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COBRA season 2 Secrets from the Set: ‘The toughest shoot I’ve ever been involved in’ – Robert Carlyle
COBRA is back for a second season in the shape of COBRA: CYBERWAR. We spoke with stars Robert Carlyle, Victoria Hamilton, David Haig and Richard Pepple - as well as writer Ben Richards - about this series’ creation and production in the teeth of a real-life global crisis.
Watch COBRA: CYBERWAR on Sky Max and NOW.
Even the makers of COBRA could not have predicted what would happen in the real world in between seasons 1 and 2 of the political thriller.
After creating a global crisis in the form of a solar storm in the first season, the production team had the task of coming up with an equally dramatic premise for the second – and set about writing it just as the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Furthermore, much of the filming took place in early 2021 at a time when cases in the UK were again on the rise while the first round of vaccines rolled out.
We spoke to writer Ben Richards and stars Robert Carlyle, Victoria Hamilton, David Haig and Richard Pepple about making the show and which politicians helped shape their characters.
‘The toughest shoot I’ve been involved in’
Robert Carlyle, who plays Prime Minister Robert Sutherland, admitted to BT.com that he found filming tough because of the timing and location of the shoot.
“It was very, very tough," he said. "There was no doubt about it. The toughest shoot I’ve ever been involved in because we were shooting in the heart of the pandemic in the UK, in the North West.”
He admitted he felt isolated during filming but was very aware that he was a lot more privileged than many others during the pandemic.
“I didn't leave my apartment at all for four months. Only to get picked up in the morning and to go into the studio to film. That was the only time left that house, even my groceries and stuff like that were online delivery to the door. I didn't go out at all.
“I was put up in a nice apartment and nice balcony so I could get out and get a breath of air on the balcony. So it wasn't horrific for me. I was very much aware that it was horrific for a lot of people other than me.
“I’d always had this scenario in my mind that I kept on playing whenever I could have felt down. And of course, away from my family. My family’s over in Canada. Four months away through Christmas, not been able to see them - that was it was tough, but I kept on thinking about this kind of fictitious family. I had them up a high-rise block somewhere, in two rooms, four people, an abusive kind of relationship going on, no outside space.
“In lockdown that must have been real torture for people. So whenever I was feeling a bit down or feeling sorry for myself, I thought about that – I thought ‘You’re OK, son’.”
‘We thought a pandemic would be boring’
The writers got to work on season 2 before Covid hit – and creator Ben Richards revealed in a press Q&A that the team floated the idea of a pandemic but rejected it.
“One of the crises we considered before Covid was a pandemic but I thought it might be a bit boring – like hundreds of people turning up at hospital and nobody being able to work would be fundamentally undramatic. How wrong I was about that!” he laughed. “And a major flu crisis in this country would be anti-drama, so shows how much I know.”
He joked that he may have predicted the future with series one, after Dominic Cummings warned that a solar flare could have an even bigger impact that Covid.
He chuckled: “I was absolutely furious that I wasn't invited on Newsnight or anything else to discuss how prescient I was with series one. Dominic Cummings… apparently he's been going on and on about how we're not prepared for a solar storm and it will be even worse than Covid. And I was like, ‘Yeah, hello? We've been talking about this!’"
And in an interview with BT.com, Ben said it was a challenge to match a premise as thrilling in season two.
“It was really hard, actually, because in the series is we do a big bang at the beginning of episode one. But the thing about the big bang is you start cleaning it up. There's no there's no real drama there. It gets progressively better - and of course, what we want is for everything to get worse and worse and worse.
“And I never really want to do terrorism. I know we have a bit of terrorism this time, but I never massively want to do it because it feels very familiar. So finding that novel thing that can then produce a sort of global crisis that tests all our characters… yeah, it’s difficult.”
David Haig, who plays former Home Secretary Archie Glover-Morgan in the show, added that the real-life challenges we’ve all faced added an extra layer to the new series.
“I think the interesting thing about this second series is that the Covid crisis has proved that nothing is outlandish in our society and is possible now," he said.
"So any nerves that you had in writing the first, and the solar storm of the second, and the cyber warfare explosion off the coast - they are absolutely possible. And nobody in our society now will doubt it.
"So I think there is a huge appetite now for these extreme potential events that actually are not so unlikely. And so people are excited by looking at those issues. And I think it's brilliantly, brilliantly achieved."
The show’s stars also spoke to BT.com about playing high-profile politicians and whether they used their real-life counterparts to help inform their roles.
“You don't necessarily go and find a politician and stick that mask on your face to mimic any particular person, but you can look at a mass of them,” said Robert Carlyle.
He added that the late Labour leader John Smith provides inspiration for him, for both the role and in a general sense.
“The one that stood out for me was John Smith, the old Labour leader of the 80s and 90s who passed away.
“The best Prime Minister we never had, in my opinion. He was a fantastic man. I think what Smith had was a real sense of the moral compass.
“Sutherland is what would be described as a kind of two-tier, utilitarian politician, and I think that's possibly where Smith was as well. I think that fundamentally he was about what was doing the right thing. But he was pragmatic at the same time, and I think he understood that.
“The problem for the Labour Party back in those days was that it was so different from the Tories at the time. The Thatcherism of the time was so extreme and the Labour Party through Kinnock was so different. But Smith was a pragmatic man and he understood that I think, and he knew that things had to slightly go not too centrist, but I think he realised that they had to make a few steps that way.”
Newcomer Richard Pepple, who steps in as the new Home Secretary Joseph Obasi, said he looked to black politicians for his inspiration.
He told BT.com: “I think because you are trying to find the truth in these characters that you're playing... it’s about finding what drives people. For me with a lot of people, especially the black politicians like Paul Boateng, Chuka Umunna, Kwasi Kwarteng and even Rishi Sunak, they're all really driven by their beliefs.
“The thing I got from looking at various people, whether you agree with their politics or not, they were really driven by their beliefs and what they stand for, what they represent.
"I think that for me was how I tapped into it - a real passion, which sometimes can be hard to see behind the veneer of politics and the veneer that they sometimes put up in front of us.”
Victoria Hamilton, who plays Chief of Staff Anna Marshall, said the publicity around Dominic Cummings has made the public more aware of unelected advisors driving policy.
Asked if she thought Anna would be given a rough ride by the press, she told us: “Since the Dominic Cummings effect, it's very interesting now because nobody can deny the power that these advisers have. And the fact that they are unelected - they are literally making policy and they're not elected. So the fact that they would be under huge scrutiny, I think is probably right – and a moral scrutiny as well.”
She added: “I think the fact that she's a woman would probably come into play, and I think the press will probably have a field day with what is what is the relationship between her and the Prime Minister. I think that would probably be an ongoing drama.
“I'm pretty sure there would be a reaction now. I don't think it's something that the press would remain quiet on because I don't think the power behind the throne is something that can be hidden anymore. I think it’s very, very obvious now. The weight of opinion that these people have, it has an effect on decisions that are made in government.”
Watch COBRA: CYBERWAR on Sky Max and NOW.