Cobra star Robert Carlyle felt sorry for Theresa May after playing PM role in new Sky thriller

Written by Caroline Frost on 17 January 2020 in Culture

The star of Sky One's latest political thriller said he felt sympathy for embattled PM Theresa May after filming the show which focuses on the government's response to a major natural disaster.

Most people reading this will know that Cobra stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A. They don’t actually meet in A anymore, it’s actually Room J these days, but that would definitely lose a certain cachet associated with the hub of the Government’s response to crisis.

National emergencies, terrorist attacks, riots are all handled here, but it’s actually a natural crisis that is at the heart of SkyOne’s brand new thriller ‘Cobra’. A geomagnetic storm arising from a solar flare threatens the global electrical grid. Before long, kettles aren’t boiling, cities plunge into darkness and a plane drops from the sky. At the heart of all of this, Robert Carlyle’s personable PM Robert Sutherland must deal with a nation in peril, and inevitable threats from within his own Tory Party. The original script even had a Duchess of Sussex joke that didn’t age well. It’s an ambitious state-of-the-nation epic disguised as a comfy political thriller.

“I was bored of terrorist threats,” explains writer and show runner Ben Richards. As well he might, as a veteran of spy drama ‘Spooks’ where he apparently wrote “hundreds of those things”.

“The problem is you have to find a twist, because it’s so predictable, so then it turns out to Mossad, or the CIA or state-led terrorism, and I just couldn’t face doing it again.

“With this show, there isn’t really a villain, the villain is the weather, and the sun becomes the device that gives us lots of stories. It’s really about a society that has started to fall apart because of all the shortages, with blockades on the road, and anger by those living in Northumberland because it’s been neglected so much. It’s all about zero sum gains and losses.”

If it all sounds a bit Project Fear, Richards is keen to emphasise that planning on the show started long before even the referendum: “I was very influenced by what I knew of the war in Yugoslavia, watching a previously civilised society falling apart, neighbour turning on neighbour, tensions in the community, political hatreds rising to the surface.

“It happened during the financial crisis as well, when people started fearing money would stop coming out of cash points. Dramatically, the shift from stability and civility to disorder and violence is one that can happen really quickly. That was what I really wanted to explore, disguised as a political thriller.”

He pauses. “But then the politics become really acute, especially if you have a Prime Minister who is likeable. And Cobra deals with emergencies and catastrophic situations, so it was straightforward to wind some politics around it. Because you reach a crisis point, when the Prime Minister has to start making life and decisions over levels of force over what has become more than a protest, but a whole civil uprising.”

'Politicians aren't perfect, they are conflicted'

Inevitably, during the writing process, Brexit started influencing Richards’ thoughts: “I wanted to tap into, what are the fears of a no-deal Brexit? You shouldn’t frighten people. I do believe it’s our leaders’ jobs to appear as though we are safe.”

How safe are we? Fairly, is Richards’ conservative estimate, based on his chats with scientists while researching the natural disaster for his show: “They’re always telling us, watch out for a storm. The National Grid says it isn’t going to happen, lots of people say it might, which is good enough for me. A solar storm in the next 10 years could very feasibly happen.”

The show’s locations are as sweeping as the narrative, ranging from familiar central London Thames-side benches to a disused airfield near Preston, scene of a disturbingly real aeroplane crash. For the Parliamentary scenes, as well as those in Downing Street, sets were built near Manchester. For Richards, however, despite access to those in power after a lifetime involvement in politics, he’s not completely bothered by total procedural accuracy.

“I tend to just write what I think is about right, and then see if anyone tells me I’m completely wrong,” he reveals. “I don’t actually care that much. There’s always stuff that’s going to be a bit wrong. You can’t represent the complexities of Government in a drama. One person might represent three. Normally the Home Secretary chairs Cobra meetings but I wanted to foreground our main characters, so I don’t care about that either. So far, nobody who’s seen it has said, ‘That’s out of the question.’”

Tonally, Richards credits ‘The West Wing’ for influence, explaining: “I wanted humour, but not something overly arch, not overly cynical about the world. I don’t like a tone of relentless mockery. For serious issues, mockery isn’t enough.

“Politicians aren’t perfect, they’re conflicted, with lots going on in their lives, trying to do their best in difficult circumstances.

“For example, if you’re going to have a fictional PM, who’s it going to be? It’s an aspirational thing, you don’t want him or her to be a complete shit, because that’s limiting.”

'Theresa May was aging five years by the week'

Instead, with Robert Carlyle’s Robert Sutherland we get a telegenic Tory Prime Minister, keen to do the right thing - if only he can work out what that is.

The Scottish star admits, as a long-time resident of Canada far away from the travails of Westminster, he didn’t actually know what Cobra was when first sent the script. “I spoke to a couple of Scottish politicians, and apparently it’s convened a lot, which people don’t realise.

“The biggest thing for my character is balancing his family and the needs of the country. You see these two sides of him.”

While he dismisses speculation of any one real-life figure inspiring his role – “you have to be faithful to the words on the page” – he does admit to a fresh understanding for the demands of the job: “Before I had zero sympathy, but during that time, Theresa May was going back and forwards to Brussels and was ageing five years by the week, and I could feel for her. I realised she had a life, problems we all have, and I felt for her as a human being.”

Victoria Hamilton, last seen as a mischievous Queen Mother in Series 1 and 2 of ‘The Crown’, found her role of Anna Marshall, Sutherland’s trusted special advisor – Spad – equally confounding: “I didn’t realise how much power advisers have, and how much PMs listen and are guided by them.”

Hamilton wonders how viewers will take to on-screen politicians genuinely keen to do right. “I don’t think politicians have ever been held in such low regard, and I think it will be very interesting to see how an audience responds to a PM and special advisor double act that, whatever their failings, do inhabit a moral high ground that you can believe in. Will it be welcomed, or a very challenging concept?”

For David Haig, who previously played PM Jim Hacker in the 2013 reboot of ‘Yes Prime Minister’, his role this time around of an ambitious Home Secretary required a combination of seriousness and humour, what the actor calls “a strange mix of integrity and opportunism.” His opportunities certainly grow as the PM’s becomes battle-weary, but writer Ben Richards asks, “Does he really want the top job? Maybe he’s not capable of it, and he comes to realise that. He’s not afraid of attempting integrity, when he’s forced to.”

For Richards, the biggest challenge when creating fictional politicians is to avoid cliché: “You’re alert to tropes, but they exist because politicians behave in certain ways. You have to find a course that respects reality, but also gives them a narrative, without falling into caricature.

“I’ve had a lifetime involvement in and around politics, and the one thing I’ve noticed that leaders have in common is a singular quality, that they want to stay in power. It takes a lot to get there, and it takes even more to leave.

“But I wanted to invest my characters with a dignity and humanity. In depiction, it’s always demanded you mock them and hold them up to ridicule, and I wanted to remind the audience, these are serious people.”

Richards is a lifelong Labour voter who nonetheless looks back on the Blair years as a time when “they ran the party with arrogance, lack of respect for the members and bear responsibility for what is happening now”.

The present is no better for him, however: “The scary thing is the sense of helplessness. I don’t really know what I want to happen anymore. I can’t say hand on heart that I think the Labour Party is one whose elected triumph I see as a good thing, and I’ve been a Labour Party supporter all my life.”

So chequered nostalgia and forlorn hope… has writing ‘Cobra’ assuaged Richards’ despair? He takes a deep breath. “No, I’ve shown, perhaps unrealistically, is how important they actually are.”

One person the show’s writer isn’t hanging out for a positive review of ‘Cobra’ from is the current resident of 10 Downing Street for, it transpires, they have history. Richards recalls:

“When I wrote a political show years ago, the Guardian got a panel of politicians and experts to judge it. Most wrote a paragraph or two. Boris Johnson just wrote, ‘Bollocks.’ I was quite pleased with that.”

All episodes of Cobra are available from 17 January on Sky One and NOW TV.

Caroline Frost is an entertainment journalist and broadcaster

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