Just like the moon landing or the fall of the Berlin Wall, it feels like the day we leave the European Union will be anyone-who’s-alive-now’s “Where were you when…?” moment. It will be monumental and will profoundly affect how we think about ourselves as a country (and as people) for many years to come. So it seems strange that Brexit has made very few ripples in pop culture outside of art. On stage, we’ve recently had Kele Okereke’s musical Leave to Remain (arguably more about the complexities of gay marriage than Brexit itself). On television, earlier this year we had Channel 4’s Brexit: The Uncivil War starring Benedict Cumberbatch (a political thriller about the Leave campaign, subsequently savaged by critics) – and, really, that’s about it. Yes, we have a rolling news cycle documenting the minutiae of what’s happening (or not, as the case may be) as the government and Parliament grapple over their next moves, but the traditional cultural scene has been surprisingly silent – eerily so, considering this is the biggest political debate our country has faced over the past century.
I’m not sure of the reason for this. It’s been nearly four years since the EU Referendum was announced – and while you can’t rush creativity, there has been plenty of time for introspection and reflection on an issue that has ripped our nation apart and led to mass demonstrations on both sides across all age groups. Maybe culture-makers feel just as fatigued with the churning new cycle as we do? Maybe commissioning editors feel that the schedule is already heavy with Brexit related content?
But it’s more than that – it’s the way the conversation around Brexit has been handled culturally. It might feel like a sweeping statement, but in my opinion what has happened up until this point is that a top-down approach has dominated, certainly when it comes to television. It’s been about what’s happening in Westminster, it’s all very serious and worthy – even Cumberbatch’s Brexit, which is arguably the only truly high-profile TV programme to try and dramatise the subject, is about the people who orchestrated it all, not the voters. What’s been seemingly forgotten is how any of this affects actual people in anything more than a tokenistic way (often just used as a way to illustrate a news segment or ask a question on a panel show). Where are the stories of regular people in all this – and where’s the humour?
This is why Don’t Forget The Driver is so good. Written by Tim Crouch (one of Britain’s foremost theatre-makers, known for his experimental approach) and launching tonight on BBC Two at 10pm (as well as in box-set form on iPlayer), this drama-comedy brings the humanity back to Brexit as it follows the people of Bognor Regis. And I mean this quite literally: the first episode opens when the residents discover the corpse of an immigrant washed up on their beach – bringing them face to face with the debate about immigration and the European migrant crisis that critics would argue drove much of the Leave campaign’s messaging in the run-up to the vote.
‘Can you start a comedy with a dead body on the beach, is that allowed?’ Crouch asks me from a squeaky-clean board room deep within the the BBC’s New Broadcasting House in London.
‘Bognor – on the south coast, facing the sea, facing Europe – stands for everywhere,’ Crouch tells me. ‘We’re a country bewildered, and lost at sea with where we are and what’s happening to us’. It’s a brave representation of an England that’s trying to physically close itself off from the rest of Europe – and a shockingly bold opener.
The idea of writing a comedy about Brexit feeds into Crouch’s philosophy that culture is most interesting when it responds to Brexit, and the news in general, in surprising ways. ‘I would say that Fleabag is a Brexit show, partly because it’s being made around the time that Brexit is happening,’ Crouch says.
Toby Jones plays the central character: Peter, an ‘overwhelmed’ bus driver trying his best to look after his family and get by. The show is pegged around Peter’s job, driving old age pensioners to France for day trips (they ‘booo’ as they enter Europe) where they visit war graves and buy cheap cigarettes.
In the show there’s the feeling the Bognor locals treat Europe as a commodity, as a land of cut-price consumables, when England’s relationship with mainland Europe should, of course, be about much more than that. The scenes hark back to the kind of booze-cruise culture that dominated the 1990s, and suggest that our difficult relationship with Europe has been a pressing topic for a whole lot longer than the conversations around Leave and Remain.
Driver suggests that Brexit is merely intensifying the current situation with political malaise in Britain, rather than defining it. Perhaps most interesting is that Don’t Forget The Driver was actually conceived years before the B-word was thought of. Rather than taking a directly Brexit angle, Driver profiles key Bognor residents currently ‘lost in the wilderness,’ explains Crouch, including Jones’s bus driver character Peter, who Crouch insists existed before Brexit.
‘I was always interested in the idea of freedom of movement,’ says Crouch. ‘I have put into that coach driver a lot of concerns that I share,’ says Crouch, who, in his mid-Fifties, is around the same age as Peter and shares many of his concerns.
‘In the last few years I’ve had a dying mother, an evolving teenage son, older kids who are dealing with becoming millenials, working out how they make a living, how they establish themslves, how they pay rent, where they live. It doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. I am putting all of those concerns that I have but into a much more dramatic action’.
For inspiration, Crouch and Jones, booked onto some of the coach trips popular with Bognor locals. ‘I was overwhelmed by the beauty and the pathos of a group of people going to visit a place, being affected by the place and then coming back to where they come from.’
‘I’m sounding very political, but this is first and foremost a comedy about a guy who is swamped by life,’ says Crouch. ‘It’s about someone who doesn’t know who they are, where they are, what’s happening in their life. We don’t want to be beaten over the head by didacticism or pedagogy’.
Driver attempts to balance the relatable story of Peter with the politics lurking behind his life most dramatically when an exhausted immigrant woman falls from a hatch in his coach on return from France, a situation which ‘metaphorically applies to all of us,’ says Crouch. ‘Where do we stop caring for people?’
So while Peter might be the central character, the supporting cast is there to bring more stories and points of view to the fore. Many of these illustrate the differences of opinion between all ‘Englanders’ right now. (‘Englanders’ is Crouch’s term. In fact, he is careful not to use ‘Britons’ during our conversation, and says he believes Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland have their own strong identities right now, where people in England do not).
‘Perhaps the most grounded character in the whole series is a gender-fluid apprentice funeral director, Brad,’ Crouch says. ‘They are most at ease with themselves, them and the Polish mechanic who is also totally at ease with himself. Peter Green is the least at home with himself’.
Ultimately, ‘it’s all gotten very, very messy and we write this series in that mess, because it’s funny as well – the mess is funny’.
And while the body washing up on Bognor beach is shocking, it’s certainly not the last corpse to come into the characters’ lives – spoiler alert: over the course of the six episodes, a total of three bodies arrive in the town not of their own volition. ‘We are going slightly into the future – but not that far,’ says Crouch. ‘More and more people are trying to make that journey from mainland Europe into Britain by boat.
‘The world is getting closer and closer to this country, and we cannot really block it out’.
All six episodes of Don’t Forget The Driver are on BBC iPlayer from 9 April