Benedict Cumberbatch: “It’s rare you get to do a drama that has such an immediate relevance to your life and your country”

The Doctor Strange star plays Dominic Cummings, the man behind the Vote Leave campaign, in Channel 4's new political drama

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It may be one of the defining moments in our nation’s political history, but Brexit has dragged on, day in, day out, for two-and-a-half years now; a stream of endless squabbles over backstops, hard borders, customs unions and trade deals. And while it has deeply divided the country, there’s one thing upon which we can all agree: it hasn’t been much fun.

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So it seems perverse that Brexit: the Uncivil War is, in many ways, the perfect antidote. It’s drama doing what drama does best: taking a step back and breathing life and pace into real events, with a fantastic cast of colourful characters and a careful mix of pathos and humour. Oh, and there’s also Benedict Cumberbatch.

He says it’s the “ability of drama to distil things into a highly compact, entertaining and engaging narrative, taking you out of the eternal echo chamber of the media cycle” that appealed. “It’s rare you get to do a drama that has such an immediate relevance to your life and your country,” he continues, when we meet between takes during filming last June. Cumberbatch is transformed physically (with balding head and receding hairline, as you can see in the picture, right) and, to an extent, mentally, into Dominic Cummings, the controversial political adviser who was at the heart of the Vote Leave campaign, and now this drama.

“You have these incredibly complex ideas condensed into beats and moments of realisation,” says Cumberbatch. “I think it’s fascinating. You can go, ‘Oh, a drama about Brexit, that sounds like a right old yawn’. Well actually, no. It’s one of the most explosive, extraordinary, funny, desperately sad and provoking moments in our lifetime and to convey that in an hour and 20 minutes makes for very good television. And in James Graham’s hands it’s a winner – one of the best scripts I have read in a long time.”

Graham was a key reason Cumberbatch agreed to the role. The writer has been lightening and livening up politics on stage and screen for the past ten years. Plays such as This House, The Vote, Labour of Love and TV drama Coalition have cemented his reputation as one of the finest political playwrights of our age.

It’s hardly surprising that he saw an irresistible opportunity in Brexit. “I have always believed,” Graham says, “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.”

The specific chaos that Graham chose is the EU Referendum campaign in the months leading up to the vote on 23 June 2016, following Cummings, and his counterpart in the Remain camp, Downing Street communications director Craig Oliver (played by Rory Kinnear). The focus is on the tactics they employed in their frenzied attempt to win over hearts and minds.

“Everyone knows who won,” says Cummings in the opening sequence, “but not everyone knows how.” The “how” is at the centre of the drama. How a campaign machine is run in the 21st century: the conversations, the plotting, the battle plans, the dreaming up of slogans and all that happens behind closed doors, in bars and on WhatsApp groups. It’s something Graham says he developed a “geeky fascination” with: “How do you distribute a message to people?”

The drama explores everything from focus groups and campaigning on doorsteps to the more shadowy but critical role of data harvesting. In the years since the referendum, a lot of information has emerged on the use, by the various Leave campaigns, of organisations such as Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ to mine the data of millions of voters through social media, especially Facebook. Investigations into whether spending on this breached legal limits are ongoing, with questions still being asked about the ethics of such tactics and the extent to which they influenced the result.

“I don’t think we fully understand quite how much the data-driven nature of these platforms is changing our frame of reference and our concept of reality and truth, and how that can be targeted and abused by people,” Graham says.

In the drama, Cummings meets AIQ CEO Zack Massingham and is intrigued by the huge power of data electioneering to reach millions of, as yet, unregistered voters. These people, he decides, are the ones he must win over. Soon after, Massingham and a small team move their equipment into a back room in the Vote Leave office. “If anyone asks, say you’re an intern,” Cummings tells him. The way they monitor and influence people’s online lives serves as a sharp contrast to goings-on over at the headquarters of the Stronger In camp.

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Graham and his lead actors were fastidious in their research, frequently meeting with key characters and politicians at the heart of the campaigns, and the script is based on two books: All Out War by Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman and Craig Oliver’s Unleashing Demons: the Inside Story of Brexit.

The actors, casting directors, makeup artists and costume directors have made a triumphant attempt at replicating real-life characters, though Graham insists the intention was not to create something too “Spitting Image” or to imitate people.

“I met Cummings,” says Cumberbatch, “which is important because he is very far from me and I needed to know more about him, about his previous history, and also observe him physically. There’s very little about him out there – a hitherto unknown character who was so instrumental in the way things went. He’s very much a strategist, someone who has worked in the corridors of power but not in the limelight of power.”

Could Cumberbatch empathise with him? “You have to when you play a character. Of course you do. It doesn’t matter what I felt at the time or what I feel now. It’s all about how he feels and why.

“His frustration is all to do with the dominance of Westminster – the disconnected careerism that he felt drove and still drives political discourse – just being removed from what people really think and feel. He felt it all needed to change. That things needed to shift.”

Was there ever a concern the drama might be taken as the whinge of an arts industry perceived to be predominantly liberal and pro-Remain?

“It’s not about creating heroes and villains – and it’s absolutely not about going, ‘Were we right or wrong to leave the EU?’ That doesn’t interest me as a writer,” Graham says. “It’s not my job to preach or judge. For most of my playwriting life I’ve taken a lot of pride and time to play devil’s advocate with that view [of the arts industry], trying to interrogate the other side, and humanise them. I think that’s the power of drama. Twitter, with its 280 characters, or an article shared online doesn’t have the space or the nuance or empathy sometimes to fully walk through the footsteps of someone you don’t agree with.”

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What it isn’t, Graham acknowledges, is a journalistic endeavour. “I don’t want it to feel like a literal truth,” he says. “It is by definition a contrivance: artists, actors and directors applying a creative choice to it. It’s a version of the truth, a piece of creative expression. And Cummings is a gift of a character,” adds Graham. “Like almost all of the great stage and screen characters, he’s a disrupter. He took a system that did things in a certain way, put a virus into it and exploded it. Whether you agree with the outcome or not, it’s compelling to watch people who don’t give a s**t, hack a system, reboot it and recharge it.”

And what does Graham say to the idea that you can’t dramatise a story that’s still being lived out? “Brexit is not going to end for years and years,” he says. “It’s nonsense and highly irresponsible to suggest that there must be a quarantine around art. For the past 2,000 years theatre and drama have been able to interrogate the stories of the day.

“Drama is uniquely placed to attract a popular audience into a space where it feels possible and safe to slightly, briefly turn off the noise and some of your own political tribalism and ask sophisticated questions about what went right and what went wrong in our politics. We’re not saying this is the definitive history of Brexit. It’s the first of many. People are welcome to keep adding to it, but we had to start at some point.”

Brexit: the Uncivil War is as thought-provoking and emotive as it is enjoyable and hilarious. And while it will leave you questioning and curious, at least – joy! – it comes to a timely end. Politicians take note.

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This article was originally published in the 5-11 January 2019 issue of Radio Times magazine