What’s trickier than Brexit? Writing a TV drama about it

Dramatists behind a Channel 4 film and two plays about the referendum must contend with the way ‘facts’ and key players are still shifting

It is the divisive issue that will come to define our age, so it’s no surprise that the country’s leading political dramatists are keen to tell the tale of Brexit and speculate on what it will mean. A slew of Brexit-themed dramas are in production this summer, and the writers behind these rival productions face difficulties that go beyond the problem of making the subject entertaining. They have to contend with the way the facts behind the referendum result, and the roles played by the key dramatis personae, keep changing.

The production with most at stake is a high-profile Channel 4 thriller, already at the filming stage, with the working title Brexit. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, the backroom strategist who is said to have shaped the referendum result with his use of personal online data.

“I’m obviously aware that there might be a level of scepticism in certain quarters about dramatising something so polarising and momentous,” said screenwriter James Graham this weekend.

Graham, already acclaimed for his political work on stage and television, including the plays This House and Labour of Love, added that he has based his account chiefly on two books: Tim Shipman’s All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class, and Craig Oliver’s Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit.

“I take seriously the responsibility of being one of the first out of the gates to represent that campaign and its impact,” said Graham. “But I feel confident that, with the access and information we have, this film will be both fair and accurate, while asking tough questions and calling the key figures to account.”

Two stage plays are also tackling the subject. One will concentrate on the Islington dinner party at which Johnson, then a backbench MP, made up his mind to back Brexit. Called The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson, it also features the current foreign secretary’s guests that night: Michael Gove, his wife, the columnist Sarah Vine, and media mogul Evgeny Lebedev. It will premiere at the Park theatre in north London next spring.

The second, more overtly comic, play, again called simply Brexit, is headed for Edinburgh’s Pleasance venue this August. Starring Timothy Bentinck, best-known for playing David in Radio 4’s The Archers, plus comedians Mike McShane, Jo Caulfield and Hal Cruttenden, it focuses on a fictional future Tory leader still attempting to close a Leave deal, and hold his party together.

Finally, there is a rumoured Hollywood version of Leave.EU founder Arron Banks’s diarised account of the campaign. It is claimed that his book, The Bad Boys of Brexit, is to be adapted as a six-part TV serial, told from the perspective of a US pollster advising the Leave campaign.

These competing dramatisations have all been written while key issues are still undecided. Not only are the broad terms under which Britain will leave the union unclear, but the Electoral Commission is still investigating whether Leave campaigners breached legal spending limits.

The C4 film, a 120-minute one-off, is due to be shown next March, as Britain leaves the EU, so must deal with the fact that a ruling on Cummings’s campaign techniques is still awaited. Last Thursday, Damian Collins MP, chairman of the digital, culture, media and sport committee, argued in the House of Commons that Cummings should be punished for “contempt” for refusing to appear before MPs. Cummings said he could not attend the committee on the dates suggested, and that there were “legal issues” because of the separate inquiry by the Electoral Commission.

“The drama depicts the events leading up to the vote, rather than what has taken place since,” said Graham, who also wrote Coalition, a 2015 Channel 4 docudrama about the aftermath of the 2010 British General Election. Along with studying Cummings’ own writings, the playwright added that he has based his script on “extensive media coverage, interviews and social media”. “But we have tried to infuse some of the recent revelations, impacts and outcomes into the fabric of the script to make it feel as pertinent and resonant as possible. I’ve also spoken to many key players on either side – including the strategists working on each campaign, and politicians.”

Among those interested to see how they are portrayed will be Banks, played by Outlander actor Lee Boardman, who is expected to be depicted cavorting drunkenly with Nigel Farage at his country house. And Labour Leave donor John Mills, played by Nicholas Day and thought to be shown attempting to sack Cummings. Richard Goulding is Johnson, Oliver Maltman is Gove and Paul Ryan is Farage.

A spokesperson from Channel 4 said it does not expect to legal complications to emerge over this “well-researched” drama. The author also said he has not yet “come under any personal pressure”, going on to point out that he is already battle-hardened by his recent dramatisation of the controversial newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch in his recent stage play, Ink.

Jonathan Maitland, writer of The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson, is also a veteran of political theatre, with a 2015 hit play Dead Sheep about Geoffrey Howe. He takes a different approach. “I’ve written about the past (2016) and the future (2030),” said Maitland, who researched the historical segment of his drama for a year. “Some facts are indisputable: there was that dinner at Boris Johnson’s in 2016. But when it comes to filling in the blanks, my rule is: can I in good conscience publicly defend and justify what I’ve written? Is it fair to show, for instance, Boris being substantially motivated by personal ambition throughout? Or was it all based on principle and altruism? I’ve gone for the former and if I get slagged off for it, I’ll happily take it on the chin.”

Maitland is also in the fortunate position of being able to alter his play as new information is unearthed. “James [Graham], talented though he is, can’t – as it will all be committed to film,” he said. “If it changes, they will have to bin it, or reshoot it.”

The writers of the Edinburgh-bound play, Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky, have perhaps found the place of greatest safety by setting their entire comic drama in the future. Opening in 2020, it chronicles the impossibility of finalising an EU deal as the British government fractures.

For all these writers, it seems, penning a play about Brexit in 2018 could prove almost as risky as negotiating the real thing.


Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Media Correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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