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04th Jan 2019

David Cameron was written out of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Brexit drama for being too boring

Benedict Cumberbatch's new Brexit drama gets it spectacularly right

Oli Dugmore

Channel 4 Brexit drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch

‘Biggest number wins’

David Cameron doesn’t really feature in Brexit: The Uncivil War, a Channel 4 dramatisation of the Brexit campaign airing on Monday night. He called, and lost, the referendum, resigned and yet was written out of the show in later drafts for being boring.

Writer James Graham, whose previous work includes a play about Rupert Murdoch starting The Sun and TV on the coalition government, said: “The first draft, which I actually quite liked, included the Downing Street machine.

“But by the time we got to the end of that draft, even by then Cameron had slightly faded away into the distance as a character in British public life, in his shed.

“It became clear to me that Dominic was the most interesting character, because he’s the agent of change. So I went back and scrapped anything that wasn’t interesting.”

Poor DavCam, already being scrubbed out of the bright Brexit lights.

“Dominic” is the chief architect of the Vote Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings. A name few people outside of Westminster’s lobby journalists will recognise. By admission of the show’s writer, and its promotional material, the intention is to show an audience the mechanics of that bitter political war.

That goal is well achieved in highly entertaining fashion. Confused and old white men (read MPs) provide plenty of jokes, as does the self-proclaimed “bad boy of Brexit” Arron Banks and accomplice Nigel Farage. The assassination of Jo Cox is given brief treatment, with real gravitas, and prompts one of Benedict Cumberbatch’s most acidic put downs as Dominic Cummings. As Farage delivers a victory speech boasting of independence without a single shot being fired Cummings responds: “A single bullet was fired, you moronic little cunt.”

Little surprise Hollywood’s own Cumberbatch smashes it in this production, equal parts shining and abrasive like wet and dry paper. Cummings agreed to cooperate with The Uncivil War on the same day Benedict was cast, and as a result the pair stayed up until 3am at Dominic’s house eating falafel, according to Graham.

The writer says he was shocked at reports in the build up to release that Cumberbatch was unhappy with the sympathetic portrayal of the Leave chief: “I saw that story as well and I was completely baffled that an actor would want their character to be less sympathetic.

“Anyone who knows anything about acting knows that you can’t inhabit a role unless you can empathise with them, and that was Benedict’s chief obsession.

“That’s why Dominic was very gracious with inviting Benedict into his home.

“Because Benedict wanted to understand someone who he politically disagrees with, he’s very open about that, but wants to empathise with.”

It’s impossible to argue Cumberbatch is unsuccessful in that endeavour. His performance will likely appal metropolitan liberals convinced of their sanctity and Brexit’s depravity in equal measure. Graham is well aware of viewers’ emotions towards Cummings. “Will anyone be able to watch this entirely neutrally? The answer of course is no.”

“I’m quite pleased so far that some people who think I treated Dom like a hero or like an anti-christ have no idea which one is true. We all come to it with our own baggage, and that is entirely expected and entirely right.”

Beyond Dr Strange, other aspects of The Uncivil War also hint at Hollywood. Cummings’ first meeting with the tech firm behind his microtargeted advertising and data harvesting takes place in on a bench in Regent’s park. There, Zack Massingham tells him “money is one thing, data is power.” When his AggregateIQ team turn up at Vote Leave HQ one of Massingham’s staff is doing his very best Steve Jobs impression in black roll neck and thin frame glasses.

And a pint shared between the rival campaign managers, Cummings and head of communications at Downing Street Craig Oliver, played by Rory Kinnear, is described as “Heat for policy wonks” by Graham. The eagle-eyed will notice that the same ketchup bottle adorns the table between Kinnear and Cumberbatch as does Pacino and De Niro.

One of Oliver’s opening lines quips “Dominic Cummings is basically mental” and later, evoking quite a bit of pathos, Cummings asks his wife “why don’t people like me?” But it’s over that pint British political discourse gets its treatment.

Cummings: “There’s a new politics in town and one you won’t be able to control.”

Oliver: “Be careful what you wish for. You won’t be able to control it either.”

From pub focus groups, joyous banter to the first murder of a sitting MP for decades, Benedict Cumberbatch’s new Brexit drama gets it spectacularly right. It airs on Channel 4 at 9pm on Monday.