Two very different takes on Brexit: The Uncivil War

Sarah Elliott, wife of Vote Leave CEO Matthew Elliott, and journalist Carole Cadwalladr stand at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the Channel 4 drama

Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit drama, C4

The only thing viewers can agree on when it comes to Brexit: The Uncivil War is that it was divisive.


Of course it was.

The feature-length drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch attempted to portray how Vote Leave’s campaign director Dominic Cummings helped deliver the seismic EU referendum result in 2016.

Naturally, major figures from both sides of the debate had plenty to say about the film by writer James Graham, unpicking what they perceived to be ‘inaccurate’ about the dramatisation of events.

One interested observer was Sarah Elliott – wife of Matthew Elliott, the Vote Leave chief executive played by John Heffernan in the drama.

“For the record, Matthew has never been a lobbyist,” she wrote as part of a running Twitter commentary on the show. “He has been a campaigner his whole career, and responsible for his and his staff’s salaries since he was 24.”

She added that Brexit: The Uncivil War fell down on its way it portrayed the Vote Leave campaign, writing, “This is where Channel 4 shows its colors – they think that Leave is mostly about immigration.”

Boris Johnson (Richard Goulding), Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Michael Gove (Oliver Maltman)
Boris Johnson (Richard Goulding), Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Michael Gove (Oliver Maltman)

However, she was thrilled with Heffernan’s portrayal of her husband, saying he had got the mannerisms “just right” after meeting the couple in preparation for the role.

“John Heffernan is such a great guy! We had a blast, and poor John just listened to us babble on about us, the lead up to the Referendum, Referendum itself, how we fell in love… So friendly, patient, perfect manners,” she wrote.

She said that during her first viewing she had given the drama “a 6.5/10. Entertaining and a bit of satire is fun to watch especially as the Referendum was full of colorful characters.

“Then it gets preachy. And Remain comes off as self-righteous as if it’s the conscience of the film & anyone with reason. It takes away from the joviality,” she tweeted.

Her conclusion? “Now after a second watch, I give a 5. I think the only character seriously tackled by the writer was Dom Cummings, and so doesn’t give the full story.”

However, while Elliott was considering how her husband’s work was portrayed on screen, Guardian and Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr was taking a very different lesson from the drama.

The writer has been at the forefront of investigating accusations of electoral fraud against the Vote Leave campaign.

During a thread commenting on Brexit: The Uncivil War, she challenged Vote Leave CEO Matthew Elliott – and Sarah Elliot’s wife – for belittling the events depicted.

“This is the CEO of Vote Leave. He bears ultimate responsibility for its criminal behaviour. He thinks it’s ‘fun’,” she claimed.

Cadwalladr added she thought the buffoonish portrayals of prominent Vote Leave MPs Michael Gove and Boris Johnson (played by Oliver Maltman and Richard Goulding, respectively) also weakened the drama, and let them ‘off the hook’.

“They had key roles in the campaign. They knew about the illegal overspend, dark ads, deliberate lies. Don’t buy the buffoonery,” she claimed.

Writer Graham has said in an interview with Cadwalladr that when it came to figures such as Johnson and Gove he chose to “apply a more heightened presentation using the classic British weapon of caricature as a way of bringing people down from their pedestal.”

Both these responses are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the debate surrounding Brexit: The Uncivil War – not to mention Brexit itself.

“I have always believed,” Graham told Radio Times, “that drama has to engage with the world; that art has a function in helping us make sense of, interrogate and understand the world around us. And there’s nothing more urgent to understand than Brexit.

“There’s been a reticence and a nervousness from my industry to engage with it because it feels so controversial, messy and dangerous. We have kind of absolved ourselves of responsibility – instead trusting journalists, pundits and political commentators to try to make sense of it. But even though the story hasn’t finished yet we have a responsibility to try to engage a popular audience in the chaos.”


This article was originally published on 8 January 2019

Sign up to the email newsletter