Peter Berry, writer of Prime Suspect 6, is back with The Last Enemy, a new heart-stopping techno-thriller set in Britain in the not-too-distant future. Berry talked with Masterpiece's Richard Maurer.
Select a topic from the list below to read more.
The Last Word on The Last Enemy
Peter Berry tackles questions from the audience
Getting started on The Last Enemy...
The shifting state of surveillance in the UK...
The reality of surveillance from The Last Enemy...
Surveillance in the UK now...
Responding to proponents of a universal ID...
The effect of The Last Enemy in the UK...
Surveillance in the US...
"Total Information Awareness" and the Pentagon...
Writing the complex plot for The Last Enemy...
Meshing plot elements...
Who is the last enemy...
What got you started on The Last Enemy?
There is a phrase in Britain that we are "sleepwalking into a surveillance society." So I decided to have a central character who isn't aware of what is going on. He is a reclusive mathematician named Stephen Ezard, who is totally focused on finding the mathematical structure of the universe. At the start of the series, he's been away for about four years in China. When he arrives back in the UK, he's our ambassador. He's seeing what's happening around him with fresh eyes, and it's a shock to him. The story is set slightly in the future. Everyone has ID cards and the idea of tagging individuals with implantable electronic chips is just coming in.
What's the gap between the present situation in the UK and what you imagine in the series?
It kept changing as I was writing the script. I delivered the first draft about a month before we had the suicide bombings in London [in 2005]. In that draft I had the end of habeas corpus, limits on trial-by-jury, restrictions on free speech and freedom of assembly. As I was writing subsequent drafts, all those measures started to be introduced by the government. So I had to up the ante in order to keep my script slightly futuristic.
Are all of the hi-tech security measures you depict technologically possible?
I did a lot of research to make sure they were. In one draft I had CCTV [closed-circuit television] cameras that could not only watch you but also hear what you were saying. But then I had second thoughts, because it seemed too much like science fiction. So I took it out. Later, those types of cameras that can listen as well as see came into use in the UK. So I put them back in.
What is the surveillance situation like in the UK now?
There is one for every 12 people. There are 60 million of us, so 5 million cameras. I live about 20 minutes outside the center of London, and if I go from my house and use public transport to a meeting down in Soho, I will be filmed by something like 300 different cameras. My entire journey will be photographed.
How do you respond to people who promote the idea of universal IDs?
You hear it said that the innocent have nothing to hide. But I think we do. It's called privacy and dignity. If you're forced to carry around an ID card with all your information on it, then you are put into a position of proving you're innocent every time you use your card. During my research I came across many experts who told me that it was dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket; to collect all the information about an individual and have it on a card. It's an invitation to criminals, because there's no such thing as total encryption.
Has Last Enemy had an effect in the UK?
Maybe it was inevitable that it was coming, but I think opposition to ID cards is growing now. Last Enemy came out just as a couple of government agencies lost data discs which held the details of 25 million UK citizens, and I was one of them. I think that reinforces the idea of the precariousness of centralization of data. I have no problem with carrying around a piece of plastic with my name and photo on in. But I do object to that photo being linked to all sorts of data about me. In the UK, our ID card has space for lots of different categories of information. In Europe, that would be against the law, especially in Germany where centralization of data on citizens by the government is illegal because of the lessons from both the Nazi and Stasi regimes.
Do you know what's happening with surveillance in the United States?
As usual, the technology in the states is cutting edge. And you already do have the Digital Angel chip-an RFID [radio-frequency identification] chip-which you can use to tag and track your kids 24 hours a day. You have many fewer CCTV cameras than we do. But, like us, you have the huge potential for abuse of information from credit card and debit card transactions. If any agency wanted to, they could put together a profile of you very quickly.
Was "Total Information Awareness," the name of the surveillance program in The Last Enemy inspired by the Pentagon program of the same name?
I did actually steal it from America, because it just seemed such a good title. It was very similar to what's in the film. You can join up all the minutiae of somebody's life and understand them incredibly quickly.
How do you as a writer approach putting together such a complex story?
In this case, I knew that the arc of the story was Stephen's growing realization that it's not sufficient to close himself off from society in order to maintain his individuality. He needs to get out there and fight for democracy — for the rights of all individuals. So I have a lot of fun throwing sticks of dynamite at him to get him out of his cocoon. The first explosion is when he returns to the UK from China for his brother's funeral and discovers that it's now a surveillance society. Then he falls in love with his brother's widow. And I just keep throwing stuff at him.
How do you get all the plot elements to mesh?
I worked as a film editor for a number of years, and I tend to plot on 3x5 cards. I sit at a very large table and move the cards around, working out the plot without getting involved in too much detail of writing, so I don't fall in love with anything. When I've got a large structure, I can see how it breaks down into episodes. At that point I start writing the scripts.
Who is the last enemy?
In a sense it's Stephen, because he is the compliant man who turns around and stands up to the state. In the eyes of the state, the last enemy is the individual. After all, it wasn't a country that sent airplanes into the Twin Towers. It was a group of individuals. The suicide bombers here in Britain were individuals. But when the state starts targeting individuals as the enemy, we need to be alert to protect the rights of individuals. That was the dilemma I wanted to write about.