Five years in the making, The Undeclared War is a new Channel 4 drama airing on Thursday 30th June at 9pm, and will be available on All 4, as well as being on Peacock in the US next month. Starring Hannah Khalique-Brown, Adrian Lester, Alex Jennings, Maisie Richardson-Sellers, Kerry Godliman and Simon Pegg, The Undeclared War has been written and directed by Wolf Hall and The Government Inspector‘s Peter Kosminsky, and is set in 2024, in the run-up to a British General Election, when a major cyber-attack hits the country, knocking out the internet – but not social media. The worst nightmare of all.
Hannah Khalique-Brown plays Saara Pavan, a genius ingenue (engeniusue?) Coder picked by British Secret Services at the UK monitoring center GCHQ, as an intern, thrust into the deep end as the cyber attack hits, with a brand new enemy which is probably Russia – though the first episode has enough clues to provide another suspect. Indeed, if anything the show suffers from having been written and produced before the Ukraine War, as a cyber attack seems relatively minor compared to Russia physically invading Ukraine. But real life world events do underline the threat Russia still poses in this show, after being dismissed for years. And that this show is called The Undeclared War only reminds us that, to Russia, Ukraine is also an undeclared war…
Set in the near, but very recognizable future, The Undeclared War wants to make you scared of the threat it highlights, right now. And it succeeds. We have a Britain in recession, a new Conservative Prime Minister played by Adrian Lester who has deposed Boris Johnson, and a country with an NHS stretched by COVID, where following safety protocols is one rule for us, another for the rich and powerful. The NHS wear masks, GCHQ doesn’t do handshakes but COBRA does hugs. There are contradictions, hypocrisy, incompetence and ass-covering all over the place. It feels all too familiar, with the edges turned up a few notches. And Lester has all the feelings of a man who did all he needed to do to get elected, is now driven by poll numbers, but is so out of his depth that he resorts to raising his voice rather than working things out. At least Boris made you laugh when everything falls apart.
Into this comes Saara Parvan, her father’s daughter, who carries an intensity into her work and her life, with the weight of expectation from both her family and now the whole country on her shoulders. We see her work in cybersecurity in metaphor, running from location to location, carrying out missions to open boxes, smash through doors, recover keys and read messages, revealed as a real-life expression of what she is actually doing in coding, reminiscent of The Matrix. This is Hannah Khalique-Brown TV debut as a lead, and it is a role she plays with such intensity, watching this show tightened my chest in my seat, in a way I thought I was inured to. Normally, a viewer entry character is generally wide in portrayal so as to draw as many people in, however, Hannah Khalique-Brown portrays a specificity that locks you in as a viewer with a vice-like grip – that then pushes down on you. It’s a remarkable performance and one that will be dragging me back for more, unbidden. The first episode of The Undeclared War, for all that Peter Kosminsky is not used to telling serialized stories, had one of the tensest and most convincing cliffhangers since… okay, since Severance. But before that, probably Breaking Bad. I mean, you could wait till it’s all out and binge the lot, but I’ve been enjoying the tense feeling ever since.
The Undeclared War also gives us Simon Pegg playing against his usual wastrel type, but without the overcompensation of Nicolas Angel. Here he is an older authority figure, though not one who cannot be put in his place by his political bosses. But even in a position of such authority, he gives the impression of having seen and done it all, this is just another chapter in a very long story that we have just come in at the middle of, just as everything starts to collapse around him. . We feel that the collapse started a long time ago, and the show does a fine job at demonstrating how this will affect everyone – and the world that we have become.
It is also remarkable that this show was shot during lockdowns, but doesn’t appear compromised as much as some other dramatic productions have been. You get plenty of full sets, with many actors working and integrating with each other, including as we mentioned the hugging, but all somehow within filming protocols, with whatever filming tricks were necessary, utterly invisible. However they did it, it doesn’t show on the screen, and it wasn’t anything I even gave thought to until the Q&A session after the screening.
Who would I be keeping my eye on? Saara’s university rival Gabriel. Maybe we’ll learn about exactly what he’s been up to and who he’s been doing it for with episode 2. Seriously, I saw the first episode weeks ago, and there are still weeks for that to air. I’m not happy.
The Undeclared War is a new Channel 4 drama airing on Thursday 30th June at 9pm, and on All4.
The Undeclared War S01E01
Review by Rich Johnston
Channel 4’s new tense cyber-warfare thriller is set in the near, but very recognizable future but wants to make you scared of the threat it shows right now. And it succeeds.