Boris won’t go that easily! The Undeclared War and the perils of writing near-future TV

The Undeclared War imagines a Britain with Boris Johnson finally gone, Ukraine fallen and cyber attacks crippling the country. Will audiences buy it? We examine the pitfalls of political TV

It is 15 months since Boris Johnson lost a vote of confidence and was replaced in Number 10 by the UK’s first prime minister of colour. With an election looming, the Conservatives are seeking to extend their 14 years in power, but this new PM needs to watch out for the icy blond foreign secretary who sought the job herself. The year is 2024.

This is the scenario of The Undeclared War, a provocative six-part drama created by Peter Kosminsky, who directed 2015’s Wolf Hall and, a decade earlier, The Government Inspector, about the death of UN weapons inspector Dr David Kelly. But while those shows dramatised the past, The Undeclared War attempts to present the future – a potentially treacherous enterprise, as shown by the history of shows overtaken, or even pulled off air, by actual political events.

Kosminsky’s decision not to have him fight the next election seems reasonable, as is his successor diversifying the PM line, given two of the possible real-world candidates (Rishi Sunak, Nadim Zahawi). But by using Johnson as an off-screen character, Kosminsky blurs reality and speculation. Just as Margaret Thatcher was succeeded in 1990’s original House of Cards by the fictional Francis Urquhart, this toppled Johnson is followed by Andrew Makinde, compellingly played by Adrian Lester.

Adrian Lester as Andrew Makinde in the Undeclared War.
The next PM … Adrian Lester as Andrew Makinde in The Undeclared War. Photograph: Channel 4

Covid is still rampant and crippling cyber attacks – with Russia the main suspect – are stopping planes and trains, while paralysing banking and the internet during the election campaign. Again, this is plausible: Covid numbers are rising, as are allegations of Kremlin interference. What rings false is an all-powerful Russian Republic led by a darkly commanding Putin.

This is the nightmare of writers who tackle the future, such as those who tied plots to the Tokyo Summer Olympics happening in 2020. Kosminsky could not have anticipated that Putin would invade Ukraine, while this show was being edited. It contains reference to the war (possibly added as new dialogue), but the continuing supremacy of Putin in this fictional world implies that he wins the conflict, a suggestion likely to increase culture secretary Nadine Dorries’ desire to privatise Channel 4.

The Undeclared War remains incredibly relevant – cyber attacks are a likely response to western sanctions against Russia – but a super Putin in 2024 feels off-key. However, where The Undeclared War may prove least accurate is having an election taking place in 2024. The Conservatives must seek re-election no later than 2 May 2024, but there have been suggestions that they might seek a new mandate much earlier, even later this year.

As a result, impending British political TV shows – such as Sky Atlantic’s This England, with Kenneth Branagh as Johnson in the early days of the pandemic, set safely in the past though likely to provoke controversy by imagining private scenes – will be praying not to be stopped or shunted back by sudden events at Westminster.

Ophelia Lovibond as Carrie Johnson and Kenneth Branagh as prime minister Boris Johnson in This England.
Provoking controversy … Ophelia Lovibond as Carrie Johnson and Kenneth Branagh as prime minister Boris Johnson in This England. Photograph: Phil Fisk/Sky UK Ltd

A longstanding difficulty for British political drama – which is why we see so little compared to America – arises from two pieces of legislation. The first is that British PMs have generally had the power of choosing when to seek re-election. This unpredictability is exacerbated for UK broadcasters by rules dictating that contentious political material must not be screened in the run-up to an election, a period that can be several months.

The risk is very real. Thursday the 12th, a drama by Paula Milne about the lengths a politician would go to gain power, was scheduled for 9pm on 4 May 2000, but was dropped close to transmission due to warnings that it breached electoral law. The show, starring Elizabeth McGovern and Ciarán Hinds, was then scheduled for June 2001. But with astonishing bad luck, restrictions introduced to deal with the foot-and-mouth epidemic postponed the polls to June, meaning Thursday the 12th was pulled yet again; it has still only ever been screened publicly in a National Film Theatre season of Milne’s work.

Conversely, the British House of Cards had incredibly fortunate timing. The Whitehall thriller about a post-Thatcher Conservative government was scheduled for 18 November 1990. This gave viewers a four-part pre-Christmas treat while keeping well clear of the next general election, likely to fall in 1991-2. But just before the first episode, Michael Heseltine challenged Thatcher to a Tory leadership election and, soon after transmission, forced her to a second round. She resigned three days before episode two. As impartiality rules do not apply to internal leadership battles – MPs being considered too clever to be influenced by the telly! – newsflashes about Thatcher’s fall sometimes immediately followed trailers for the show.

Commissioners are more likely to be guided by the Thursday the 12th precedent. Multiple attempts to create a British equivalent of The West Wing faltered because no network would commit to a show that might have to junk a whole run if an early election were called. But the rise of international streamers has created an imbalance. White Stork, a forthcoming drama starring Tom Hiddleston as a parliamentary candidate, could be streamed by unregulated makers Netflix at any point in the UK electoral cycle, but not on a terrestrial network in a pre-poll period. This is just one of many anomalies Ofcom must address.

Russell T Davies’ tremendous 2019 drama about democratic instability, Years and Years, was carefully positioned for mid-June, after local and European elections, but successfully avoided the fall of Theresa May and her June replacement by Boris Johnson and his December snap election, which would have forced a delay. Set in 2024, the show uncannily predicted a Russian takeover of Ukraine in 2022, although Davies was probably thrilled to be proved wrong in guessing Trump’s re-election. Given that the amoral populist law-breaking government led by Emma Thompson’s character Viv Rook increasingly resembles the Johnson administration, Years and Years feels as impressively prophetic as House of Cards.

While few have happy memories of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010-15, it was an exceptionally happy half-decade for British makers of political TV. PM David Cameron and deputy PM Nick Clegg passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, which inked the next national poll for 7 May 2015. This was designed to prevent the Tories throwing their Lib Dem partners under the campaign bus with a cut-and-run election, but it also meant that, for once, political TV could be scheduled four years ahead.

Fittingly, given what she had suffered with July the 12th, Milne benefitted: her The Politician’s Husband in 2013 could confidently be scheduled for past mid-term. But the most significant consequence was The Vote, a Channel 4 simulcast of a Donmar Warehouse play by James Graham. Rather than wait until the close of polls at 10pm, when restrictions lifted, Graham chose to avoid ideological contention for the structural fun of a play set in a polling station during the last 90 minutes of voting, running in real time from 8.30pm to 10pm, when voting closed and the BBC exit poll (forecasting David Cameron’s majority) was projected on to the stage.

Within Ofcom rules, Graham entertainingly explored voting procedure and fraud, while the long-known date allowed the booking of stars – Catherine Tate, Mark Gatiss – who in normal electoral circumstances would have been required to keep a range of Thursdays free. As Johnson recently repealed fixed terms, returning the election date to the PM’s whim, The Vote represents the single occasion on which TV and theatres could reliably prepare an election night tie-in premiere.

Jimmy Smits as Matthew Santos in the West Wing.
Prophetic … Jimmy Smits as Matthew Santos in the West Wing. Photograph: Rex Features

The fact that The West Wing, the greatest ever TV political fiction, was unmoved (at least in scheduling terms) by the first and second victories of President George W Bush reflects the far greater editorial freedom across the Atlantic. Short of a planetary extinction event, a US election falls on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of every fourth November, with the next leader installed on the 20th day of the following January. As the first amendment guarantee of free speech also ensures relatively light regulation of content, American shows can be commissioned deliberately to coincide with the electoral cycle.

Even so, The West Wing was intriguing for turning both a blind eye to – and taking a prophetic look at – actual Washington DC. Aaron Sorkin’s series began, in the first year of George W Bush, as a Democrat fantasy where American was run not by a dim Republican but by Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics who, unlike the real recently departed Bill Clinton, posed no risk to interns. In the 2006 season, Bartlet was replaced as president by Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits), a candidate of colour based by the writers on Barack Obama, who had entered the Senate only in 2005. As it turned out, The West Wing had a better sense of the next presidency than Hillary Clinton’s campaign .

But the biggest pitfall for American political dramatists is wrongly guessing what will actually happen. In the 21st century so far, America has had five women presidents – though only on TV. In 2000, a flash-forward episode of The Simpsons inaugurated President Lisa Simpson, spookily following President Donald Trump (the writers were inspired by Trump’s third party presidential bid at that time.) Next into the Oval Office were characters played by Geena Davis in Commander-in-Chief; Julia Louis Dreyfus in Veep and Téa Leoni in Madame Secretary. In the US remake of House of Cards, Robin Wright’s first lady Claire Underwood succeeded her husband Frank as part of the emergency reboot after Kevin Spacey was dropped.

All these women-led administrations remain, in terms of real political history, science-fiction. But they were intended as predictive, prophetic. From around 2004,it was commonly assumed that Hillary Clinton would reclaim the White House for the Democrats in 2008. When Obama beat Clinton to the 2008 nomination, liberal America believed her turn would come in 2016, even more so when Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, ducked the race after the death of his son. But, surprised from the left by Obama eight years earlier, Clinton was now outflanked to her right by Trump. As a result, Commander-in-Chief, Veep, House of Cards and Madame Secretary all deliberately positioned themselves to reflect an outcome that never happened.

Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart in The Good Fight.
A metaphor for Hillary … Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart in The Good Fight. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/CBS/Getty Images

The Good Fight, a sequel to legal-political series The Good Wife, proved more adaptable. Premiering in February 2017, three weeks after Trump’s inauguration, its storyline of a Democrat lawyer (played by Christine Baranski) rebuilding after professional catastrophe became a metaphor for Hillary’s reverse, with Baranski’s Diane Lockhart as shocked at the thwarting of the second President Clinton as the politician was.

At least Americans know that – barring a coup, which is probably too strange for fact, even these days – their next general election will be on 5 November 2024. Good luck to showrunners trying to decide if their fictional commander-in-chief should most resemble Kamala Harris, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton or some Obama-like figure who may still come from nowhere.

In Britain, with the democratic instability of recent years, the threat of choosing the wrong moment has increased. If the government does go to the country early, there could be four general elections between 2015-23. But unless things go really wild, it should be possible to enjoy The Undeclared War and This England before polling stations open here again.

The Undeclared War is on Channel 4 and All 4 from Thursday 30 June at 9pm.

• This article was amended on 26 and 29 June 2022. The statutorily set day for US presidential elections is the first Tuesday after the first Monday of every fourth November, not “the first Thursday of every fourth November” as an earlier version said. Also, the latest possible date for the next UK general election under current legislation is 24 January 2025, not “2 May 2024”.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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