A new domain of conflict
The Undeclared War stars Hannah Khalique-Brown as a gifted coder at the forefront of a government effort to ward off a series of cyber-attacks on the UK. DQ speaks to the actor and writer-director Peter Kosminsky about this topical and timely drama.
After their award-winning collaboration on Wolf Hall, Peter Kosminsky was looking for another opportunity to partner with producer Colin Callender. Despite the success of the 2015 historical drama, the writer-director wanted to return to the painstakingly researched contemporary stories for which he is best known.
His next project would be The State, a 2017 miniseries that told the story of four Britons who travel to Syria to join ISIS. But at the same time, Kosminsky and Callender began talking about their next collaboration – conversations that led to six-part Channel 4 drama The Undeclared War.
“I had heard there’s this undeclared war going on in a new domain of conflict called the cyber domain. You’ve got land, air, sea and now you’ve got cyber – because that’s what we need in the world at the moment, isn’t it? Another domain of conflict,” Kosminsky tells DQ. “It seemed worthy of investigation and the truth is, we look at lots of subjects. Not all of them get made into television programmes. That was five years ago, and it’s taken five years of research and scriptwriting and production right through the Covid pandemic to bring this show to the screen.”
Set in 2024, the series follows a team of analysts working within the secretive world of UK intelligence service GCHQ to ward off a series of cyber attacks in the run-up to a general election. When a routine stress test of internet infrastructure goes awry, GCHQ intern Saara Parvin (Hannah Khalique-Brown) finds herself on the front line of cyber warfare.
Produced by Playground, Stonehenge Films and Universal International Studios for Channel 4 and US streamer Peacock, the series also stars Simon Pegg, Maisie Richardson-Sellers, Adrian Lester, Alex Jennings, Mark Rylance and Kerry Godliman.
Considering the amount of time Kosminsky dedicates to researching his chosen subject, ensuring the topic is still relevant by the time the series airs is a constant concern, particularly when the story is set in the near future, as is the case with The Undeclared War.
“One of the one of the biggest battles I have to fight in my job is when something happens, various voices are saying, ‘Well, you’ve got to accommodate that. You’ve got to rewrite.’ But we have to take the longer view,” he says. “When you’re looking at research and you’re seeing there’s an active war in the cyber domain involving China, Russia, Britain, America and other states such as Israel, Iran and North Korea, and you can see there’s a direction of travel, it’s not rocket science to extrapolate that direction and try to work out where it might have landed by 2024.”
Once he has settled on an arena for exploration, Kosminsky’s next task is working out the story and the characters that will populate the series. He describes it as a fairly organic process that begins with his team of researchers compiling “tens of thousands” of pages of notes, from which he will draw out elements he thinks will work in a TV drama.
“As I’m doing that, I have a separate piece of paper, or several sheets of paper. That’s where I’m making character notes,” he says. “I don’t go into these things thinking, ‘Right, we need a character who is young, who’s super precocious in terms of her ability in coding, who is a person of colour, who has a slightly difficult personality.’ No, Saara isn’t already in my mind as that character.”
Instead, he finds characters that support the kind of story he wants to tell and the perspective he is looking for. In Saara’s case, she is someone viewers follow into the world of GCHQ and then watch as she develops a life of her own.
But The Undeclared War isn’t only told from Saara’s perspective. Following the events of the first two episodes and a surprise revelation, part three goes 15 months back in time to explore the other side of the cyber battle in Russia. The episode features new characters and plays out in Russian, as Kosminsky sought to give viewers information about the ongoing conflict not available to Saara and her UK colleagues.
“There’s a real philosophy, as far as the Russians are concerned, that guides this,” he says. “It’s not just a set of random attacks designed to destabilise our society and ultimately our democracy. That is certainly the effect, but there’s a plan afoot here. There’s a template that is well understood as a military strategy, and that ultimately is the thing I found most chilling about all of this, that we are in the middle of a game and we are being played, where our responses have been predicted and factored in to the next level of the game.
“I thought it would be interesting to spend the first two-and-a-half episodes in complete ignorance of that fact. But there’s a plan here, and to discover that plan, you have to go to Russia, since they’re the architects of all of this. Then you watch the rest of the series knowing what that plan is, but watching our main characters who do not know what that plan is, struggling to understand what’s going on around them.”
Kosminsky’s research involved speaking to people for background information about life at GCHQ and the world of cyber warfare – off the record, of course, so he won’t confirm or deny exactly who he’s spoken to or what about. That, he says, is why people feel they are able to talk to him as a dramatist, in a way they may not feel comfortable talking to a journalist.
“People open up, surprisingly. In this case, it was a whole range of people over years, not only in this country… people in some cases who had some experience of government work, but many who had not,” he says. “I can’t tell you, unfortunately, whether we had any contact with GCHQ and, if we did, what their attitude before, during and after has been.”
One person from GCHQ who has backed the series is Paul Chichester, operations director for the National Cyber Security Centre, who tweeted that he thought it was “great.”
“Obviously we as programme makers were thrilled to read that because it feels like a vote of confidence in what we’ve done,” Kosminsky says.
Chichester was particularly impressed by how The Undeclared War portrays Saara when she is analysing lines of code. Watching a six-hour series where characters spend the majority of their time staring at a computer screen could easily be rather dull, and Kosminsky says it was obvious from the start that this would be a huge challenge.
One way he thought to present this aspect of the show was as if Saara was inside a computer game, navigating her way through the malware and overcoming obstacles using different strategies.
“I ended up with this idea of Saara wearing a tool belt, rather like a gunslinger might wear a gun belt in the Wild West, and into that tool belt can come tools that she needs contextually,” Kosminsky explains. “People are probably familiar with contextual menus on their computer. You can right click on the document and suddenly there’s a whole new set of menu items available. Saara’s tool belt is the same. When she walks up to a door with a padlock on it, suddenly there’s a rather bulky crowbar in her tool belt. Then she goes through the door of what appears to be a little chalet and inside there’s a brightly lit gymnasium. This is an attempt by us to show how Saara’s mind navigates the various obstacles with which she’s presented.”
Saara marks newcomer Khalique-Brown’s breakthrough role, with the show launching on C4 more than two years after she first sent off a self-tape audition to casting directors Andy Brierley and Victor Jenkins. She was then asked to do a second tape, this time with the benefit of additional notes from Kosminsky.
“That’s unheard of. You never get that kind of in-depth focus that early on,” she says. “He gave me pages of notes and loads of character background, which is just impossible to get at that stage normally.” A year after her first audition, when she was finally able to meet Kosminsky, Brierley and Jenkins in person after countless Zoom meetings, she learned she had won the role.
When the series opens, Saara is joining GCHQ on a work placement at a time when large swathes of the UK internet infrastructure has been shut down by a cyber attack. When she finds a line of code that points to further attacks, she is hailed a hero but finds herself delving deeper into the world of cyber warfare at the same time as a huge personal tragedy weighs heavily on her.
Reading the scripts, Khalique-Brown knew immediately that working with Kosminsky on The Undeclared War was a special opportunity. But her interest also stems from her love of British drama and the fact that a character like Saara could be a series lead.
“I was a bit taken aback when I saw the name ‘Saara Parvin, series lead,’ because you do get used to expecting ‘Saara Parvin, supporting role’ or ‘Saara Parvin, terrorist or refugee or geek in the background,’” she admits. “Then reading her character breakdown and how she is this astonishingly clever young woman, she’s not what you usually see at the forefront of a show.”
For someone who knew she wanted to be an actor from a young age and bypassed the traditional drama school route into the profession, Khalique-Brown says she recognises Saara’s drive and ambition – but that might be all she has in common with the character she plays.
“Peter laughed about this when I got the job. He was like, ‘You’re really not like her.’ I was like, ‘I’m an actor. I do other people,’” she jokes. “Saara’s not a people pleaser, let’s just say that. One thing Peter had to do was encourage me out of myself a bit because I still had a tendency in my acting to always have a bit of me in them. I definitely had to strip away some of my affectations. I’m quite an energetic person when I speak and I’m quite physical. Saara is still and she has a different posture to me and a different voice.”
Through the series, Saara is caught between numerous competing worlds, from that of her workplace and of her family, her relationship with her boyfriend and then the national and global political climates, which all take their toll on her.
“She’s finding it hard and she uses the code world to escape quite a lot,” Khalique-Brown says. “She’s not a naturally emotional person, she finds it very hard to be in touch with her emotions. It’s not who she is and she’s forced into the worst two weeks of her life – it’s all consuming. She finds it very hard to kind of exist in all of those worlds when they’re all in crisis at the same time.”
Filming was equally challenging, as practicalities of the shooting schedule demanded the actor jump between Saara’s worlds out of story sequence.
“To be honest, I was quite scared because this is my first big shoot. I’d never experienced a length or scale of shoot like this at all,” she says. “Going into it, I was like, ‘How am I going to get into the mindset of something when I haven’t even shot the thing that comes before it.’ That happened on a daily basis, but that is kind of the whole job. It was chaotic and brain frazzling at times.”
But from those first audition notes to talking through scenes on set, Kosminsky proved to be the actor’s biggest influence. “I don’t think I could have done it without him,” she says. “He sat down with me before every scene and was like, ‘So, where are we? What’s going on? This is what she’s feeling. This is what she’s thinking.’ Peter is a very character focused. Everything is through character for him. He was such an important guide for me.”
For Kosminsky, The Undeclared War isn’t a premonition of what will happen in the future. Instead, “my job is to say, here’s one possible and entirely feasible tomorrow,” he says. “It acts, I hope, as a cautionary tale. The Undeclared War presents a chilling view of one possible future and perhaps raises the flag to say, if we don’t want to end up in this situation, we still have time to take avoiding action.”