James Graham’s dramatised version of the Vote Leave campaign from its genesis up to the date of the Brexit Referendum managed to, predictably, upset both sides. Based on real events, the show promised a “controversial and witty” account of how Vote Leave won. Taking the mickey out of Brexit as a momentary distraction from wailing about it? That’s very much my lane, so I did what any good Pajiban would do: I poured myself a glass of wine, braced myself for rage fits and went in.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dominic Cummings, the strategist at the helm of the official Vote Leave campaign. To his allies, he’s an “attack dog”. To the old school Tories on the board, he’s a “geeky anarchist”. His opponents label him “basically mental… an egotist with a wrecking ball,” spouting “pseudo-intellectual bullshit”. It’s reported that David Cameron sees him as a “career sociopath”.
Cummings sees himself as a maverick genius among sheep, bullying and manipulating the MPs he’s forced to work with. He’s a terrible cross between the sociopathic Sherlock and a Machiavellian stock character; he views anyone who gets in his way with contempt and without any pangs of conscience. His ‘special insight’ into ‘the people’ manifests like some sort of Mutiny Tinnitus (Mutinnitus?); only he can hear the background hum of rising anger and despair. What will he do with his special talent? Listen and fix the problems? No, his instinct is to weaponise it in order to win. His special mind palace is a broom cupboard, and he likes to write on the walls (because mavericks don’t use paper, it slows them down.) While all the other players on the Leave side are presented as oafish caricatures, Cummings struts around, master of chaos, just one whisker shy of a villain’s evil laugh. But as Craig Oliver — the leader of the official Remain campaign (played by Rory Kinnear) — reminds us:
“He’s not the Messiah; he’s a very naughty…fucking arsehole.”
This would have been a very different show if it had focused on Kinnear’s character; there would have been a much simpler dynamic between the two. But James Graham’s centering of Cummings in the narrative attempts to present him as more of an anti-hero than a straightforward antagonist, and that’s where the show didn’t quite land. Everything focuses on Cummings; everyone else is relegated to the sidelines, even when this serves to underestimate the myriad legal issues with the Leave side.
For instance, Arron Banks and Nigel Farage exist for comic relief, gurning and guffawing around while no-one wants anything to do with them. Vote Leave want to try to run a ‘respectable’ campaign, and are (mostly) happy to let Banks and Farage stir up the UKIP voters, doing the ‘heavy lifting’ on ‘tricky’ issues like immigration. They are blunt instruments, whilst Cummings is the mastermind for bringing in AggregateIQ to drum up 3 million new voters and feed millions more a steady diet of targeted advertising that would fly under the radar of those metropolitan elites in the press and over at Remain HQ. He’s smarter than them, right? He even calls Farage a “moronic little c*nt” at the end. Except — as the post-script notes — Leave.EU, Banks’ and Farage’s unofficial campaign, did the same thing with Cambridge Analytica. So, not that different after all, eh?
Cummings’ star power comes in the form of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Johnson is played by Richard Goulding, aka Prince Harry from The Windsors; he gets the voice and the ursine gait right, plus there’s a terrible moppy wig to top it off. Gove’s weak-chinned slitheriness is conveyed well by Oliver Maltman. Together they form a hideous double act — and yet, they too are puppets in Graham’s narrative, blindly dancing to Cummings’ tune. It’s momentarily amusing, and certainly not flattering, but it also absolves them of any responsibility for their actions. And this was an aspect of the show that really stung; people like Banks and Farage are dangerous, racist arseholes, not just bumbling numpties. Johnson and Gove made a play for power; they weren’t just helpless wide-eyed morons led astray by that mean boy over there. Mummy! He made me do a bad thing! Where there’s credit, there is also blame; they shouldn’t dodge either.
Over at Remain HQ, Graham paints a picture of a cross-party alliance gradually transitioning from hubris to despair, shouldering the responsibility for telling the truth whilst desperate not to fall into defensive campaigning in response to all of the lies flying out of the Leave side. For Cummings’ lot, the truth is an afterthought; what matters is winning. Who cares if Turkey aren’t going to join the EU? Who cares if the bus is wrong? They play to perceptions not reality, leaving Remain putting out fires and unable to counter incessant propaganda that they cannot see. Graham uses a focus group to showcase the different ‘takes’ on the issue, according to Remain, and this device works as a microcosm through the second half of the show. The arguments start out relatively polite but soon descend into terrible vox pops — Oh God, I hate vox pops — which even Oliver can’t stand for too long before marching in to try and re-direct. But it’s too late. Towards the end of the second hour, one of the possibly persuadable voters has broken down into furious tears, and Oliver realises that the battle is lost. One campaign cannot possibly counter years of the “drip drip drip of fear and hate”.
This leads to the climactic moment of the episode — not the result itself, but a confrontation between Oliver and Cummings, over drinks at the pub, where Oliver finally gets to air his disgust at what Cummings has done. When the results come in, Oliver throws up. His team cry. Even Cummings looks a little broken. Boris is clearly shitting himself. They know that they have unleashed a monster.
And that’s exactly what they did. When Zack from AggregateIQ did his sales pitch to Cummings, he admitted that their algorithms had yet to be tested on a large scale. Brexit was a trial; we all know what came next…
Apart from real-footage montages set to nightmarish renditions of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia’, the biggest names of Brexit (then and now) barely appeared in the show. May and Corbyn were almost cameos. Jo Cox’s murder was included sensitively, though the racist motivations of the murder were glossed over, and the murderer’s reference to ‘Britain First’ was never mentioned. The role that Russian interference played wasn’t mentioned directly, nor were the other legal issues with the Leave side, apart from a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ shot of some young people wearing ‘Be Leave’ T shirts. There were gaps in this narrative, gaps that ironically reflected the “half truths” and “easy answers” of the Vote Leave campaign itself.
What’s the message that we’re left with? Deleting Facebook might be a start. Despairing at the world (and wondering how the hell decency and truth will ever win again) comes a close second. Are Leavers meant to look back and realise they were sold a myth by a Machiavel? Because that’s not likely. Maybe it’s about the perils of serving up fish fingers, mash and peas to kids while taking a conference call from the Prime Minister, but that’s probably a little niche. Brexit is a messy business, so a messy message is fitting, but it feels more like Graham didn’t quite stick the landing. Comedy can be great at undermining power, but like Baldwin’s Trump impression, when reality is so horrendous, what’s left for the satirist?
Why isn’t there a W1A spin-off on Brexit? I would very much like to see Hugh Bonneville’s Ian Fletcher chairing some painful strategy meetings.
Cumberbatch’s wandering accent was distracting (though having never listened to the real Cummings, it might be an accurate impression). That really was a terrible wig as well.
Simon Paisley Day’s impression of Douglas Carswell was a little cruel, but it still made me laugh…
David Cameron’s joke about how the United Kingdom would fall to pieces if Leave won was definitely “too soon.”
All the in-fighting between different campaign groups on the Leave side had more than a slight whiff of the ‘Judean People’s Front’ about it.
Did Graham fall into the trap of becoming enthralled by his subject? Framing the show is a hearing, where Cummings has been called upon to explain himself. This hasn’t happened (yet) — it was added by Graham to give us a sense of resolution. Does Cummings regret it? Doesn’t seem like it. He blames the politicians for ruining what Brexit could have been, and knocks over a chair on his way out. The post-script is chilling: “Dominic Cummings delivered an estimated one billion targeted adverts to voters through AggregateIQ in the lead up to the referendum.” What’s not clear is whether Graham wants us to just be disgusted, or also a little bit impressed.
Maybe Cummings had it right within the first few minutes:
“Yeah, it’s fucked. We’re all fucked.”
Header Image Source: Channel 4