“Coming to a television set near you: Farage the movie,” the Daily Telegraph reported in August 2017. “A major Hollywood studio is poised to sign a deal with Nigel Farage and Arron Banks to make a £60million, six-part film of Mr Banks’ best-selling diary of the referendum campaign “The Bad Boys of Brexit”. The script is nearly finished and shooting will start in the New Year. The series will air in April, once the deal is signed next month at a meeting in Los Angeles.”
Eighteen months on, there’s no sign of the film. Instead, we have one centred on the man who has a better claim to have swung the EU referendum – Dominic Cummings. There really is a God after all. Or, if there isn’t, at least there is James Graham, who wrote Brexit: The Uncivil War, shown yesterday evening on Channel 4.
A virtue of his film is that it gets Banks’ measure, nailing him as a comic sideshow. An even bigger one is that it gets the referendum campaign’s too, correctly fingering Cummings as the man who made the difference. Had he not been appointed, Vote Leave would almost certainly have missed official designation. Had he been fired from it – there was a coup to oust him – the organisation would have collapsed. There would have been no Take Back Control. And, like it or not, that’s what the British people were persuaded to vote to do.
Banks has complained about the drama. So has the woman who has done so much to project him – Carole Cadwalladr. He doesn’t like being played for laughs and she doesn’t like it side-stepping her conspiracy theories. These were nodded to in the closing credits, but otherwise mostly avoided.
In a sense, though, one sympathises with both of them – at least, if hoping for documentary rather than drama. We could offer a list of corrections and clarifications. Douglas Carswell didn’t avoid parts of his former constituency as the local MP. Michael Gove made his mind up far earlier than the film suggests (though he kept quiet about it). Cummings himself uses focus groups to test voter opinion, not random visits to pubs. But all that would be beside the point – like expecting a piece of poetry to be a chunk of prose.
No, a more substantial problem for Brexit: the Uncivil War emerges from its greatest strength – that’s to say, putting Cummings, portrayed with eerie verisimilitude by Benedict Cumberbatch, at the centre of the film. Graham balances out Cummings with Craig Oliver, then David Cameron’s Director of Communications. This neat piece of parallelism sets them up as the contending antagonists of the drama.
But Oliver wasn’t Cummings’ real-life equivalent. George Osborne was Remain’s chief strategist, if anyone. And he is missing from the film altogether in fictional form. So for that matter is Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, the film’s fire is largely blue-on-blue. Back in the real world of the referendum campaign, Corbyn’s lethargy depressed Remain’s Labour vote, just as Farage’s energy, over a longer period, helped to deliver Leave’s core support. Graham’s palette is striking for the absence of red.
Again, it’s worth stressing that art isn’t fact. None the less, a structural flaw in a drama’s foundation can collapse it – especially, perhaps, if it looks back to recent events. Some will say that the film doesn’t work because it scarcely strays from SW1 (which will also have provided the core of its audience), and is shy of probing the cases for and against the EU itself: that it’s real title should be Vote Leave: the Uncivil War.
Others will claim, we think with justice, that the campaign didn’t pit head, in the form of rational Oliver, against heart, in that of romantic Cummings, as Graham seems to suggest. Rather, two different emotions went head to head: fear and anger. The drama shows a lot of the stoking of one but very little of that of the other – Project Fear. The balance between data and message on the Leave side is better, but it was the latter that counted most (at least, if you agree with Oliver which, in part, we do).
None the less, Brexit: the Uncivil War has an emotional strength at the heart of it: it gets why so many people voted Leave. The focus group scene in which a woman protests in tears that she feels, ignored, by-passed, and treated as if she has no value – and will back Brexit in consequence – has the raw power of truth.
It’s a force that drives the progress of the plot, from Cummings stumbling upon “Take back control” as a winning slogan through the failed coup to depose him through the campaigning switch to immigration to the very end. A mention in dispatches, and then some, for Rory Kinnear, whose Oliver is a sleek fictional foil for Cumberbatch’s angular Cummings. Graham may at heart be a man of the Left, but a more primal politics comes out of the near-final scene in which his protagonists square off against each other over a pint.
“You won’t be able to control it either,” says Oliver of the energies that Cummings has helped to unleash. In the film, the latter can almost hear them, so finely-tuned are his sensibilities. The drama begins with him picking up noise in the ether, like a wireless picking up a signal – straining for it with a concentration that is almost clairvoyant.
Later in the film, he lies down, his ear pressed to the ground, in order to hear it better. The noise is voices. What are they saying? Cummings may not be sure, but Graham seems to be. Surly, turbulent, angry, swelling to a roar – this is the clamour not of a queue waiting to vote, but of a mob pitching the mighty from their seats. We have before us not so much the ballot box as Pandora’s box.
Graham is not a Conservative, but this sensibility – this fear of riot, of disorder from below, of revolt – has been linked to the Right of politics for longer than the Left. He might not thank us for saying so, but he has produced a Tory work of art, in tone as well as personnel. There are worse ways of sketching a first draft of history.