'The Undeclared War' review: Simon Pegg goes serious in unmissable Channel 4 drama

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Danny Patrick (Simon Pegg) in The Undeclared War (Channel 4)
Danny Patrick (Simon Pegg) in The Undeclared War (Channel 4)

The Undeclared War, which started on Channel 4 from 30 June, is a political thriller which taps into our darkest fears and demands your attention.

Taking its inspiration from everything including 80’s Cold War classic War Games (John Badham) through to Die Hard 4.0 (Len Wiseman), the show sees United Kingdom, circa 2024, being held hostage by unknown forces who seek to dismantle our infrastructure and cause a country wide catastrophe. This is one of the most essential piece of television drama to hit terrestrial television in some time.

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Emmy nominated writer director Peter Kominsky (Wolf Hall), depicts a plausible version of Britain in freefall, which is experiencing its deepest recession in a generation. Where the knock-on effect of global pandemics, EU exclusion, and Eastern bloc incursions by unhinged dictators feels too close to home.

Saara (Hannah Khalique-Brown) and Phil (Joss Porter) in The Undeclared War (Channel 4)
Saara (Hannah Khalique-Brown) and Phil (Joss Porter) in The Undeclared War (Channel 4)

Headlined by Simon Pegg (Mission Impossible) and Maisie Richardson-Sellers (Legends of Tomorrow), as GCHQ cyber security chief and NSA operative, this series sets up its premise quickly before morphing into a character study. Key to selling both the set up and tonal switch is Hannah Khalique-Brown (Doctors) as Saara; a British Asian intern for GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), who is there on placement when it comes under attack.

In an audacious opening sequence, which takes a leaf from The Queen’s Gambit (Scott Frank), audiences are introduced to her as she takes part in a coding exercise. By using visual metaphors to illustrate Saara’s immersion in the data, Kominsky allows us under her skin within the first five minutes. It not only employs an elegant solution to make code breaking more cinematic, but it also effectively draws audiences into the drama.

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Her main rival in this elaborate opener is Gabriel (Alfie Friedman), a socially awkward savant who specialises in mathematics. He may seem secondary at first, but soon proves pivotal once events escalate later on. Having earned her place at GCHQ, Saara is assigned to the Malware division trawling through reams of code, where she stumbles upon something which not only averts a stage two cyber-attack, but makes her a target of professional jealousy.

Andrew Makinde (Adrian Lester) in The Undeclared War (Channel 4)
Andrew Makinde (Adrian Lester) in The Undeclared War (Channel 4)

This is where The Undeclared War starts to resemble War Games, while inadvertently tipping a hat to Margin Call (J. C. Chandor), as an entire government department is made to look foolish by a young intern on her first day. This not only fuels political fires, as Prime Minister Andrew Makinde (Adrian Lester) grills Danny Patrick (Simon Pegg) at COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms), but simultaneously isolates her from certain members of the department.

As things continue to crank up and Saara begins to crack under the pressure of an imploding personal life, she finds solace in a personal connection with John Yeabsley (Mark Rylance). He's a lifelong employee of GCHQ, who amuses himself by correcting internal emails from fellow colleagues, before sending them back again.

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Rylance is exceptional in this role, drawing together the disparate threads of a lifetime spent analysing data, showing John to be a man with an amenable disposition, fascinated by the order of things. Offering up a delicate performance poised between pathos and emotional resignation, he imbues The Undeclared War with some real humanity.

Danny (Simon Pegg), Chrissie (Melanie Gutteridge), Rich (Andrew Rothney) and David Neal (Alex Jennings) in The Undeclared War (Channel 4)
Danny (Simon Pegg), Chrissie (Melanie Gutteridge), Rich (Andrew Rothney) and David Neal (Alex Jennings) in The Undeclared War (Channel 4)

Other stand outs include Simon Pegg, who really doubles down in this dramatic role, giving Danny Patrick a genuine sense of depth, whilst avoiding any of the traditional traits which audiences might associate with the actor.

As he moves beyond the point where his past associations with Edgar Wright, Tom Cruise or Nick Frost define his demographic Pegg owns the room. Delivering a sense of tangible threat and understated urgency in an ensemble cast never short on quality.

Other elements adding a degree of detail to this thriller that might go unnoticed, include some understated, but no less sophisticated cinematography from Gavin Finney. He previously collaborated with Peter Kominsky on Wolf Hall, but also helped shape the look of Good Omens for Prime Video. It's a partnership which continues to pay dividends here, as a fluctuating colour palette, and some overtly intimate framing, ensures The Undeclared War keeping audiences engaged.

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As the series continues to gain momentum and more secrets are revealed, this journey into darkness continues down the rabbit hole as a curve ball of mammoth proportions offers audiences another perspective on this cunning political thriller.

This not only guarantees that viewing figures on this series will increase week on week, but Channel 4 as an institution is given the spotlight once more.

All this while government ministers circle, seeking to profit off a brand known worldwide for continuing to create era defining entertainment.

The Undeclared War premieres on Channel 4 and All 4 from 30 June at 9pm.

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