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DEBORAH ROSS: Brexit: The Uncivil War was highly entertaining

DEBORAH ROSS: Brilliant Benedict, the cure for Brexhaustion

Brexit: The Uncivil War

Monday, Channel 4 


Cleaning Up

Wednesday, ITV


Brexit: The Uncivil War was a drama written by James Graham, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, who masterminded the Vote Leave campaign. And if you thought you’d had it with Brexit, couldn’t bear to hear another word about Brexit, were suffering from Brexhaustion, this may have proved a shock as it was so highly entertaining. It was painful too (very) but the storytelling zipped along in a way that had to take you with it. Naturally, it has already divided opinion. Too sympathetic to Cummings, say Remainers. We’re not just manipulated fools, say Leavers. It does make you wonder if there is anything left that won’t polarise this country, and just so we are clear: I always put the milk in first. 

Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War. Cummings was a maverick, certainly. He liked to work from a cleaning cupboard. He didn’t suffer fools gladly

Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War. Cummings was a maverick, certainly. He liked to work from a cleaning cupboard. He didn’t suffer fools gladly

Cumberbatch brought his usual flair, wit and intelligence to Cummings, previously a special adviser to Michael Gove, and who would only agree to lead Vote Leave if he was allowed to do it his way. He was sold to the campaign as a ‘maverick genius’, although Craig Oliver (a superb Rory Kinnear), leader of the opposing Remain campaign, begged to differ: ‘He’s mental – an egotistical wrecking ball.’ Either way, Cummings was in possession of a key insight: Britain was already divided and Leave could win if they tapped into the simmering rage of those who weren’t thriving and whom the political classes ignored. Let them think Europe is to blame was his strategy, essentially, and while we all kind of knew that, it was riveting seeing it laid out. 

Cummings was a maverick, certainly. He liked to work from a cleaning cupboard. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, as he didn’t suffer anyone gladly. He was Sherlockian, scribbling madly over whiteboards until reaching one of his many eureka moments. The ‘Take Back Control’ slogan was his idea, as was that bus delivering the untrue claim that if we left Europe it would release £350 million a week for the NHS. He despised mainstream politicians with their leaflets and flyers and opted for a data-driven fight, sending around one billion highly targeted ads, mostly to those who had never voted before, dressed up as competitions. (Did anyone actually win that £50 million?) He also distanced Vote Leave from Arron Banks and ‘that other moron’ (Nigel Farage). Initially, he planned to let them do all the ‘dirty work’ around immigration but in the end he could not resist employing the further untrue claim that Turkey was about to join the EU and we’d soon be flooded by a fresh wave of immigrants. ‘£350 million and Turkey, £350 million and Turkey, £350 million and Turkey!’ was his mantra, the lying creep. (Oops. Sorry.) 

Meanwhile, Oliver, with his facts and focus groups was, you sensed, battling for what he believed in, but he’d lost touch with vast swathes of the electorate. The most devastating scene came when he joined a focus group and a woman broke down – ‘I am fed up of being treated as nothing!’ – and he realised it was too late. He had missed what this was about. Two hours could never have told the whole story, particularly as it was filmed before Vote Leave’s alleged criminality properly came into focus, but it did seem even-handed. Yes, Cummings may have been brilliant, but he also broke up the old order for the thrill of it, and the thrill of playing dirty rather than out of any moral purpose, while Remain were so convinced they knew what was best, they couldn’t conceive of the vote going any way other than their way. And now, after this highly entertaining interlude, it’s back to Brexhaustion, I suppose. Tell me: are the borders soft or hard today? Or soft until lunchtime, after which they’ll be hard again? I’ve totally lost track. 

ITV’s new drama series Cleaning Up stars Sheridan Smith, an actress who brings such warmth and relatability to a role that her name alone acts almost as a Kitemark of quality. It stars Sheridan Smith. It will be great. But, unusually, the character she plays here is annoying. 

She plays Sam, who works as a cleaner in one of those glittering Canary Wharf towers populated by rich traders. She is heavily in debt due to an online gambling habit. She prangs other cars while playing roulette on her phone, then drives off. She ejects her teenage daughter from her bedroom as they need to take in a lodger for the money. She builds up debts on her ex-husband’s credit card, which he has to pay off. I did want to root for her but at the same time I was thinking: love, can’t you please just take yourself to Gamblers Anonymous? 

Instead, and having overheard a trader talking late at night (bit unlikely), she hits on a way to solve all her financial problems: insider trading. This may build into a substantial thriller – it’s Sheridan Smith! – but it’s often clumsy (that scene that told us she’s good at maths) and it’s truly got its work cut out if it’s going to zip along in a way that takes us with it.