LONDON — If James Graham has learned one thing from writing his latest political drama, it is this: “Brexit sends reasonable people mad,” he said. “You are stepping into an arena where normal rules don’t apply.”
That drama, “Brexit: The Uncivil War,” a TV movie about the 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union, was broadcast in the country on Monday and debuts on HBO in the United States on Jan. 19. The show’s making was unusually fraught, plagued by the leaks, squabbles and contradictory briefings that also characterize British politics.
First, in July, an early draft of the script was leaked and commentators rushed to mock it and question its truthfulness. Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist and a vocal supporter of Brexit, weighed in, branding the unfinished work “a clown show” and “a comic-book fantasy.”
Then, in December, HBO shared a trailer for the movie, starring a balding Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, the director of the official “Leave” campaign. Uproar, once more.
“Everyone knows who won,” Cumberbatch says in the two-minute video. “But not everyone knows how.”
How is still a matter of controversy. In July, the Electoral Commission in Britain found that the “Leave” campaign, which won 52 percent to 48 percent, had broken the law by exceeding the campaign spending limit of 7 million pounds, or about $9 million at current exchange rates. The police are still assessing whether to start a criminal investigation. Carole Cadwalladr, a British journalist who has conducted extensive investigations into the finances of the “Leave” campaign, said on Twitter that HBO was “literally interfering in our criminal justice system.”
Others questioned the timing and legitimacy of a drama about a political event which is, to use TV parlance, still several months from its season finale. The reaction “shocked, surprised and scared me,” Graham said in an interview in London last month.
“On stage and screen, we’ve always responded to the political climate,” he said. “People saying Brexit is the exception, that it’s too complicated for culture to tackle and we should quarantine it off, is ludicrous and dangerous.”
Graham, 36, has been hailed as one of the most prominent British political dramatists of the age. His breakthrough came in 2012 with “This House,” an improbably entertaining play about the machinations of the British Parliament in 1974. He followed it with the TV drama “Coalition,” once again about political horse trading, and “The Vote,” a play that was broadcast live on TV on the night of Britain’s general election in 2015.
In 2017, his plays “Labour of Love,” a rom-com about the changing face of the Labour Party, and “Ink,” about the rise of Rupert Murdoch and the birth of the tabloid The Sun, ran in neighboring theaters in London’s West End. (“Ink” comes to Broadway this year.)
The playwright said he knew immediately after the 2016 referendum that he wanted to write something about it. “Something went wrong in that campaign,” he said. “It was an angry, shouty, violent, toxic, awful way to conduct politics.”
The first draft focused on David Cameron, the prime minister who called the referendum, but as Graham continued writing his interest was piqued by Cummings, who was a government adviser before he ran the “Leave” campaign. It was Cummings who came up with the slogan “Take Back Control,” a short phrase that neatly encapsulated the campaign’s central ideas of immigration, sovereignty and disruption, and that struck a chord with voters.
“In most satisfying dramas, the protagonist is the biggest agent of change, and that is Cummings.” Graham said. “He’s a classic disrupter in the Murdoch vein.”
The writer began to imagine Cummings’s story as a classic sports movie, in which an underdog snatches gold.
Cummings was a lone wolf in the corridors of power, a man once described by Cameron, the former prime minister, as a “career psychopath,” who liked to quote Thucydides and Otto von Bismarck. An eccentric hero for a drama, then, who as “Leave” campaign director would scrawl possible slogans directly onto walls and use a storage closet as a “thinking space.”
Cummings, who has refused media interviews since the referendum (including for this article), agreed to consult on the drama. Cumberbatch had dinner at Cummings’s North London home, where he ate vegan pie, drank red wine and beadily observed his subject’s mannerisms, according to an account of the evening by Cummings’s wife in the British newsmagazine The Spectator.
“I worked really hard on the physicality,” Cumberbatch said in an interview. “He has quite a louche, casual, relaxed demeanor. His temperature, his inner meter, is very measured, he’s very calm. That’s a difficult thing to get right.”
The movie ends with the referendum result, although that was only the beginning of the real Brexit drama. Even for the seasoned political playwright, writing about the referendum even as the aftermath was unfolding presented a particular challenge.
“You want to not just present the facts in the order that they happened, but to aspire to a different level of poetry and the state of the nation — so that it feels more than the sum of its parts,” Graham said. “It’s the first draft of history, really.”
“Brexit: The Uncivil War” is the first major film to be made about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Theater was much faster to respond. “My Country: A Work in Progress,” a play by Carol Ann Duffy based on interviews with voters, and “Albion” by Mike Bartlett, a more oblique drama about what it means to be British in the Brexit era, ran in London theaters in 2017.
But theater is a different proposition from television, and it is more able to take risks, Graham said. “It’s less of a literal medium, so people see it as a piece of art. On screen, the grammar and language tend toward a more documentary-drama feel, but it patronizes an audience if you think they don’t know what you’re doing.”
Graham was born in northern England, and voted in the referendum to remain the European Union. Around 70 percent of voters in the area where he grew up voted to leave. “If any of my ‘Leave’-voting friends felt persecuted, then we’ve totally failed,” he said of the show. “It would be devastating to me to produce something that only attracts metropolitan, elite, ‘Remain’ voters.”
The casting of Cumberbatch, a vocal supporter of the “Remain” campaign, was central to subverting expectations. The actor said he had “leaned in” to play someone who led the campaign to leave.
But putting Cumberbatch in the role of a leading “Leave” figure tipped the narrative balance in that campaign’s favor, according to Craig Oliver, an adviser to Cameron who also appears as a character in the movie.
“Focusing on an anti-establishment figure, played by a charismatic star is difficult,” he said in an interview. “Do you give that person a sense of weight, and virtue, simply because they are the protagonist?”
The writer said his “intention is always to play devil’s advocate with a liberal audience’s assumptions.” Indeed, if the movie has a message, it is that understanding another point of view can offer a route out of the intractable situation of British politics today.
“There is an empathy deficit in our politics,” Graham said. “And drama is uniquely placed in helping us view cold, heartless politics with a bit more heart.”
That may take more than one movie, however.