LONDON—A helicopter touches down and Nigel Farage beams at Arron Banks, who opens his arms wide as though greeting a lover. Two of the chief architects of Brexit embrace before engaging in an invigorating, sweat-drenched game of tennis on Banks’ Old Down Manor estate.
This is, of course, laughably implausible. As any casual observer of British politics would guess, Farage and Banks—two middle-age men with ample middle-age spreads—are far more likely to bond over a boozy session in a pub than an aggressive on-court matchup. Farage does not commute via chopper.
This is just one of the far-fetched scenes that features in a draft script for the big-budget Brexit TV movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The film, which is slated for broadcast early next year on Channel 4, promises to go “behind-the-scenes” and “under the skin of what happened during that historic vote.”
A draft of the screenplay dated December 2017, which was obtained by The Daily Beast, has provoked mirth, bemusement, and serious concerns among some of the people who know the Brexit campaign best.
Alongside the frivolous errors like the fantastical tennis match, insiders say there are also numerous examples of the screenplay misrepresenting the roles of individuals, misunderstanding what various companies did, the role of data, and the total invention of conspiratorial plotting that could never have taken place.
It now appears this film could also fall afoul of the law. On Tuesday, the British electoral commission found the Vote Leave campaign had cheated its way to victory. The panel passed on its file on the case to police for further investigation and possible future prosecutions. If the movie airs while those are ongoing, strict British laws could leave the filmmakers and broadcaster open to allegations they prejudiced a potential trial.
For once, Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former White House chief strategist, and Chris Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower who exposed Facebook, are agreed on something: This screenplay is no good.
Shamir Sanni, the Vote Leave whistleblower whose evidence contributed to this week's ruling that the Brexit campaign broke the law, also read the script. He put down the final pages, looked up, and declared: “Well, that’s not how it ended.”
“This is ridiculous,” Sanni told The Daily Beast. “If you’re going to make a film based on a true story, then don’t just make it up. This is fiction. It’s just fantasy.”
Wylie’s review was: “They’ve got this whole thing wrong—one star.”
Bannon spluttered: “Dude—this is bullshit! You gotta tell ’em. Channel 4 has got to get its shit together.”
Bannon was one of several key players who said they would have been happy to help advise the writers had they been approached.
Andy Wigmore, Banks’ spokesman and former Leave.EU colleague, told The Daily Beast it was “very funny” how far the script had gone wrong.
“Great fun and who cares if it’s accurate or not—it’s not a documentary it’s entertainment lol. Think it will be a great bit of theatre and make us all look like bellends.”
Filming on the movie has already begun, and the draft of the script seen by The Daily Beast is unlikely to be the final version. James Graham, one of Britain’s top contemporary playwrights, may well have updated it significantly since the end of the year.
Nevertheless, there are concerns that Channel 4 will not be able to show the movie at the start of next year—despite the high-profile launch and A-list cast—due to strict British laws governing criminal proceedings.
Inquiries into the other Brexit campaign, Leave.EU, continue.
If criminal charges have been brought by the time the movie airs, Channel 4 lawyers would need to be confident that the movie’s depiction of the Brexit campaign could not affect the chances of holding an impartial trial.
“[Channel 4] would simply not carry the piece, or at least not carry it at that point in time,” said Jolyon Maugham, a barrister who has brought numerous anti-Brexit legal cases. “That would just be a schoolboy error. I’m pretty convinced they wouldn’t make it.”
It would be extremely embarrassing for Channel 4 if it weren’t able to show the movie as planned. The film was one of the first big projects announced by the new director of programs, Ian Katz, in May.
A spokesman for Channel 4 sent this statement: “Any script dated December 2017 that may have been obtained will be extremely out of date. The broadcast of the drama Brexit (working title) will be compliant with the Ofcom Broadcasting Code and any applicable law.”
At the heart of the draft Brexit script is the highly contested claim that Robert Mercer, the American billionaire and right-wing political heavyweight, was actively involved in both the official and unofficial Brexit campaigns.
In one scene, Mercer personally meets Banks, the biggest financial backer of Brexit, at the Breitbart offices in London. He pledges to have Cambridge Analytica work for his unofficial Leave.EU campaign free of charge as a “donation of services” because Farage is such a good friend. An undeclared donation of services could be illegal under British electoral law.
Bannon, who was a close associate of Mercer at the time, is also featured in the scene. He told The Daily Beast, “This is such a clown show.”
“Bob couldn’t give a flying fuck about Brexit! He could care less—he’s a libertarian,” Bannon said. “He wouldn’t come to London! Are you fucking kidding me? That he would get on a plane and come over here is a comic-book fantasy. It just didn’t happen.”
Wylie, who worked for Cambridge Analytica—where Bannon had been on the board, and Mercer was a major backer—agreed that the American hedge-fund mogul would never have traveled to London, even if groups funded by his investments had been working on Brexit.
“It’s all wrong; Mercer is a passive specter in this whole thing,” said Wylie, who pointed out that it would have been Bannon, not Mercer, who is a virtual recluse, making the grandiloquent statements at any meetings with senior campaign officials.
“They took my best shit,” said Bannon. “These are all my fucking lines.”
Raheem Kassam, who was editor in chief of Breitbart London at the time, said Graham had somewhat overestimated the scale of the office where he stages this high-powered trans-Atlantic Brexit meeting. It is depicted with glass panel walls, a monogramed Union Jack, and a bank of screens showcasing Breitbart’s global output.
“The Breitbart London office was a group of guys with their laptops around my ping-pong table in Golders Green [a suburb of North London],” he said. “I’m flattered they think we had a huge operation.”
Graham is one of the most talented writers of his generation. His play charting Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of The Sun newspaper, Ink, has transferred from the West End to New York, while his most recent political show, Labour of Love, brilliantly marked the end of an era in the Labour Party.
When gathering raw materials for the Brexit movie, Graham approached Carole Cadwalladr, The Observer journalist who’s won several prizes for her reporting on links between Brexit, Cambridge Analytica, and the Trump campaign.
She says she turned down the opportunity to be a consultant on the project because she could not see how you could “fictionalize something when you’re still trying to establish the facts?”
“James is a fantastic writer and I could completely see why this was such compelling material, but I made it very clear that there were further revelations to come, that there could potentially be criminal proceedings and that to knowingly mislead people about such a crucial moment in Britain’s history was just wrong,” she told The Daily Beast.
“Having now seen the script, I think that even more strongly. It’s profoundly wrong on every level. It’s willfully misleading the public. Almost every character is wrong. The dialogue is wrong. The facts are wrong. The inference is wrong. They’ve read my reporting wrong. And there is no way on earth that a publicly owned broadcaster should have anything to do with this. We have struggled so long and hard to establish the facts of what happened, and this is a real blow to evidence-based reporting. It’s not art; it’s disinformation.”
Among the apparent missteps in the December version of the script is the role of the information commissioner. Britain’s data-protection watchdog is shown probing Vote Leave boss Dom Cummings (Cumberbatch) about the overall election strategy and political slogans rather than the misuse of data, which is what the commissioner actually monitors. Conversely, the Electoral Commission is said to be investigating the use of data, which is not under its purview.
The role of Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Vote Leave, is also confused. He is said to have a key hands-on role in the strategy and day-to-day management of the campaign—including testing data himself—which never would have happened.
Martin Moore, the director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication, and Power, at Kings College London, said there was a concern that people would be duped by the movie, especially on a subject as deeply contentious as Brexit, but he also said the public was wise to the filmmaker’s style.
“There’s a long history of Oliver Stone and various others writing films some parts of which have tenuous connection to the truth,” he said. “With a lot of drama films there is an expectation that there will be a lot of dramatic license taken by the makers.”
One such area of dramatic license concerns AggregateIQ, a Canadian online advertising firm. The script suggests it was under the direct control of Mercer, a claim that has been strongly disputed, although there are links between AIQ and Cambridge.
Wylie, who says he was intimately involved in the establishment of both companies, tells The Daily Beast the screenplay completely misrepresents what AIQ did for the winning Vote Leave campaign. “Whoever wrote this doesn’t understand what these people do and they haven’t bothered to go and talk to people who do,” he said. “This is embarrassingly bad.”
The screenplay appears to hint that Cummings found AIQ via the dark web, which is not the case. It does not make that claim explicitly, but there is a scene where Cummings is in his underwear downloading TOR.
Nine pages later, Cummings meets Zac Massingham from AIQ after-hours on a Regents Park bench. He points out how hard it was to find the company online. Massingham replies mysteriously: “We’re not really in the business of… advertising what we do.”
“They make out that Dom is some kind of bumbling hacker, which he is not. He was right to see that data science, which is so pivotal in every other sector, should be better used in politics,” said Wylie. “It just so happens that the way he eventually did it was likely against the law.”
In the script, Massingham proceeds to lay out a program of data modeling and voter targeting. Later on, he boasts that he previously worked on the Large Hadron Collider. Shamir and Wylie both explained that Massingham was not a physicist at all, he did not speak like that, and AIQ did not do any data modeling for the campaign.
In reality, AIQ is a controversial player in the Brexit campaign because the Electoral Commission found that Vote Leave and its sister organizations, including BeLeave, had breached the £7 million limit allowed for the referendum because they had continued to plow more cash into their online ad spend via AIQ.
Some of that money was found to have been donated to BeLeave by Vote Leave on the condition that it went straight to AIQ, which is not allowed.
Shamir, who was one of the young campaigners enlisted for BeLeave, said: “You can’t talk about the referendum without talking about the single largest donation made, to BeLeave. How are you going to ignore that?”
“The missing bit of this is the BeLeave project,” said Wylie. “If you’re setting out to explain how they won, you’ve got to get your facts right. Films like this are really important in our understanding of Brexit because people will interpret it as if this is what happened.”