I haven’t enjoyed a TV drama (Brexit: The Uncivil War, Channel 4 January 7) so much since Killing Eve. But I’m not heartened by the reaction of many people, whose views about Brexit I share, who seem to feel The Uncivil War somehow let down our side, that it glamorised Brexit and concealed its darker truth. There are two pieces in today’s Guardian that convey this well, one by Lucy Mangan and the other by Carole Cadwalladr, talking to James Graham, the TV author.
It was good to see Lucy Mangan take up the Guardian’s TV slot, but here for once I think she misses the target. This is drama, not documentary. If you get upset that something is missed out, invented or distorted, imagine how archaeologists feel about Indiana Jones movies. Historical fiction has to work first as story, then as history. If it tries too much at the latter, it bores. If it succeeds at the former, you’re inspired to learn more (I now want to reread Tim Shipman’s books).
A lot of people seem to be upset that the Brexit campaign’s behaviour and morals were not properly exposed, some seeing the closing texts as a fudged attempt to retrieve credibility. It didn’t work like that for me at all. The insidious horror of what the leave campaign had unleashed, and the terrifying power of digital media that almost no one understood (witness that very clever thread of the transforming focus group) built steadily from the start. The great punches of Ludwig van reminded me of Clockwork Orange, a story of disconnected, amoral thugs taking a mallet to society (and was it coincidence that at their moment of joy, we got a brief burst of what sounded like Beethoven on a moog?).
It opened with a Kubrick nod, with Dominic Cummings facing a futuristic interrogation over what he’d done. Carole Cadwalladr (all respect) says she “completely missed” the fact that this scene was set in the future (when in fact it was clearly stated right at the start that it was set in 2020). That could stand as a symbol for how to get The Uncivil War wrong. By imagining the interrogation as part of the present drama, a viewer could rightly think it’s a sop that conceals the failure of authority to properly question Cummings, and suggests he has a valid defence for his campaign – it’s pro-Brexit. But it does the exact opposite. You see what you want to see.
Let’s be honest about this, and admit that reportage has not convinced most of the British public that Brexit – the idea, the campaign, the future impacts – is horrifically wrong. Let’s not begrudge a dramatist (gifted with some powerful actors and production teams) the opportunity to see if anything else can get the message across.