A Bene­dic­tion for the Brex­iters

The Cum­ber­batch treat­ment brought starry lus­tre to James Gra­ham’s fine ref­er­en­dum drama, while Martin Clunes was grip­ping as a bor­ing cop

The Observer - The New Review - - Television - Euan Fer­gu­son

Brexit: The Un­civil War Chan­nel 4 Man­hunt ITV Silent Wit­ness BBC One Catas­tro­phe Chan­nel 4 Two Doors Down BBC Two

Not quite two weeks into the new year, and al­ready some­thing’s split the na­tion, al­though even I didn’t fully ex­pect it to be a TV pro­gramme. Sel­dom in the last twelve­month can a drama have pro­voked so many col­umn inches, an­gry tweets and self-sat­is­fied it’s-my-bub­ble, you-don’t-know-moron-nuthin’ ar­gu­ments as Brexit: The Un­civil War, Chan­nel 4’s early tri­umph of 2019.

The re­ac­tive camps have, with de­press­ing inevitabil­ity, dropped into pre­dictable fox­holes: the Re­main­ers tend to think that too lit­tle was made of the proven il­le­gal­ity of the main Leave cam­paigns, and the Ag­gre­gateIQ/ Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica stuff; the Leavers that strate­gist Do­minic Cum­mings was el­e­vated to near­saint­hood, while the stoic longterm Brex­iters and their loyal foot sol­diers given a rough ride.

Let them, both, gurn away (and they surely will). For me, the key word was “drama”, and James Gra­ham gave us a crack­ing one, con­cen­trat­ing not on minu­tiae but on over­ar­ch­ing truths, wher­ever he could find them, as a play­wright surely should. And he did take care to source much im­pec­ca­bly: con­sul­tants to the pro­gramme in­cluded Tim Ship­man, Sun­day Times journo and au­thor of the mag­is­te­rial All Out War, and Leave co-strate­gist Matthew El­liott, but Gra­ham’s skill lies in his abil­ity to con­dense. At one stage a full-fat chunk of Ship­man’s (688-page) book was art­fully pre­cis-ed into a teensy con­fer­ence call be­tween Cameron and Man­del­son as Re­main strate­gist Craig Oliver, won­der­fully dead­panned here in all his woe­fully af­fa­ble com­pla­cence by Greg Kin­n­ear, strug­gled not to drop his phone into his kids’ food.

Gra­ham chose, rightly, to make Cum­mings the fo­cus, as the caus­tic out­sider mav­er­ick who (like the play­wright, in turn) man­aged to grasp the big pic­ture. How Europe had be­come an amor­phous cypher for “all the lit­tle re­sent­ments” that had been bub­bling in the coun­try for the past two decades; how eco­nomic ar­gu­ments would al­ways fail in ar­eas al­ready laugh­ingly blighted: and doesn’t it all seem so blind­ingly ob­vi­ous in hind­sight. How to leave the “heavy lift­ing” on im­mi­gra­tion to the loonies and the fruit­cakes. I cher­ished the por­trayal of Ar­ron Banks and Nigel Farage not as the beloved “bad boys of Brexit”, but the faintly pa­thetic ugly sis­ters, at one point left sit­ting rather too plumply close to each other as the lights went out.

If there was any slight prob­lem it was that Cum­mings was por­trayed, and with sub­tle magic, by Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch. No mat­ter how much you make him look dwee­bish, an an­gry clever pol­icy wonk with a com­bover, he’s still Cum­ber­batch, and Cum­ber­batch will al­ways be Sher­lock – ever the ge­nius-sa­vant be­both­ered by mere mor­tals. The one wholly imag­ined scene here, the Cum­mings-Oliver get-to­gether in a random Moor­gate pub, was per­haps meant to con­jure Pa­cino and De Niro in Heat: in­stead it was as if Holmes and Wat­son had fallen out rather badly. But Cum­ber­batch, brave soul (not least for be­fore­hand meet­ing Cum­mings, strate­gist of all the ac­tor holds toxic), ex­celled, and this was pow­er­ful drama in the end. Drama, re­mem­ber; it’s what they do.

Can we learn any­thing from it? Yes, and yes. That Brexit need not be a bore: there’s also Jonathan Coe’s Mid­dle Bri­tain which, while more ele­giac, win­some, is also shot through with com­edy: I would dearly love to see that tele­vised soon. That eco­nomic ar­gu­ments still can and bloody should fail in ar­eas al­ready screwed. That while drama can do the big­ger pic­ture, there’s also a need for ex­act­ing jour­nal­ism. The ques­tion of law break­ing in the cam­paigns doesn’t quite seem to pull enought trac­tion yet, as panic sets in, but I sus­pect our doughty Ca­role Cad­wal­ladr isn’t let­ting go any time soon.

Man­hunt, the retelling over a full three nights of the even­tual ar­rest of Levi Bell­field, se­rial killer of, among oth­ers, Milly Dowler, was a truly ab­sorb­ing watch. And a guilty one. I kept hav­ing to re­mind my­self that I was watch­ing not just a drama but the un­fold­ing of a true story – he also blud­geoned Mar­sha Mc­Don­nell, Amelie De­la­grange, be­cause he hated pretty young women. But the slow un­spool­ing of this tale, and the por­trayal of DCI Colin Sut­ton by Martin Clunes, as far from Luther as can be imag­ined, all dogged log­ging of CCTV, and re-gar­ner­ing of dull facts, and re-re-gar­ner­ing, and lengthy tri­an­gu­la­tions, and end­less, end­less dots and scrib­bles on maps, ut­terly fas­ci­nated. Clunes was, rightly, bor­ingly ter­rific. A mes­meris­ing tale, in our real times, from which a few drama­tists prone to ramp­ing up their li­cence could take note. The scene in which Clunes/Sut­ton apol­o­gised to the French par­ents rang wholly, pro­saically, true.

Talk­ing of… Silent Wit­ness re­turned for a can-you-be­lieve-it 22nd se­ries. I’ve al­ways counted this as a guilty plea­sure: now it’s got over its predilec­tion for send­ing the en­tire team abroad to solve mass mur­ders, pan­demic out­breaks, as­sas­si­na­tions of JFK etc, and re­mem­bered that they are meant to be a mere gag­gle of do­mes­tic foren­sic pathol­o­gists with a small if lu­cra­tive Home Of­fice con­tract, it is be­com­ing a gen­uine plea­sure. This opener fea­tured a trans­gen­der killing, and was han­dled with quite some aplomb and em­pa­thy. Also: think they’ve got the team about bang-right now; long may they cock their heads at blood splat­ter.

And so to the fourth (and – sad face – fi­nal) se­ries of Catas­tro­phe. Rob (De­laney) is in a neck brace and an Al­co­holics Anony­mous pro­gramme and an en­forced char­ity shop job. Cue near-knuckle (but per­fectly judged, a truly fine act) ob­ser­va­tions on cere­bral palsy. Sharon Hor­gan’s smartly pissed off, smartly re­sent­ing him, smartly lov­ing him. De­spite. And if you ever need a faintly filthy and bang on-the-money joke about Ra­dio­head to perk up a self-help ses­sion – let’s face it, who hasn’t? – the ter­rific Julie Hes­mond­halgh is just yer lass for it: a wel­come, dippy, ad­di­tion to this achingly hu­man, filthily hu­man, com­edy. We will so miss it.

A grand re­turn, too, for Two Doors Down, and Chris­tine, the peer­less Elaine C Smith, had made a tri­fle for Eric and Beth’s 30th an­niver­sary. She had toyed, though not that hard, with thoughts of a gift. “Some porce­lain… a voucher? But then I went into my cup­board. I saw the four tins of fruit cock­tail. And ah just thought: fuck it. Tri­fle it is!” It is a… de­cent enough… tri­fle, the gloss on which is only mildly spoilt by Chris­tine’s rare sotto voce warn­ing. “Don’t take too long. Cos tech­ni­cally that cream needs to be used by mid­night…”

Ev­ery piece of Scot­tish­ness, beloved or nau­se­at­ing (Doon Mac­kichan’s mon­strously indis­creet Cathy) is here, and bal­ances Rob and Sharon’s Lon­don with per­fec­tion. These are good and wise lands, over­all. And then you re­mem­ber…

No mat­ter how much you make him look dwee­bish, he’s still Sher­lock, the ge­nius sa­vant

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch as ‘caus­tic mav­er­ick’ Do­minic Cum­mings in Brexit: The Un­civil War. Nick Wall/Chan­nel 4

Left from top: a ‘dogged’ Martin Clunes in Man­hunt; Sharon Hor­gan and Rob De­laney in the ‘filthily hu­man’ Catas­tro­phe.

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