COBRA: Sky One’s new political thriller series has some bite
Robert Carlyle plays a prime minister dealing with a deadly national crisis (and no, it's not Brexit)
An acronym for Cabinet Office Briefing Room Assembly, COBRA is a crack team comprised of Britain’s leading experts, crisis contingency planners and most senior politicians
What is COBRA? An acronym for Cabinet Office Briefing Room Assembly, this is the crack team comprised of Britain’s leading experts, crisis contingency planners and most senior politicians, who convene in times of regional and national crisis, and strive to protect Britain and its people. COBRA is a real entity and, over the course of six episodes, the Sky Original series paints an evocative picture of how the emergency committee might cope when the worst-case scenario finally happens.
Yet, the national crisis that COBRA contends with is not one we have seen depicted in political dramas to date – a raging solar storm that threatens the nation with tragedy. Closer to home, we see the COBRA team deal with personal issues that threaten to engulf their work, as well as opposition politicians that will use any sign of weakness as an opportunity to strike.
With a star cast including actors Robert Carlyle, Victoria Hamilton and David Haig, the documentary style of shooting means the series further blurs the lines between fact and fiction, and the viewer feels like a fly on the wall, as those tasked with solving the crisis go into meltdown.
Carlyle, a perennial scene-stealer, takes on the role of charismatic but troubled prime minister Robert Sutherland. Carlyle imbues the role with his trademark intensity, as befits a man who is responsible for not only his family’s safety but the entire nation’s.
He is a man who’s not at home with this; he’s not a statesman. He’s not the finished article
Even in these difficult times, Sutherland faces unprecedented tumult. The solar storm causes the largest blackout in the history of the UK, and society begins to slide towards anarchy despite the team battling round the clock. Meanwhile, a serious misdemeanour by his daughter is threatening to become public knowledge despite his best efforts to conceal it.
This is a complex character to play – Sutherland is far from the archetypal prime minister. Carlyle explains that his character has risen through the ranks of his party to become premier almost unexpectedly.
“He is a man who’s not at home with this; he’s not a statesman. He’s not the finished article by any manner of means, and this thing has suddenly hit him like a ton of bricks,” he says. “He’s not your usual Tory prime minister. He’s trying his best to be different and to look at things from different angles. He’s not old-fashioned in that respect.”
Carlyle adds that the twin crises Sutherland faces serve to expose his “fragility”, as he is torn by the desire to protect his family and serve his beloved country.
There are many, many people trying to climb the greasy pole and they’ll do anything to clamber above you
“This solar storm that happens is the first real test of his mettle: he has to hold his party and his country together. At the same time, he has a daughter who has just graduated from university up at St Andrews. She goes to a party and her best friend takes drugs and lapses into a coma. Of course, the press are sniffing around trying to figure out what actually happened and whether the daughter was to blame in any way for this,” he explains.
Carlyle admits that working on COBRA merely reinforced his feelings about politics as a “murky business”.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re going through at the time; it doesn’t matter what your personal life is like; it doesn’t matter what’s going on with the country: they’re out to get you. There are many, many people trying to climb the greasy pole and they’re willing to do anything to clamber above you.”
The prime minister’s chief advisor, Anna Marshall, is played by Victoria Hamilton, who viewers will recognise from her turn as the queen mother on The Crown. Hamilton describes the PM’s right-hand woman as “the anti-Dominic Cummings”; faced with family and relationship difficulties, she must also navigate the seedy world of political skulduggery as she attempts to do what’s right both at home and at work.
“She’s more morally complicated than just being a goodie or a baddie because there are certainly things that she does throughout the series to do with her personal relationships that I think a lot of people would find questionable,” agrees Hamilton.
As a woman in her 40s, to be given a part that has so many different dimensions to it is wonderful
“From the outsider’s point of view, she’s described as the ‘bright light in a dirty world’. Even by people who are right in the middle of the viper’s nest, she’s described as someone that’s annoyingly pure, which of course she isn’t. But the vast majority of the time she’s operating for what she regards as the greater good, rather than for personal advancement.”
The actress is palpably enthused by the chance to play such a meaty role.
“As a woman in her 40s, to be given a part that has so many different dimensions to it is wonderful. It’s such a gift to show somebody who is seemingly that powerful and then to be able to flip that character over and show her vulnerabilities as well and her challenges. I cannot tell you how rare it is to be given the opportunity to play someone like that.”
Strength of the series
She adds that the strength of the series is to lay bare the complexities of how public and personal lives intersect for those at the very zenith of power. “I feel COBRA is as much a study of what being in positions of power does to their lives as much as it is obviously a fantastic thriller.”
Home secretary Archie Glover-Morgan is played by David Haig, who regularly butts heads with Carlyle’s PM. Power-hungry and bombastic, the character is, admits Haig, “abrasive and reminiscent of the current leader of our country in his directness”.
“He has a dry, provocative sense of humour that gets up the PM, Robert Sutherland’s nose.”
Indeed, Haig emphasises the realism of operations and how they are depicted in the series.
“When these meetings occur on screen you sometimes see real footage from real-life events,” he explains.
“You get a flavour of the sort of civil unrest and polarisation, which actually is very resonant with present British society and in the world. It is a very accurate portrayal of how politicians and experts would respond to such a cataclysmic event.”
For some, solar storms may seem to be firmly in the realm of science fiction, but Carlyle believes the storyline ultimately serves as a cautionary tale for humanity.
“It reminds you about the fragility of our species, the fragility of our world – it could be ripped apart in one night. I think that’s something for people to think about.”
Watch all six episodes of COBRA now on Sky One. For more, visit sky.com/watch/cobra