A very classy thriller indeed: C4's The Undeclared War reviewed

2 July 2022

9:00 AM

2 July 2022

9:00 AM

The Undeclared War

Channel 4

Citizen Ashe


The Undeclared War has many of the traditional signifiers of a classy thriller: the assiduous letter-by-letter captioning of every location; the weirdly precise time-checks (‘Sunday 09.47’); above all, the frankly baffling opening scene. In it, a young woman walked around a deserted fairground, broke into a beach hut that turned into a gym and spotted a door in the ceiling which led into a stately home.

Gradually, the fact that the first episode interspersed this with the same woman typing computer code made it clear what was going on: writer/director Peter Kosminsky was making a plucky attempt to solve his main challenge here. Never afraid of a big issue, Kosminsky has previously tackled the invasion of Iraq (The Government Inspector), British Isis volunteers (The State) and the postwar history of Palestine (The Promise). Now he takes on cyber warfare, which has the rare property of being both terrifying and undramatic, with much of the action consisting of people doing advanced computer science. Hence his decision to give their keyboard-tapping external metaphorical form.

This can sometimes be over-literal, in a way that might remind older viewers of Legs & Co. routines on Top of the Pops. (At one point, the coded obstruction that programmers call ‘garbage’ was represented by some garbage.) Nonetheless, it does sort of work visually – as well as offering variation from the many scenes where people stare aghast at a string of numbers while scary music plays.

But even if The Undeclared War doesn’t quite solve the central problem its subject poses, the subject itself is still a powerfully intriguing one. I also suspect I’m not the only viewer left feeling distinctly naive that I didn’t really know about it before – and distinctly unsettled now that I do.

The setting is April 2024, when Saara (Hannah Khalique-Brown), the young woman from scene one, joins GCHQ on the very day that Britain comes under cyber attack. Malware in BT Openreach, which provides the infrastructure for most of the UK internet, knocks out all rail signals, online banking and ATMs. Cunningly, it leaves social media intact so that bots can spread populist discontent by blaming the government. (Not coincidentally, there’s an election campaign in progress.) And, as it turns out, the Russians – presumably – aren’t finished yet…

As ever, Kosminsky has obviously done his homework here, making such an attack seem horribly plausible. His version of the future is firmly, if gloomily, embedded in the present, as the government also confronts a recession, continuing Covid and a deep, possibly terminal public disillusion with authority. One thing missing, mind you, is Boris Johnson – overthrown 15 months before by a junior minister who’s now Britain’s first black PM. Unfortunately, his not being Boris doesn’t mean that he’s a man of integrity.

All of which might be enough for some opening episodes to be going on with. Saara, though, was given a subplot about the mental decline of her beloved dad. Thanks to Khalique-Brown’s terrific central performance, the father-daughter scenes were always affecting. Nonetheless, the programme’s real emotional punch still comes from its wider concerns – and especially the reminder (or for us naive ones, revelation) of just how precarious our internet-dependent way of life is. All in all, then, the signifiers don’t lie: The Undeclared War is a very classy thriller indeed.

The American documentary Citizen Ashe was, as you might imagine, a profoundly reverent portrait of the first black player to win the Wimbledon men’s singles. It dealt efficiently with the late Arthur Ashe’s tennis career, and his victory over Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final was a stirring set-piece. But, as you might further imagine, the chief focus was on race.

Born in Virginia in 1943, Ashe grew up in the fully segregated South. Even so, he wasn’t a natural fit for the 1960s civil rights movement – largely, as he acknowledged, because the reticence and courtesy advisable for a black Southerner when he was young proved hard to shake off. (John McEnroe’s behaviour, he told one interviewer, made him both irritated and envious of such ‘emotional freedom’.) Slowly, however, he edged towards a realisation of which side he was on – although never to anything so impolite as outright militancy.

At times, in fact, the programme itself felt rather like a teacher patiently waiting for a bright student to reach the right answer – and perhaps deciding that the one he does finally come up with is close enough. (The final scenes duly drew a somewhat wishful straight line from Ashe to Black Lives Matter.) Yet, if the result never entirely convinced us that its subject measures up to our exacting modern standards, it left us in no doubt that the reverence was justified. From first to last, Ashe came across as an unusually thoughtful, unusually honest wrestler with the issues that history threw his way.

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