Robert Carlyle on COBRA: Cyberwar, battling a real-world crisis and bringing back Begbie

"You can tell a bigger story, you can paint a broader picture on television – because you've got the time to do it."

Big RT Interview: Robert Carlyle (SKY)

Back in January 2020, when Sky’s thriller series COBRA launched, its subject matter felt like the stuff of science-fiction – the United Kingdom brought almost to its knees by a global catastrophe, unprepared politicians scrabbling to respond, even scenes of panicked citizens stockpiling toilet paper. Eighteen months later, those first six episodes play very differently.

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“Ben Richards [series writer] is obviously some kind of warlock,” grins Robert Carlyle, the esteemed actor who played Prime Minister Robert Sutherland in the series and returns for its follow-up, which launched on Sky Max and NOW on Friday (15th October). “He was in actual fact thinking of writing COBRA about a pandemic, but apparently he shelved that idea because he thought it would be too ridiculous. Who would believe that?”

Instead, COBRA explored the ramifications – both on a personal and worldwide scale – of a massive solar flare which left much of Britain without power, sparking social and political chaos. The sequel – COBRA: Cyberwar – sees PM Sutherland’s problems multiply as he faces a new, even more unpredictable threat: a series of crippling cyberattacks. But with the COVID-19 pandemic having come into play since filming on the first series, Carlyle and his COBRA cohorts found themselves navigating a real-world crisis when it came to shooting these new episodes.

“We were all under a tremendous amount of pressure – it was shot in Manchester tail end of 2020 / beginning of 2021 and Manchester had been almost the epicentre of the pandemic crisis at that time. I didn’t leave the apartment for four months other than filming – because there was a genuine worry on my part that if I was to contract this thing, then the whole show’s gone, you know? So it was a struggle.”

The first series of COBRA saw Carlyle’s character faced not just with a country-in-crisis but a family unit in disarray, as the consequences of a drug-fuelled party attended by his daughter Ellie (Marisa Abela) threatened not only her freedom but his political career. In Cyberwar, matters are complicated further by the discovery that his wife Rachel (Lucy Cohu) may be implicated in the death of a Ukrainian business magnate, with an increasing paranoid Sutherland unsure who he can trust – even keeping longtime ally Anna Marshall (Victoria Hamilton), the Downing Street Chief of Staff, at a distance.

“This paranoia kind of consumes Sutherland through this series,” Carlyle explains. “I mean, he can’t trust Archie [the scheming Home Secretary played by David Haig], he doesn’t know if he can trust his own wife and ultimately doesn’t know whether he can even trust Anna – that’s one of the saddest moments in the whole piece.”

Read more: How realistic is Sky’s new disaster drama Cobra?

Having these more personal plots play out alongside COBRA’s spectacular on-screen fireworks is, Carlyle says, “vital” to keeping the series grounded, with the variety of tones offered by the series being a huge part of what appealed to him. In tandem with scenes of family drama, he gets to take on more action-packed sequences and deliver some killer one-liners: this writer’s favourite moment from the first series involved Sutherland apparently looking to placate two political rivals, even offering to fetch them a cup of coffee, before upending their and the audience’s expectations by revealing he had the upper hand all along. “If you two want coffee, you can leave by the door you came through and f**k off to Starbucks,” he growled.

Robert Carlyle in COBRA: Cyberwar
Sky UK

“Gold dust!” Carlyle laughs when recalling that particular exchange. “Fantastic, really nicely written – and even though he’s Sutherland’s nemesis, I absolutely love David Haig’s character Archie Glover-Morgan, I think he’s so fantastic. this horrible dinosaur of a Tory politician. He’s got some funny stuff this year for sure.”

Logistical difficulties imposed by COVID aside, creative challenges presented themselves this time around too – the first series of COBRA was furiously paced, with a series of twists that each raised the stakes higher and higher for Sutherland and company. Could the second hope to match or even outdo its predecessor without stretching credibility? Carlyle thinks they’ve done it – having worked on both sides of the Atlantic, he’s quick to point to shorter series runs as a key factor in helping to keep the quality up.

“I’d spent the previous 12 years in American TV land doing network shows which is 22 episodes per series and it’s quite frankly ridiculous. You cannot possibly maintain the quality through 22 [episodes] – if you do six seasons, you’re talking about 150, 160 episodes… so there is always a worry of, ‘Can you maintain it?’ but certainly the way we do it in this country, with six or eight episodes, there’s more of a chance of maintaining it.”

Victoria Hamilton and Robert Carlyle in COBRA: Cyberwar
Victoria Hamilton as Anna Marshall, Robert Carlyle as Robert Sutherland
Sky UK

The days of US network television shows offering 22/23/24 episodes per season – as the Carlyle-starring Once Upon a Time did for seven seasons between 2011 and 2018 – are, he suspects, a thing of the past. “I don’t think there’s gonna be too much of that anymore. From what I hear, over there they’re more interested in… ‘event pieces’ they call it, where it’s eight to 10 [episodes] maybe. But I think that the days of 22 are probably limited.”

With its glossy nature, high budget and international scope, COBRA feels like an amalgamation of the British drama series where Carlyle started out and the US shows that he embraced later in his career – no surprise, then, that he has mixed feelings about recent proposals put forward by John Whittingdale, the UK’s Minister of State for Media and Data, suggesting that shows “made in Britain by our public service broadcasters […] should be distinctively British.”

“That seems insane,” Carlyle says. “I mean, Succession – that’s obviously [set in] America, but it could be anywhere, it could be any kind of country with this power crazy family… so is that American? And it’s from a British writer as well – there’s Brits all through that, so what are we saying there?

“I don’t think that we have to do that. Britain punches well above its weight, there’s some quality, quality stuff, so I hope the output just continues as it is.”

He pauses to think, then adds, “I do think that in the ’90s when I was coming up there were probably more shows that were maybe about… I mean, what is normality? But about normal people, normal lives, you know? I think there’s a place for that and I think there is in actual fact probably a gap at the moment for that. I mean, there’s various things like Downton Abbey and Bridgerton and The Crown and things like that – but I don’t see any big shows about the nuts and bolts of living in Britain in 2021. So from that perspective, maybe he’s got a point there? But again you don’t want your limit your output, you don’t want to limit your world.”

Robert Carlyle as Begbie in Trainspotting (1996)
Robert Carlyle as Begbie in Trainspotting (1996)
Channel 4/Film Four

Carlyle’s next project will see him return to a character and a world that very much did capture a cultural zeitgeist – The Blade Artist, a limited series based on Irvine Welsh’s novel, will see him play one Francis Begbie for a third time following 1996’s Trainspotting and its 2017 sequel. “There was a script there, there was a film script available [for The Blade Artist], but it sat there for probably too long, So Irvine and I, we were thinking, what are we going to do with this? And we both said that it would be great to do it as a six hour television piece.

“You can tell a bigger story, you can paint a broader picture on television, because you’ve got the time to do it – and of course as soon as we put the feelers out, the lovely guys at Buccaneer Films got in touch and they’ve taken it and run with it. And we’re hopeful maybe in the next 18 months, maybe two years we’ll see Begbie once more.”

A fourth novel featuring Edinburgh hardman Begbie, Dead Men’s Trousers, was published in 2018 and was billed as the final novel in the Trainspotting series. Would Carlyle be interested in completing the set with another screen outing after The Blade Artist? “If there’s an appetite for it,” he says. “There seems to be! People talk to me about Begbie and about Trainspotting all the time. I mean, the first few years after the first film… that was the quietest time, believe it or not. Obviously it exploded [on release] and then for a few years after that it was quiet, but since then it’s slowly but surely come back.

“If you look on social media, there’s memes of Begbie, Spud, Sick Boy… I see them all the time – and the kids that are posting these things weren’t even alive when the film was made! There’s a whole new generation now that’ve got an appetite for it.”

He hopes, too, that there’s appetite for more COBRA after Cyberwar. “Ben’s currently writing an alien invasion script…” he deadpans, before breaking into a grin. “He’s not, he’s not! But how do you up the ante? Who knows? But he’s a fantastic writer, Ben, I’m sure he’ll come up with something. Personally, I’d be very, very happy to do more, if they’ll have me!”

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COBRA: Cyberwar airs Fridays at 9pm on Sky Max and is available to watch in full via Sky and NOW. Visit our Drama hub for more news and features, or find something to watch with our TV Guide.