I don’t yet know if Peter Kosminsky’s new series is among his very best; as I write, I’ve seen two episodes. But even if it isn’t, The Undeclared War must surely rank among his cleverest. Set deep inside GCHQ, in a realm populated almost entirely by bearded tech nerds, the challenges the writer/director has set himself are huge to the point of foolhardiness. Not only are his characters the kind of people whose idea of intimacy is a good game of chess; their work, vital to national security, cannot be discussed in the outside world, which makes writing dialogue for them close to impossible at times. As for action, the tricksy plot turns on excitements that take place mostly on screens. No guns, no car chases, no lovers’ fights. It’s a commissioning editor’s perfect nightmare.
How does Kosminsky (The Government Inspector, Britz, The Promise) deal with the last problem? The answer is: quite brilliantly. Our heroine is Saara Parvin (Hannah Khalique-Brown), a student who has won a year-long secondment to GCHQ, and whose intellectual stubbornness is already proving a boon to her defensive male colleagues. But no sooner are her fingers dancing across her keyboard than Kosminsky switches perspective, visualising what’s going on inside her head. It’s a trick that may not enable us to reads code as fluidly as she does, but at least conveys the uncommon fascination it holds for her; the various stages through which she must move if she is to make sense of the malware she is investigating. A tool belt slung around her waist, we see her opening imaginary doors and climbing imaginary ladders, breaking imaginary locks and peering into imaginary crevices; when she gets stuck, we see her bouncing an imaginary ball against an imaginary brick wall in an imaginary courtyard. All this is beautifully done, each scene as surreal and as painterly as a canvas by Magritte.
Kosminsky, always keenly interested in current events, is often prescient, and The Undeclared War, set in 2024, is terrifying partly because his storyline is so plausible. The prime minister, Andrew Makinde (Adrian Lester), is, we learn, the man who ousted Boris Johnson from his job, a public-school Tory whose ratings in the polls are at rock bottom. He’s really very unpleasant, and so is his cabinet, particularly Richard Marston (Ed Stoppard), who combines Dominic Raab’s great brains (joke) with an especial Harry Flashman nastiness (imagine a bully who runs a provincial country-house hotel and you’re about there). Hardly surprising, then, that when Russia (it is assumed) launches an unprecedented cyber attack on Britain, closing pretty much everything down, all these morons can think of is revenge. The disaster, inevitably, will only deepen on their watch, for they inhabit the same times as our own: the Age of Incompetence. (Corruption, however much it stinks, is something of a sideshow at this point – though given that this is Kosminsky we’re dealing with, something more whiffy may also be along soon.)
At a Cobra meeting, Makinde is warned against escalation by two GCHQ bigwigs, Danny P (Simon Pegg) and David Neal (Alex Jennings). But he and Marston won’t listen. Nor will they applaud Saara for her work, because if the intern is the one who made a breakthrough, doesn’t this only prove the ineptitude of her bosses? (Like our present government, this shower has no respect for expertise. It pains them to listen to something they won’t ever be able fully to understand, difficulty only reminding them of their own stupidity.)
The audience’s sympathy is, of course, with GCHQ’s assorted geniuses, however grumpy and odd – but it would be anyway. On top of Kosminsky’s other talents, he’s so good with actors. Pegg and Jennings turn in understatedly convincing performances; Mark Rylance is a joy as a grammar-obsessed mathematician; Khalique-Brown, a newcomer, is sensational. Tie all this together with a plot that is properly gripping – is there more to this cyber attack than meets the eye? What damage could it ultimately do? – and a binge-worthy treat lies ahead.
Kosminsky is that old-fashioned thing: a generalist who is able to turn his hand deftly to any subject. Long may he go on making telly like this – addictive, vital, gorgeously creative – and long may Channel 4 continue to support him.
The Undeclared War
30 June, 9pm
[See also: The Last Days of Roger Federer review: Geoff Dyer and the art of slacking off]
This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness