Review: Channel 4's new drama The Undeclared War sees Simon Pegg star in the Jet Set Willy of cyber-thrillers

The biggest problem cyber-thrillers like The Undeclared War (Channel 4, Thurs, 9pm) have to overcome is that watching pasty-faced IT nerds sitting bathed in the glow of a screen, clacking on keyboards, is not particularly thrilling.

By Philip Cunnington
Friday, 1st July 2022, 5:00 pm

A click of a mouse is hardly the same as the pull of a trigger, in drama terms – even if these days it has the potential to do more damage.

Which meant that the story and characterisation in Channel 4's new paranoia-fest had to do a lot of heavy lifting, given it couldn’t rely on the odd fistfight or gun battle to liven up proceedings.

And that’s where The Undeclared War began to stumble. Naive young tech-whiz Sara gets recruited to GCHQ where – coincidentally on her very first day – she has to help combat a serious attack in the ongoing cyber-war against hackers and phreakers.

Simon Pegg starred in Channel 4's new cyber-thriller The Undeclared War

To get round the clacking keyboard problem, the makers have devised a very literal visualisation of Sara’s journey through cyberspace – with doors opening in ceilings as she gets past security, and piles of old tat representing useless code – but this all feels a bit ham-fisted.

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The characters are gossamer-thin ciphers, differentiated by wearing different types of plaid shirt, while none seem to have any kind of personality.

And at no point do you get a real hint of the attack in the real world, beyond a screen showing flight delays at Heathrow.

Rupert Whittaker, the co-founder of the Terrence Higgins Trust, was featured in the powerful BBC2 documentary Aids: The Unheard Tapes

A good cast, including Simon Pegg, Adrian Lester and Ed Stoppard, is wasted and a drama which could have been a sweaty, paranoid journey into a 21st century nightmare turns into something more like Jet Set WIlly.

Aids: The Unheard Tapes (BBC2, Mon, 9.30pm) was a powerful retelling of the coming of the Aids epidemic and the effects it had – and continues to have – on the country’s gay community. Using actors lip-synching to contemporary taped interviews, it brought home the appalling shadow the disease cast on thousands of people.

The BBC has shown what the licence fee enables it to do over this last week, with its coverage of Glastonbury and Wimbledon the highlights of the summer. The hundreds of hours of coverage on iPlayer means you can catch artists – both on stage and court – who are totally new and exciting. A triumph.