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About a month into the production of Brexit, HBO’s comedy-drama feature chronicling the anarchic and controversial 2016 political campaign that saw Britain vote to the leave the European Union, screenwriter James Graham posted a tweet.
“Please spare a thought for those of us already filming their Brexit TV drama,” it read. “Thanks.”
Graham was, of course, joking (he added “P.s we’re fine”), but the message — which landed in July amid yet another round of bitter infighting within the U.K.’s Conservative government over the terms of the departure deal — highlighted the intense difficulty of bringing to the screen a hugely contentious story that wasn’t simply evolving, but looked a lifetime away from ever being resolved.
“Coming from a playwright’s point of view you always aspire — although sometimes you fail — to write something that will be relevant in 10, 20, 30 years,” says Graham, no stranger to topical political themes (his Murdoch-focused drama Ink has just debuted on Broadway). “But none of us could have predicted how chaotic the aftermath would be.”
Directed by Toby Haynes (who helmed the Emmy-winning Black Mirror episode “USS Callister”), Brexit — a co-production of British network Channel 4 and HBO that premiered Jan. 7 in the U.K. as Brexit: The Uncivil War and bowed Jan. 17 in the U.S. — sees Benedict Cumberbatch don a balding wig and untucked shirt as Dominic Cummings, the Leave campaign’s largely unknown director. The film paints Cummings as the social-media-manipulating strategy mastermind lurking in the shadows behind such figures as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. Thanks to investigations by the U.K. press — including Channel 4 — much has been revealed about the tactics deployed by the campaign and its more prominent supporters, but during the film’s production this information was coming out almost drip by drip with each news report.
“Every day you’re going in and listening to the radio, and every channel had something to do with it,” says Haynes, who worked closely with Graham to help incorporate any updated pages of script the writer hastily prepared as events unfolded. “You’re completely surrounded, and people would be coming in and saying, ‘Do you know this happened?’ or ‘So-and-so has just said this.’ ”
Like most U.K. creatives, both Graham and Haynes (and Cumberbatch) were pro-Remain. With this in mind, they were careful in their approach, aiming to “not just be a bunch of leftie filmmakers making a big polemic about how bad Brexit is,” claims Haynes. Instead they opted to keep the film entertaining, grounding their narrative in the facts but ramping up comedy elements such as the “obvious buffoonery” and lack of seriousness of Farage and the Leave campaign’s financial backer Arron Banks.
But with the U.K. so divided — both then and now — on the subject of Brexit, whatever angle the filmmakers chose was inevitably going to ignite a few sticks of dynamite. This was highlighted several weeks after Graham’s tweet, when the contents of a leaked draft script sparked widespread outrage (even provoking a comment — “Bullshit” — from Steve Bannon, who has since been connected to Banks). “I still don’t know how or why that happened,” says Graham, who had to have his phoned checked and computer protected. “It was utterly surreal to see Steve Bannon feeding back on a script that you and a couple of other people were still playing around with.”
The level of scrutiny only intensified around the time of the January broadcasts. Peppering the solid reviews were some scathing attacks, with one U.K. critic describing Brexit as “superficial, irresponsible TV,” for its “cartoonish” depiction of Farage and company. Others questioned the appropriateness of making Brexit while the story was still unfolding. But Graham — who admits he’s never faced the same amount of interest over any of his previous works — is adamant about drama’s place in explaining current affairs.
“First off, Brexit will never be over. It’s going to go on for 10, 15, 20 years, and we have to start at some point,” he says. “And why does journalism get an exclusive monopoly over trying to make sense of the news? Of course things are going to change, and we’re going to learn more, but future generations can incorporate that and make their own version.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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