The very real threat behind The Undeclared War: ‘Russia’s end game? Chaos’

Simon Pegg, Melanie Gutteridge, Andrew Rothney, and Alex Jennings in The Undeclared War - Channel 4
Simon Pegg, Melanie Gutteridge, Andrew Rothney, and Alex Jennings in The Undeclared War - Channel 4

“I tend to see things very simplistically, in terms of good and evil,” says Peter Kosminsky. “I believe that the threat that I am dramatising to Britain is very real, and it is evil. And the people who are trying to combat it, are trying against significant odds to do good. And I want to tell their story.”

The writer-director is talking about his new Channel 4 drama The Undeclared War, starring Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance. Five years in the making, it is set in 2024, primarily at GCHQ, in a Britain where Boris Johnson has been ousted internally 15 months previously. It posits a series of major Russian cyber attacks on the UK’s infrastructure - the internet, cash machines, airports, our energy supplies - and it follows a brilliant young coder (Hannah Khalique-Brown), who finds herself drawn onto the front line while on a year’s student work placement.

“There is a hot war going on in the cyber domain at the moment,” the measured, thoughtful Kosminsky tells me via video call. “It has been going on for some time. And the more I dug into it, the more it became apparent that it presents a real threat to our national institutions, to our elections, to democracy, to our way of life, and yet the public, in my contention, is almost completely unaware of it.”

As a filmmaker, he says, “the next question comes immediately and easily, which is: ‘Can I help elucidate this without distorting it?’”

For the past 35 years, Kosminsky has been telling us uncomfortable stories about the world we live in. From his 1997 drama No Child of Mine, about paedophilia and the “conveyor belt of abuse” in the care system, to his 2005 film about the death of Dr David Kelly, The Government Inspector, the 66 year-old has trodden fearlessly into areas where others choose not to go. Along the way, he has attracted controversy and faced criticism, which he admits to finding hurtful, while picking up Bafta after Bafta, most recently for Wolf Hall in 2016. (An adaptation of the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, to be directed by Kosminsky, is in the works.)

He is known for the thoroughness of his research – three year’s work went into this phase of The Undeclared War – and for having blazed a trail in factual drama long before it became such a dominant form on television.

Kosminsky’s own relationship with fact and fiction has changed over time, he notes. He began as a documentary-maker on Yorkshire TV, with 1987’s The Falklands War: the Untold Story, before moving into drama-documentary, with the four-hour reconstruction of the events at the centre of the Stalker Inquiry into the actions of the RUC in Northern Ireland, Shoot to Kill (1990).

“I think it’s true to say that when I first started doing this, I was more interested in just being sort of pedantically factual,” he says. “And that usually meant having real characters with their real names. But I started to realise that there was a different way of doing this…” It involved the same detailed research but a new realisation that “it would actually be advantageous for the characters not necessarily to be real people, unless there was some strong journalistic case for doing so.”

Claire Foy and Damian Lewis in Peter Kosminsky's Wolf Hall - Ed Miller
Claire Foy and Damian Lewis in Peter Kosminsky's Wolf Hall - Ed Miller

In the case of The Undeclared War, this helped when it came to getting those “with relevant experience” to talk to him. “The advantage was that some people would be more prepared to speak if it was completely off the record, and on background only,” he says. “But if you can say that everything depicted is realistic, has either happened or is, as in the case of The Undeclared War, being prepped or ‘wargamed’ by the security services of this country and elsewhere – scenarios that they are actively preparing for, but the characters are completely fictional, then I think that gives you a freedom while at the same time giving the audience confidence that what they’re seeing is realistic.”

The six-part series presciently zeroes in on Russia as a bad actor. Could it have been another foreign power? A future series might well focus on another adversary, he says. “China, just by volume, appears to be responsible for the largest number of cyber attacks on this country and others. [But] while their approach seems to have been about information gathering, Russia’s approach seems to have been more about being destructive – undermining, trying to create a kind of chaos.

“I obviously don’t want to include any spoilers, but the question I started asking everyone I interviewed was: ‘To what end? What’s the end game?’ And the answer I got often as not, though not exclusively, was: ‘Just to create chaos, to throw us off balance… entirely for domestic consumption’. In other words, keeping the present regime in Russia in power.

“If you can say, ‘Well, look, it’s all falling apart over there’, why on Earth would you want to bring in such a system in Russia?’”

James Larkin as Tony Blair and Jonathan Cake as Alastair Campbell in Kosminky's The Govenment Inspector - Channel 4
James Larkin as Tony Blair and Jonathan Cake as Alastair Campbell in Kosminky's The Govenment Inspector - Channel 4

Something about this concept of a defensive approach aimed solely at the population at home gnawed at him. “My question was: ‘Are you sure there’s nothing more to it than that?’ And I’m saying this is one possible future - this is a feasible, plausible motive for everything that’s happening. I’m not saying this is what will happen. But I’m saying we should be aware of this. And we should take account of it as one possible outcome.”

How does he answer the charge that he pursues an anti-establishment agenda? He denies it. “That would be such a mean-spirited way to use an incredibly powerful medium,” he replies. His approach is about “following the research and the story where it leads, without fear or favour”.

He describes tackling New Labour in The Project in 2002, “I didn’t set out when we started making that programme to sort of do the dirty on the Blair government at all. And certain things came to light as a result of another fairly lengthy research period that led us to a piece that I think was, yes, fairly critical.”

Peter Kosminsky on the set of The Undeclared War, with Mark Rylance and Hannah Khalique-Brown
Peter Kosminsky on the set of The Undeclared War, with Mark Rylance and Hannah Khalique-Brown

Later, in The Government Inspector, he included a scene in which Blair and his press secretary Alastair Campbell discuss whether to give Dr Kelly’s name to the press in a late-night phone call. Kosminsky took the dialogue from the Hutton Report but famously added the devastating detail of the PM playing blues guitar on his sofa as they talked.

So, if not an anti-establishment writer, would he call himself a state-of-the-nation dramatist? “Absolutely not,” he says quickly. “It’s always about character for me. I’m not thinking, ‘Right, what’s the latest opus in the canon of Kosminsky, state-of-the-nation commentator?’ Because I think that would lead me towards editorialising,” which, in turn, would make viewers feel like they were being lectured to. “I have a personal horror of [that],” he says. “It’s anti-dramatic. I wouldn't do it.”

The Undeclared War starts on Channel 4, Thursday June 30