Peter Kosminsky imagined a world without Boris Johnson long before anyone else could.
The master dramaturge’s latest offering, Channel 4 and Peacock’s “The Undeclared War,” is set in 2024, in a dicey political landscape where Johnson has been usurped after losing a no-confidence vote, and the new prime minister (coolly played by Adrian Lester) has his share of national security issues with the Russians.
The U.K.-Russia cyberwarfare drama, which premiered in Britain last week, has received flak from some critics who bemoan the volatile nature of writing political dramas, especially when Johnson appeared to be clinging on to power, but on this side of the PM’s July 7 resignation, “The Undeclared War” is a welcome take that glimpses life beyond Britain’s present political quagmire.
The concept originated from a 2017 dinner between Playground Entertainment boss Colin Callender and Kosminsky, who previously collaborated on the Emmy-winning “Wolf Hall” — a drama adaptation of two Hilary Mantel novels, about Thomas Cromwell’s meteoric rise to power in the court of a tyrannical Henry VIII.
Callender was discussing “active measures,” a broad term historically used by the Soviet Union to describe the undermining tactics used to meddle in other countries’ politics, such as orchestrating domestic unrest or spreading false information.
“We were coming off the back of the 2016 election and Brexit, and we thought that this was rich to British territory,” said Callender. “My suggestion was that we did something historical, that looked back at how active measures have been employed, and Peter very smartly said, ‘No, no, let’s not do that. Let’s look forward into the future.’ And, in particular, how the cyber frontier is really the new front line in international politics.”
Set two years ahead, there’s a palpable rawness to “Undeclared War,” which follows coder Saara Parvin (rising star Hannah Khalique-Brown) as she undertakes a work placement at British intelligence hub GCHQ just as Britain engages in a bitter cyber war with Russia, which clearly has the upper hand for much of the six-part series. Kosminsky, a devotee of fact-based dramas, employed his rigorous research method over the course of five years, and spoke to well-informed sources in order to enrich his narrative.
Seeing Russia as a superpower on screen amid its brutal war against Ukraine, now in its fifth month, may rankle some viewers, but in story terms, Kosminsky says the conflict doesn’t much affect his overall message: While the political world has changed, he says, the cyber world certainly hasn’t.
“At a superficial level, you might say, ‘Well, this is a piece about the state of the world, how can it not be affected by the massive change like Russia choosing to invade its neighbor Ukraine?’” said Kosminsky. “But it’s not really that changed because we’ve been at loggerheads with each other in an active hot war in the cyber domain for years and years, going back to the very origins of viruses and malware, as we now understand it. So yeah, on one level, the world’s changed completely. On another level, it hasn’t changed at all.”
“The Undeclared War” is the latest collaboration between Kosminsky and Channel 4, which previously broadcast his ISIS entry “The State” and Israel-Palestine series “The Promise.” Caroline Hollick, the star drama commissioner who helped develop the show, underlines the program’s natural fit for the broadcaster: “Timely, topical and terrifyingly plausible, ‘The Undeclared War’ is an example of the sort of programming we set out to make under the Channel 4 remit. It’s what we do best: tell British stories to audiences which are entertaining and have purpose.”
Yet, while the Conservative government’s plans to sell off Channel 4 could face new setbacks given the party’s current leadership crisis, audiences clued in to the broadcaster’s fight to survive may recognize that “The Undeclared War” could be one of the last political thrillers we see on a publicly-owned Channel 4.
“Part of what Channel 4 exists to do has become very difficult to finance,” said Kosminsky. “And the government, instead of protecting it, comes along and — with the sort of action that can only be called cultural vandalism — is to sell it off to some international media conglomerate that’s completely undermining what it’s there to do…I can only conclude this is done for narrow and doctrinaire political reasons.”
Asked whether any future drama development at Channel 4 is on hold as a result of the ambiguous privatization situation, the writer smirks. “We have been militantly pressing ahead on the basis of ‘fuck ’em,’” he declares.
Kosminsky’s proficiency at writing complex subjects, often from diverse cultural backgrounds, has been a cornerstone of his work. Both “The Undeclared War” and “The State” before it feature British protagonists who are Muslim, and whose stories have a strong sense of authenticity. But the U.K. audience’s proclivity for these stories is less reliable.
“The State” was a 2017 co-production between Channel 4 and Nat Geo that the latter cabler effectively buried upon its release. The political thriller, which told the stories of four Britons who joined the Islamic State for various reasons, was a challenging watch and didn’t shy away from tackling the gruesome beheadings the terrorist org was known for (although none were shown on screen).
Nat Geo, then in the nascent stages of a muddled scripted strategy, seemed to immediately distance itself from the show, which is not available in the U.S. on the brand’s streaming home of Disney+. Meanwhile, on home turf, despite showcasing promising talent such as Sam Otto and Amir El-Masry, the British audience largely refused to sympathize with compatriots who join ISIS, and the drama floundered.
Kosminsky, who simply smiles when asked about his experience with Nat Geo on “The State,” describes his six-part drama as “Marmite.”
“[‘The State’] requires a degree of open mindedness to watch,” says Kosminsky. “I was very proud in that I don’t think it was an easy thing to do or something that television typically does. We had a fantastic research team and I think we were able to say, for a drama, something quite revelatory about what that experience for those young Brits out there had been. But some people hated it because they just thought, ‘You’re asking us to sympathize with these terrorists — butchers.’
“You sometimes undertake things knowing they won’t please everyone, but if you think there’s a public interest involved in telling a story, or in my case, it’s a story involving public policy in some way, but is not well understood, I think it’s a price worth paying,” concluded Kosminsky.
“The Undeclared War,” free of the hyper-violence of ISIS, will likely fare better Stateside. Also, the five years since “The State” have advanced the reception of international fare on U.S. networks and platforms, which are far more fluent in consuming non-American programming. Peacock snapped up the U.S. rights to “The Undeclared War” early on, and will premiere the show in August.
“We believe audiences — not just in the U.S., but globally — will be drawn to the fact that this series is so reflective of the world and current events,” said Kelsey Balance, senior VP of scripted programming for Universal International Studios. “The central story of our main characters who are battling against the odds to help uncover an invisible threat is inspiring and will hopefully speak to a younger generation that wants to help make a difference.”
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