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
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.