TV review: Brexit drama is a perfect January TV fit

Boris Johnson (Richard Goulding), Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Michael Gove (Oliver Maltman) in Brexit: The Uncivil War
Billy Foley

Brexit: The Uncivil War, Channel 4, Monday at 9pm

You have to be a bit of a masochist to put yourself in front of another two hours of Brexit talk, but apparently a lot of people did.

Perhaps it was the attraction of Benedict Cumberbatch, the need to know if your side of the argument was being treated unfairly or just having nothing else to do on a dreary January evening.

It seemed a little early for a Brexit drama though. The principal action has yet to take place and already we're seeking to put the UK leaving the EU in a historical context.

In fairness to Brexit: The Uncivil War, it did focus entirely on the 2016 campaign and cunningly chose Dominic Cummings as the anti-hero, as opposed to Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees Mogg or David Cameron.

Cummings, who led the official Leave campaign, is a name I was only vaguely familiar with and in that modern way I found myself watching a youtube clip of him giving combative evidence to a Westminster committee during the ad breaks.

In a way only the best actors can, Cumberbatch completely convinced as the madcap Cummings who coined one of the most successful political phrases of all-time - ‘Take Back Control.'

It had originally been ‘take control', but the Cummings character in the film explained that the ‘back' was the key bit. It was about nostalgia and giving the feeling of reclaiming something. Boy did it work.

Cumberbatch's Cummings is a bit of a lunatic. He hears a humming in his head that doesn't stop until the campaign is won, he talks to himself constantly, he does his thinking in a cupboard with the back of the door covered in serial killer notes and he stares knowingly at the camera (Kevin Spacey-like) when dodgy dealings are discussed. As one point he puts his ear to the ground like a native American on train tracks in a 1950s western.

“He's not the messiah, he's a (pause) f***king a***hole,” Craig Oliver (Rory Kinnear), Cameron's PR man and the head of the Remain campaign, declares in a nod to the Life of Brian.

Most of the other leavers are unsympathetic. Perhaps they're like that in real life as well, but did Aaron Banks and Nigel Farage really decide to run their own leave campaign while drinking a bottle of vodka by the neck lying on the bonnet of a Range Rover?

Banks, in particular, is a caricature. In fact, Harry Enfield would have been perfect for the script. We first see him hosting a ‘new money,' gaudy garden party at his mansion where he dismisses a glass of champagne from a waiter's tray until another tray arrives with a can of larger.

We hear Cameron in a conference call with Oliver, where the prime minister plays up to his stereotype of not really caring and offering jokes instead of action.

Cummings on the other hand is a radical. He wants a revolution and will do whatever it takes. The film suggests he decided to keep Farage outside the campaign in the belief that the UKIP leader would tackle the "immigration thing" while they kept their hands clean so as not to alienate the moderate voter.

Cummings' other key decision was to use most of his resources in a digital campaign aimed at voters who don't normally make it to the polls.

This is the bit that's got some people really upset, with suggestions that it broke campaign finance rules, broke data protection rules, and worst sin of all, was coordinated by the same people who helped Donald Trump become US president.

Perhaps it wasn't fair to some people, but The Uncivil War was witty, engaging and a superb solution for a dark January evening.

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