The Undeclared War | Interview with Peter Kosminsky (Creator, Writer, Director & Executive Producer)

What is the story of The Undeclared War?

PK: The Undeclared War is fiction but based very heavily on research carried out over a number of years. The story is of a young trainee who arrives part way through her university career to do a work experience placement at GCHQ. She’s a talented computer coder, but with no experience of intelligence or the secret world. Almost as soon as she arrives, she uncovers a hidden section of the malware that has brought the UK’s Internet to its knees. It’s her brilliance at spotting something that everyone else has missed that leads to her being feted within GCHQ.

How did the project come to be created?

PK: I made a TV series with Colin Callender called “Wolf Hall”, which was based on the historical novels by Hilary Mantel. We were looking for another project to work on together. My normal territory is not period dramas about the royal family.  In fact, they tend to be contemporary, political dramas, usually for Channel 4, which deal with issues of public policy.

We’re used to the idea of air battles, sea battles, land battles, but there’s a whole new and very active domain of conflict – the cyber domain. Though this undeclared war was being waged now, by our national agencies, virtually no one knew anything about it.

Our job as dramatists is to cast a light on such little-known areas of public policy, particularly when they affect us all now.  And are likely to continue to affect us in increasingly profound ways.

Could you talk a little bit about the kind of research that you did for the project?

PK: Well, I can’t be too specific, but we spent a number of years researching this area to ensure that “The Undeclared War” is soundly factually based. We researched with a fairly open mind to try to figure out what the story is and what challenges we as a society were likely to face in and around the year 2024. The result is, above all I think, a cautionary tale.

It’s one possible future and quite an alarming one in a number of ways. But, inevitability, whenever one tells a story such as this, you see examples of the best and worst in humanity. You see some truly terrifying things, amongst the worst that human beings can do to each other. But you also see acts of great kindness and heroism as displayed, in this case, by some of our very young leading cast of characters.

As well as a cautionary tale, alerting us to one possible future that may face us, ‘The Undeclared War’ is also a love story, the story of great ingenuity and bravery against all odds.

How realistic is the central threat of the series?

PK: I think the central threat depicted in the series is unfortunately very real. We researched this show very thoroughly and it was important to me that this wasn’t a made-up fantasy, set in an impossible alternative universe. On the contrary, this is all too real. These are the kinds of scenarios being ‘war-gamed’ by our security services right now. All I’ve done is extrapolated to a possible conclusion and teased out a possible motive.

What do you hope audiences will take from the story?

PK: Well, I don’t want to terrify people, that’s absolutely not the point, but we also don’t want to live in ignorance of what’s going on around us. The cyber domain is very attractive to a number of our adversaries, for a number of reasons. To fight a war in that domain is relatively cheap. You don’t need to move armies to other parts of the world. You don’t need to build fighter bombers; you don’t need to build aircraft carriers or nuclear submarine. Individual ingenuity can achieve a great deal in the cyber domain relatively cheaply, including causing a great deal of damage.

I want to alert people to the dangers, the very real dangers, that we are facing as a country and as a civilization. We also want to throw light on the whole area of information warfare. We saw some of this in what went on during the Brexit referendum, what went on in the American presidential election. Social media can be hijacked to influence public opinion, to steer us towards an objective masterminded by others who don’t have our best interests at heart.

What was your vision for the series?

PK: I think one of the central challenges that we faced in trying to make “The Undeclared War” was how to avoid boring our audience into submission. I didn’t want to create a series with endless scenes of people sitting at keyboards staring at incomprehensible computer code. I think the central challenge was how to make the world of cording, malware, viruses, and cyber conflict visually interesting for the audience.

How did you go about creating the Codeworld scenarios and that part of the series?

PK: One of the most interesting things I discovered during my research is how neurodiverse people who work in the cyber world are. The most fascinating challenge was to try and get inside the head of somebody who thinks very differently from me, and I suspect, to the majority of the audience.

Codeworld, the way we depict what’s happening within the computers in “The Undeclared War”, is one of our responses to that challenge.

How does a really gifted computer coder imagine what they’re doing within the computer? In our drama, they don’t see it as endless noughts and ones, or a voyage through semiconductors. Saara sees it as a kind of alternate universe. In this universe, actions she is taking within the code are represented by events and actions familiar in our real world. 

For example, if she is required to scroll through lines and lines of computer code, in her mind she is standing in a narrow courtyard, bouncing a tennis ball repeatedly against the wall. But in this Codeworld, as we called it, the normal rules of our real world do not necessarily apply.

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How would you describe your directing style? How do you like to work?

PK: When you’ve been making television programmes for over 40 years, you of course acquire a number of bad habits. You fall into ways of working, often without being aware that you’re doing them. However, I do have a number of rules that I try to follow.

The first is what when we stand on the set, it’s an actors’ space and I am there, first and foremost, for the actors. I’ve worked with the same crew by and large – certainly at the head of department level – for many, many years and we know each other pretty well. They know that, when we’re on set, my priority is to create a space around the actors, so they can concentrate and do their best work. Where they know they have space to fail if they need it. Where I hope they’ll think of me as a companion on the journey they are undertaking.

I’ve come to the conclusion that my job as a director really comes down to two things in the end. To get the script right and to cast the right actors. Which is why I spend a huge amount of time on the casting process. Once you cast the right actors, your job is to give them the space to do their work, to give them the best chance to deliver their best performance.

How did the casting process work with “The Undeclared War”? And can you tell us a bit about who you found for these roles and the mix of completely new faces and very established actors?

PK: Because of Covid, all the casting, bar one session for the main lead, was conducted over Zoom, which was a very strange experience for me. Sad actually because I love that direct interaction with an actor in a room. But it turned out that even this old dog can learn new tricks. I think we have, with the help of very talented casting directors, put together a really able cast who do a wonderful job.

It’s an interesting cast – new actors working alongside very experienced cast members. As the story is set partly in Russia and partly in Britain, we have two young leads in each territory.

In Britain, we have Saara and Kathy. Saara is a British girl still at university who comes to work at GCHQ on work experience. Kathy is an experienced analyst from the sister agency of GCHQ in America – the NSA. Kathy’s a New Yorker who is working at GCHQ on a two-year attachment. Partly because Kathy and Saara are two of the only people of colour in GCHQ, they form an alliance and become good friends.

In Russia, we also have two young characters. Vadim is the reluctant son of an arms dealer, very uncomfortable with his father’s work and enormous wealth. Marina is a single parent born in Siberia. Her father died before she was born, in an accident on the gas rigs of Northern Siberia. Marina says she didn’t really have a childhood. These two extremely unlikely friends end up in a relationship and unexpectedly fall in love.

So, we have these really quite young and relatively inexperienced actors in the four lead roles. But all around them, we have some very well-known faces. Simon Pegg, an actor I’ve admired for many years, plays Danny – the Head of Operations at GCHQ. He’s extremely able, full of humility with a great sense of humour, who sees Saara’s amazing ability from the outset. She’s not an easy person to deal with but he gives her the space to do her best work.

Then we have Adrian Lester, who again is an actor I’ve wanted to work with for many years. He’s playing the first Black British Prime Minister in 2024. It’s a chilling, mesmerising performance.

And there’s Mark Rylance, one of the world’s greatest actors and with whom I’ve had the honour to work on two previous occasions, playing the role of John Yeabsley.

You have chosen to centre the story about two young women of colour in a very white, male world – can you discuss that approach to the narrative?

PK: GCHQ is located in Cheltenham, which is a very white town – and inevitably, perhaps because of the nature of the computer work many of them do, it draws a largely male workforce. I thought it would be interesting to create a character – a British character of South Asian ethnicity – and to place her into that very white world. Saara is young – she’s still a university student when we meet her. She’s not a person particularly well-adapted to making friends, she’s a loner by nature. And then there’s this additional factor of her different ethnicity. It strikes her the moment she arrives. She looks around and it’s a very white world she’s just entered.

She immediately concludes she’s been recruited as a kind of tokenistic, box-ticking exercise – which actually isn’t the case, because she’s incredibly talented. So, I thought, and this was purely a creative decision on my part when we were first devising the series, that this would be an interesting starting point for our central character. She would be coming into this world with elements that made her different – and that would mean that she would find it harder to settle in there, would feel isolated in that space.

I was also very interested in the idea of people who come over on attachment from the American security agencies to work at GCHQ. I thought it would be interesting if that person, too, was a person of colour. Now in the NSA – the National Security Agency – being a person of colour is a lot more common than it is at GCHQ, as things currently stand, I believe. And Kathy, the New Yorker, arriving from the NSA as an African American woman into GCHQ, would have a slightly different perspective from Saara – literally and figuratively.

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What is it about “The Undeclared War” that you think will get audiences hooked?

PK: On one level, “The Undeclared War” is a cautionary tale about where we are heading in the cyber universe and about some of the dangers we face as a society – some creeping up on us unnoticed. But, on another level, “The Undeclared War” works as a political thriller with an element of “whodunnit” about it. What seems at first sight to be an audacious, dangerous, but in the end straightforward cyber-attack on the UK’s Internet turns out to be nothing of the sort.

I’ve had a lot of help, working alongside three other incredibly gifted writers – Amelia Spencer, Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson. I hope we have, together, constructed a compelling thriller. And I hope people will find it fascinating to see into the secret world at GCHQ, which is based on very thorough research and which they probably haven’t seen before.

What do you think will surprise audiences about “The Undeclared War”?

PK: If you think “God, a series about cyber warfare” – you think you’re going to see lots of people sitting at computers typing and lots of shots of code you don’t understand scrolling up the screen and lots of slightly geeky people talking a language that makes no sense to you, I think you’re in for a surprise.

It really isn’t like that, this show. We’ve created an alternative universe called Codeworld which exists inside Saara’s mind, and which somehow represents what she’s doing within the computer, but in a very realistic way that’s familiar to the audience.

I think that they’ll be surprised, as I was actually during the research phase, that the people they encounter in that world are sparky, bright, funny, terrifyingly intelligent, with really strongly defined characters who are fun to hang out with, who have lives outside the computer world. They’re individuals with very strong personalities and senses of what’s right and wrong.

The other thing that came through to me very strongly was that all these people could earn double or even triple what they earn at GCHQ if they went into the private sector. They’re not doing it for the money. They’re doing it for what they call “the mission” – the mission in the sense of defending us. Because, make no mistake, we are under attack in the cyber domain. Our commerce is under attack, our intellectual property is under attack, our way of life is under attack – and most terrifyingly our democracy is under attack. And these people spurn the much higher wages they could earn working for private security companies to work quite difficult hours within GCHQ to defend us, and to defend our way of life. I think that’s rather an honourable thing to do. Many of them are really young, and quite idealistic.

Did anything else surprise you about the research you did, or concern you?

PK: Well, the truth is, the deeper I researched this subject the more terrifying it became. I don’t want to depress people and “The Undeclared War” sets out not to be a depressing piece – it’s full of hope – but we face very real threats in the cyber world. I was surprised by the depth of the threat and the immediacy of the threat that we face, and of course – a bit like the way our leaders deal with climate change – we can bury our heads in the sand and hope it will go away, but it won’t, and it’s probably better if we understand the threat we’re facing – a threat to our very way of life.

So yes, looking back on the research the thing that surprised and frightened me was the scale of the threat, the extent to which a war is already taking place in the cyber domain, the undeclared war of our title. And I was filled with the determination to take those who are kind enough to watch this show on a similar journey to the one I’d been on during the research, a journey of discovery and a journey of awakening  – not necessarily an entirely pleasant awakening to the threat we face, but also of reassurance, at least on this level, that there are a group of people who are, against the odds and with, relatively, pathetically small resources, doing their best to protect us. And that’s something of which I think we can be proud.

What words spring to mind when you think of the series?

PK: Suspenseful. Surprising. Enlightening. Alarming. Moving. Breath-taking – because I think there are moments that do almost take your breath away, moments of surprise and consequence where you think, “Oh – is that what’s really happening in the world?”

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Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.