibility of change – but in a world in which public life is ever more performative and PR-driven, a primetime programme about Brexit starring Benedict Cumberbatch does leave you wondering if there is such a thing as real life anymore.

@oscarrickettnow