Mark Lawson hears how James Graham aims to make sense of our divided nation in Brexit: The Uncivil War.
My interview with dramatist James Graham regarding his Channel 4 drama Brexit: The Uncivil War takes place slightly later than planned for an appropriate reason.
We have both been transfixed by coverage on the BBC Parliament channel of Theresa May suffering three Commons defeats in close succession at the start of the debate on her EU withdrawal deal.
One mark of a distinctive playwright is that life starts to feel like their scripts. And the events in Westminster resemble a scene from Graham’s 2012 hit stage play, This House, concerning the fall of the Labour minority government of 1976-79.
That success made Graham the go-to fictional chronicler of British politics. It led to further stage plays, including Labour of Love (2017), the story of a centrist Labour MP who falls in love with a Corbynista assistant. It also set up Channel 4’s 2015 drama Coalition.
This RTS Single Drama award winner foregrounded the power-sharing negotiations, in 2010, between Bertie Carvel’s Nick Clegg and Mark Dexter’s David Cameron.
As Cameron is now thought by some only to have promised the EU referendum in the belief that it would never happen (because he expected to lose the 2015 election or enter another coalition with Clegg, who would have blocked a plebiscite on Europe), there is a link between Coalition and Brexit: The Uncivil War, which seems certain to be one of the first TV hits of 2019.
And, as Graham also dramatised the 2015 election in The Vote (a Donmar Warehouse stage play screened live on More4 on polling night), I suggest to him that he now has an accidental trilogy, dramatising all the major political events of this decade.
“Yes,” agrees the 36-year-old who comes from Mansfield.
“Although my feeling is that it won’t stop at a trilogy. It will be an anthology that will never stop. Without sounding too worthy or romantic about the role of culture in these unprecedented, chaotic times, I think, alongside journalism and political debate online, drama needs to insert itself into these events – to consider them on a narrative, dramatic, character level.
“There are clearly such divisions – and it’s so toxic – that storytelling needs to come into this space to try to give some sense of what’s going on.”
At the start of Graham’s career, it was common for producers in theatre and TV to say that politics was boring. “Yeah. I sort of miss ‘boring’ politics. I really do. But I don’t think it was ever true. When TV commissioning editors said there was no audience for politics, I never believed them.
"I think there’s a difference between people being disillusioned by politics and uninterested. I don’t think that most people are uninterested. The great surprise of my – and my colleagues’ – creative life was that This House found not just an audience at the National Theatre, but that it went on to find one in the West End and on tour over the past five years.
“So there is an appetite for stories about the political condition – to be entertained by it, horrified by it, and informed by it.”
While Graham will doubtless, eventually, write – for stage or TV or both – That House, about the parliamentary debate over Brexit, he has no worries about Brexit: The Uncivil War now seeming dated, in focusing on the fight between the Leave and Remain teams in 2016.
“The reason we go back to the very recent past is to make sense of where we are now and where we are going,” he says. Watching the “chaos and carnage” of the parliamentary debates on May’s deal was, for Graham, a “reminder of the validity of exploring the origins of some of the actions that are now having consequences”.
With calls for a second referendum growing louder at the time we speak, he also feels that “if we’re going to do it again, then, Jesus Christ, we need to learn the lessons of the last one”.
Brexit: The Uncivil War is based on two books on the referendum: All Out War, by Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman, and Unleashing Demons by Craig Oliver, who was Cameron’s director of communications.
Whereas, in Coalition, the main characters were well-known public figures (Paddy Ashdown reportedly complained that he was played by an actor who looked too old), in Brexit, they are largely the unknown puppet-masters.
Rory Kinnear plays Oliver, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, the eccentric and contentious visionary who ran the main Leave campaign.
“The main characters were unknown to me before I started work on it,” admits Graham. “It’s a great privilege as a writer to be able to pull back the curtain and see all these invisible people pulling levers. We’re very familiar with the public-facing politicians, the Michael Goves and Boris Johnsons.
“But Johnson didn’t come up with the £350m a week for the NHS claim that was on the side of the bus. Michael Gove didn’t design the targeted advertising that appeared on people’s Facebook feeds. This drama is about the people who did.”
Graham’s policy with his biographical dramas is to seek to speak to the living participants in the events. For the stage play Ink (2017) – about Rupert Murdoch’s 1969 recreation of the Sun as a Tory, breast-baring tabloid – he even requested an interview with the elusive tycoon.
He refused but eventually came to see one of the final West End performances, meeting the cast and writer afterwards. “It was a slightly surreal moment,” Graham recalls. “It’s a bit of a blur because I couldn’t really believe he was there in front of me. He was very engaging and asked lots of questions about who I spoke to.
He was very keen on a sequence that showed the old ‘hot metal’ method of printing newspapers. He spoke about his memories of the romance of that.”
For Brexit, Graham spoke at length to Oliver and Cummings.
"For whatever reason, people seem happy to meet playwrights and talk to them in a different way than they would to journalists.
"I'm not going to lie: Dominic Cummings had a lot of questions about engaging at first, realising that something like this had the potential to be a sticth-up.
So he met me a couple of times and spent time with Benedict."
After the research process, Graham begins by reducing the story to its essentials: “I’m a great believer in applying to the random sprawling mess of history quite a rigid, traditional structure. I often ask myself, if this were a Pixar movie, what would the Pixar version be?
“Or, in the musical version, what would the second song be? And, once you apply those principles to it, you start to tame the mass of information and make sense of it. But, once you’ve done that, you can be inventive and playful with the form or whatever. But you have to get the story straight first.”
Theatres have no statutory obligation of impartiality, and biographical dramas for that medium also benefit, Graham thinks, from the fact that “stage plays have an abstraction and sense of illusion that encourage viewers not to think they are seeing reality."
But, he acknowledges, “TV is a much more literal medium, and that comes with responsibilities. Especially with something as recent and controversial as Brexit. So, yes, I do think that you have to apply different standards to the representation of real people on television than you would on stage.”
"I really enjoy the part of writing that is to play devil’s advocate with your own possible prejudices"
Because of internal and external codes of conduct, TV editorial and legal departments carefully scrutinise bias, accuracy, libel, and privacy.
“I found it really hard to tread that line of impartiality,” Graham says. “I sought advice constantly from colleagues. But I really enjoy the part of writing that is to play devil’s advocate with your own possible prejudices.”
Across his work for stage and screen, Graham's reputation is for being even-handed. Is that a result of temperament or policy? “It was a very conscious decision. I’m not dogmatic about it. I think that there should be different approaches: TV can sustain work that is polemical or didactic.
“But, for me, I just find it dramatically inert to come down explicitly on one side. Especially with Brexit – which is pretty much 50-50 in the country, whatever people in the media industries might have thought – you want people to access the work without feeling pre-judged.
“But I think that, while doing that, you can still pursue an argument, which isn’t tribal or Leave/Remain. And, in this case, the question for me is how healthy this referendum was: did we rise to the occasion and present the best version of ourselves?
“I don’t think anyone believes that we did. I think it was an awful campaign – on all sides – politics at its lowest.”
Because those behaving (allegedly) lowly do not always see it that way themselves, Graham also admits that he has “spoken to so many lawyers. I don’t want to sound accidentally cavalier or boastful about it.
"But I genuinely think that, if I wrote something like this, and I wasn’t immediately phoned by a cabal of worried lawyers, then I wouldn’t have done my job.
“The scripts came back marked: ‘What’s your source for this?’, ‘Can we say this?’ And that’s great. And exciting. Because a piece like this should feel dangerous.”
Brexit begins with the standard disclaimer that some scenes and dialogue have been created for dramatic purposes.
“My general rule,” Graham says, “is that, if someone is standing in front of a microphone or a dispatch box, they have to say as near as dammit what they really said. But, once they’re behind closed doors, they’re mine.
“And I think audiences are familiar with that convention: the joy of shows such as The Crown is that the audience enjoys being taken into the private world while being aware that they are watching a fictionalisation.
“We know that, at the end of each episode of The Crown, people jump on to Wikipedia and ask: ‘Is that true?’ I’d like that to happen with Brexit. It should be a primer.”
For me, Peter Morgan, screenwriter of The Crown, takes more liberties with history than Graham does, but the younger dramatist’s response to this suggestion allows Morgan the excuse of dealing with duller material: “Well, with Brexit, why make anything up, because the reality is so extraordinary?”
The liberties Graham took in Brexit extended to telescoping four meetings into one, or putting in the room someone who was, in reality, on the phone from a train.
He also created a framing device in which Cummings is interviewed by a Hutton- or Leveson-like inquiry into the conduct and funding of the referendum campaigns; there has never been such an inquiry, although some have called for one.
A striking aspect of recent TV drama has been the recruitment of theatre writers: Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster, Press), Jack Thorne (This is England, National Treasure) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag, Killing Eve) were all to be found alongside Graham in the theatre listings at the time he started writing.
“We’re in a very exciting time,” says Graham. “I remember a view among playwrights – which, in my view, was unfair and unfounded – that television was a lesser art form than theatre. And broadcasters were sometimes reluctant to employ theatre writers.
“But those two perceptions have now gone. If you look at Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve, it’s so extraordinary and authored. I don’t know how they write the hours they do. I’m in awe of the amount that Mike Bartlett and Jack Thorne write for TV. I write a single film and then have to lie down.”
He loves television, though, having grown up watching “that ITV/Granada tradition of muscular northern drama – Cracker, Band of Gold. Also, anything by Sally Wainwright, Alan Bleasdale, Paul Abbott – dramas that put the human at the heart of the story but were set against very real, urgent socio-political background. I loved that contest of the political and the personal.”
He hopes to continue the screen story that begins with Brexit: The Uncivil War. “I already have the next three or four films in my head, and would love to do them.”
Brexit: The Uncivil War airs on Monday 7 January at 9pm on Channel 4