Features Published 12 January 2019

James Graham and The Uncivil War

Playwright James Graham's Brexit telly drama was met with a storm of media fury. Here's Fergus Morgan on what it says about our expectations of drama on TV.
Fergus Morgan

A scene from ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’

Hands up – who watched Brexit: The Uncivil War? On Monday night, James Graham’s long-awaited dramatisation of the Brexit campaigns was finally broadcast on Channel 4, and promptly sparked a ceaseless torrent of reviews and write-ups, thinkpieces and hot takes, ranging from the raving to the raging.

Just like the thing itself, a drama about Brexit seems to ignite furious responses on all sides of the political spectrum, and just like the thing itself, no-one seems to know quite what to make of it.

There are reasons for that. Firstly, and most obviously, it’s because Graham chose to take on the single most divisive political issue of our time. Brexit, as you won’t need reminding, is a Spaghetti Junction crossed with a hornets’ nest crossed with a Gordian knot, and the public debate that surrounds it a festering sewer of accusations and anger.

Just as everyone wants something different from Brexit, everyone wants something different from a Brexit drama: a Brexit drama that focuses on Leave, a Brexit drama that focuses on Remain, a Brexit drama that flags up all the electoral rule-breaking, a Brexit drama that is 100% factually accurate, a Brexit drama with a Northern Ireland backstop. Hence we get complaints that Graham was too pro-Remain, too pro-Leave, too kind on his characters, too cruel to his characters, too carefree with the truth, too close to the truth.

But beyond that, I think the confusion and consternation that Brexit: The Uncivil War provoked actually has a lot to do with what we expect from political drama on television, and what we expect from drama on television in general.

Box-sets, we’re constantly told, are the medium of the twenty-first century; we no longer ask each other what book we’re reading, we ask what TV show we’re bingeing instead. We’re used to hour-long episodes and multi-stranded plots. To a certain style of dialogue, where every scene ends with a cliffhanger, and to a certain style of cinematography that is pure bait.

What have been the biggest political TV shows of recent years? House Of Cards, The West Wing, Designated Survivor, The Crown, arguably. All of these shows share those box-set characteristics. They and their success has helped define them, in fact. And on top of that, they all deal with events that are either entirely fictional, or long buried in the past – and thus fair game for fictionalisation.

What we’re not used to seeing is what Brexit: The Uncivil War provided. An unapologetically theatrical dramatisation of contemporary political events, an attempt shape the narrative of current affairs, an attempt to write the history books as history is happening. Viewers weren’t used to that – it didn’t fit inside their conception of TV political drama – and the wildly varied responses are the result. They weren’t familiar with Graham’s signature style, so they railed against it.

Getting into James Graham is like getting into Bob Dylan. It’s simply a case of when, not if. For theatrical types, it probably happened quite a while ago. If you’re a really hardcore fanboy, you might’ve followed him since he populated the Finborough Theatre with short plays in the mid-noughties.

To my shame, I was comparatively late to the party, only turning up when his 1970s drama The Angry Brigade arrived at the Oxford Playhouse in 2014. I was a glory-hunter, in football-speak, jumping on a bandwagon that was already careering towards the premier league of playwriting.

James Graham’s strength – what makes him a great writer – is not his ability to craft characters, or write dialogue, or set scenes. It’s his ability to find the drama in ideological conflict, and to realise that with thrilling structural dexterity. He sees to the ethical epicentre of an issue – often categorising political change as old versus new, the exhilaration of innovation versus the impoverished status quo, rather than left versus right, or right versus wrong – and knows how to draw the disparate factors into an order that is both entertaining, exhilarating, and accessible.

And he often does it in unexpected ways: the battleground is never where you’d expect, the main characters often no more than background players in the actual event, footnotes in history. And often, those characters aren’t really reflections of real people, they’re symbols for those people’s political positions, cyphers for differing ideologies.

All of that was present in Brexit: The Uncivil War. Just as Graham chose to tell the story of Wilson’s 1970s government from the roiling underbelly of the Whips’ office in This House, he opted to tell the story of the EU referendum from the perspective of the Leave campaign’s chief strategist, Dominic Cummings.

And just as he used Major Charles Ingram’s fraudulent Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? win as a code for the greed and individualism unleashed by Thatcher, as a metaphorical windsock for signal change in society, he used Cummings’ innovative campaigning methodology to highlight the sea changes in politics we’re experiencing today. Just as he caricatured Rupert Murdoch to embody an ideology in Ink, he caricatured Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Arron Banks here.

What is most depressing about the responses to Graham’s drama, from those screamed out on Twitter to those dashed off by media commentators, is that so many of them don’t get any of this. That so many of them seem to fundamentally miss the point of what Graham is trying to do. That so many of them mistake Graham for a reporter rather than a writer, and his TV show a documentary rather than a drama. That so many of them brought so many prejudices and preconceptions with them, about Brexit and about political drama on television, that they were only ever going to be outraged. That so many of them can’t find it within them to trust a writer, even if it’s only for an hour or two.

Seriously: only a fool would mistake Graham’s depiction of Cummings as anything other than a dramatic tool, only a fool would think that his caricatures of Johnson, Gove, Farage et al was supposed to be anything remotely resembling faithfulness, and only a fool would think his drama was attempting to hoodwink people into swallowing a rewritten version of history. He’s trying to do what he’s always tried to do. To fiddle and fictionalise the world around him to drive at something deeper. To discard the truth, in search of the truth. To make people think about the world around them.

We’ve seen similar episodes to this before, not so long ago – perhaps not ones that have ignited quite such incendiary hot takes, but comparable ones. In 2017, the BBC aired a TV adaptation of Mike Bartlett’s Olivier-winning play King Charles III. The stage version at the Almeida, we can all agree, was an absolute belter – a verse play, set in the future, about a constitutional crisis centring on our future monarch. It felt immediate and intelligent.

But something was lost in its transition from stage to screen – the universal acclaim it received in theatre reviews, gave way to lukewarm confusion in the TV ones (you have to cut through the crap spouted out by frothing-at-the-mouth royalists to find it, but find it you can). The verse felt out-of-place, the drama felt contrived, the performances too big, and the intense sense of insight that it delivered in the theatre ebbed away. It was squeezed into a box we had made for it, and it didn’t fit.

Sadly, something similar seems to have happened with Graham. His first foray into television has been clouded and confused by ire and irritation. What can be done to stop something similar happening in the future? Well, it would help if our expectations of what makes for challenging, politically engaged drama on TV weren’t so rigidly defined. It would help if journalists took the time to research what they were writing about before delivering their hackneyed hot take. It would help if we weren’t all so fucking angry all the time. And – we get there eventually – it would help if more people went to the theatre, and were used to leaving their preconceptions at the door.

Going to the theatre doesn’t just introduce you to writers like Graham, or help their careers get off the ground: it broadens your mind, it makes you more patient with daring dramatists, it forces you to fully appreciate the effort and thought that has gone into producing a piece of art. In short, it allows you to understand drama and the ideas behind it better. It allows you to watch something like Brexit: The Uncivil War, and appreciate it on its own level. And it allows you to see Graham for what he is. A writer, not a reporter. And a bloody good one.


Fergus Morgan is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.