As it came to a close, it was undeniable that 2016 would take its place in the history books as one of those years where everything changed. One could almost picture the avalanche of historical dramas to come. One could already imagine someone in the year 2036 passing an advertisement and rolling their eyes: ‘Oh God, not another 2016 historical drama!’ However, at the time, no one would have guessed how quickly those 2016 dramas would arrive. Perhaps a reflection of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-the-latest-headline world we live in, TV seems to be aping modern news coverage, churning out retellings of breaking news stories just months after the real thing takes place. The Trump saga was retold just one year after it happened in Netflix’s Trump: An American Dream. And now, Brexit dramas are catching up, with Channel 4’s Brexit: the Uncivil War dropping last January.
Uncivil War is a historical drama by numbers; a script that presumably arrived with the words “just add Cumberbatch” printed on the front. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dominic Cummings, seemingly the mastermind behind Brexit. He and his fellow co-stars spend most of the show competing against one another in traditional Wimbledon-style dialogue, cutting each other off with increasingly loud, rapid-fire reposts. The rest of the time they’re delivering some truly out-of-place trailer-speak. One particular egregious example is a scene where Cummings and the head of a shady Cambridge-Analytica-type business discuss how social networking platforms can be used to reach potential leave voters. Where are they walking to in this scene? Are they just doing laps of the park? Scenery is thoroughly chewed in Uncivil War or to be more specific: the scenery is thoroughly scribbled on – this show loves people scribbling furiously on things. Uncivil War also sports a truly uncreative narrative device in the form of Cummings’ tinnitus. Throughout the show, Cummings is depicted as suffering from blinding headaches, a lazy metaphor for his ability to sense the festering Europhobia in the air.
But this is all beating around the bush, the show’s biggest flaw is that it’s basically just The Social Network. Honestly, the amount of things this show pulls from The Social Network is embarrassing: the framing device of our main character being deposed before flashing back to previous events; an angry nerdy main character with a superiority complex; an all-too-obvious over-exaggeration of the real story. Cummings is similarly depicted as the Mark Zuckerberg (or at least Zuckerberg as depicted in The Social Network) of Brexit, the man who saw all the pieces of the puzzle but unlike everyone else, actually knew how to put them all together. However, even a lazy rehashing of The Social Network could have been excused if it weren’t for the third act. Once this comes round, Cumberbatch is given almost no screen time at all, in what had, up to this point, appeared to be almost a biopic of his character.
Obviously, a two-hour historical drama is never going to be able to depict all of the important factors that led up to Brexit and so the question arises: why does Uncivil War even exist? Who is this show for? It’s not nearly expansive enough to please those interested in the Brexit saga. It’s not propaganda but it chooses to focus, arguably, on the less important elements of the story. It should have been a series, not a two-hour episode. It should have focused on the factors leading up to the vote, not the vote itself. It should have been archival footage and talking heads, not a drama bogged down by a main character that is dumped in Act 3.
Enter Inside Europe: Ten Years of Turmoil, the antithesis of Uncivil War, a three part BBC2 series comprising of just that: archival footage and talking heads. Each hour-long episode focuses on one international disaster over the past ten years of the EU’s history, starting, as is only right, with Brexit. Brook Lapping, the production company behind Inside Europe have a good track-record, having made Inside Obama’s White House. Their reputation was obviously strong enough that they were able to convince a truly impressive number of Europe’s most important head honchos to appear in the show.
Here, the viewer can actually trace some of the bigger threads that ultimately culminated in Brexit. We watch as David Cameron immediately ties himself in knots the moment he walks into Number 10, promising his back-benchers he won’t agree to any more interference from the EU. Then Cameron is too successful in the following general election, getting enough Tory seats to form a government without the help of the Lib-Dems -the only problem? Those Remainer Lib-Dems were replaced with Brexiteer Conservatives. And just when things couldn’t get any worse, the Migrant Crisis hits. Finally, we see a few flashing scenes of the red £350 million bus, a “breaking point” billboard and a smiling Boris Johnson. This montage takes all of five seconds. Unlike Uncivil War, Inside Europe knows the race was already well and truly run long before that bus pulled up and so it wastes no time discussing it.
They say history is written by the winners but here you have two dramatically different retellings of history, arguably both made by the losers. This is why shows like Uncivil War and Inside Europe make for such fascinating TV (even if the former isn’t in itself all that great a show). These shows are, in a way, rewriting and restructuring our history as it happens. This isn’t a World War II documentary. There’s no layer of time separating you from what you’re seeing. You’re watching the present being deconstructed and put back together before your eyes. A strange but welcome future for the modern historical drama and documentary.