Writer/director Peter Kosminsky is no stranger to British television. From his start in the late 1980s working on documentaries to writing and directing recent projects such as Wolf Hall and The State, Kosminsky has covered topics as diverse as the Falklands War, British ISIS agents in Syria, and Thomas Cromwell’s clash with King Henry VIII in the 16th century.
His latest project, the six-episode Peacock series The Undeclared War, tackles a new subject: cyberwarfare and Russian aggression during the 2024 British general election. While set in the near future, the show deals with topical themes that are both realistic and sobering. In an interview with Digital Trends, Kosminsky talks about casting such notable actors as Star Trek’s Simon Pegg and Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance and the urgency to fictionalize a very real threat to democracy around the world.
Digital Trends: What was the genesis behind the creation of The Undeclared War?
Peter Kosminsky: Well, like a lot of people, I watched some “bad actors” trying to undermine the U.S. presidential election in 2016. I found that really frightening. What do we have if we don’t have the integrity of our election system? I mean, look at what happened to the last U.S. presidential election, the sort of poisonous impact that’s having on political life in the United States. As far as I can tell from a distance, if people lose trust in their elections, it’s serious.
So that’s where I started. You know, I thought, Ok, what’s going on here in England? And the more I dug into it, the more terrifying it became. Actually, I didn’t even know that there was a fourth domain of conflict called cyber. I knew about land, sea and air, and that was it, really. I discovered that there was a hot war going on in the cyber domain. They were firing cyber weapons at each other [Britain and Russia]. And it was, by its nature, escalatory. When I started to look at the Russian concept of information operations, they see cyber as just one aspect of it.
I realized that there was a concrete strategy at play to try to create chaos in our society, in the West, to try to undermine people’s trust in our institutions, in our elections, and in our politicians. I thought, I wonder how many people are aware of this, that this hot war is going on in the cyber domain? Not that many, I would imagine so. It seemed like a great subject for TV drama.
How did you develop The Undeclared War and, specifically, the show’s main protagonist, Saara?
With The Undeclared War, it took us five years to make the show, three years of which were research. At the end of it, I had something like 15,000 pages of research.
I read all the research, made my notes, and worked out a fictional storyline that is close to reality as possible. At the same time, I’m writing character notes and asking myself what’s the best way to tell that bit of that story with that character?
And so the characters evolve and then they develop a life of their own. They become, in my mind at least, real people. They start to develop a life of their own. For example, my research suggested that GCHQ, the primary setting for the series, is predominantly white and male. So I thought, well, wouldn’t it be interesting to take somebody who was not white and who was not male and put that female character into that place and see what life was like for her?
I then created a character who was young, female, and whose ethnicity is British Asian. I just thought it would be interesting to see where that person took me in the story.
The show sports an impressive cast of established British actors like Simon Pegg and Mark Rylance and also newcomers like Hannah Khalique-Brown, who plays Saara. What prompted you to cast those particular actors?
I’m a big believer in auditioning, so I auditioned a lot of people for Saara. Hannah auditioned for nearly two years. I’m an absolute perfectionist, so I wanted to see everyone before I made the decision of casting the lead.
I’ve worked with Mark Rylance before in Wolf Hall and other projects, so I wrote the role of Jon for him. There was no guarantee he would agree to play it because he’s a huge star now, but he did. With Simon Pegg, I’ve long admired his work. I’m a huge sci-fi fan. I’ve seen all his performances in the Mission Impossible and Star Trek movies and some of his early low-budget British shows, which are great fun. But what always came through to me was the guy’s a really great actor. He’s extremely funny.
He knows how to deliver a comedic line, no question. But he’s also got great timing. So I thought, well, maybe he’d be interested in playing a non-comedic role. I just got in touch with him and found out he had grown up in Cheltenham, which is where GCHQ is based.
In fact, his brother, who is older than him, had worked on the building as an electrician, so this place had developed an almost mythical status for him. He accepted the role of Danny Patrick, who is the head of operations at GCHQ.
Midway through the series, there’s a dramatic shift in perspective where we see the other side, the Russians, and how they operate. What was the motivation behind this change?
I hate generalized portrayals of villains. All people are complicated. People do bad things. Some of them do unbelievably horrible, heinous things, but they’re all people. We all want to know who they are and why they’re doing those things. In The Undeclared War, I didn’t really want to have the Russians as “The Other” who we never met.
I was also really interested in the idea of a shift, not just in perspective, but in the narrative as well. I was excited by this idea because I’ve never done this before where you start knowing no more than your lead actor does, and then halfway through the piece, you suddenly know a lot more and you’re watching the lead knowing less than you do. And I thought it would be interesting to try and make that switch for the audience and see what that felt like for them. Now, I have no idea whether it’s a good idea or not, but it was something I wanted to try.
What do you want viewers to take away from The Undeclared War after they’ve watched it?
This is not going to be an upbeat, happy ending to our interview. I want them to know there exists a conscious attempt to undermine our democracy and our way of life. I believe in an informed population, so if what they see gets them worried, maybe they should be worried. Maybe they should be contacting their congressman and saying, “Are you hearing this? You know, what’s going on in the cyber domain? What are we doing about that?”
I hope the audience will get a more realistic sense of what’s going on in the cyber domain at the moment and then be able to make more informed decisions about how they feel about that.
The Undeclared War is now streaming all six of its episodes on Peacock.