‘The Witcher’ star Anya Chalotra on cryptic new podcast thriller ‘The Cipher’

She tells us why sci-fi fans should get streaming...

You’ll know the frustration of clicking on a game that looks like a brilliant set of puzzles to direct lava onto the head of a troll, only to find it’s a data harvesting scam. Now imagine it starts sending secret agents with details of your shadowy past to kidnap and recruit you to use your troll-scorching skills to track down an other-worldly serial killer and you’re on your way to unravelling The Cipher, BBC Sounds’ gripping new podcast starring The Witcher’s Anya Chalotra and Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina’s Chance Perdomo.

“A little bit of Doctor Who, a little bit of Stranger Things and I would roll some of Marvel’s Avengers in there, too,” is how Perdomo has described the sci-fi thriller, in which Chalotra plays 16-year-old Sabrina, whose skill at beating an online puzzle called the Parallax singles her out as a potential key in hunting down a murderer. Here’s why Witcher fans should get cracking…

It’s totally 2021


The idea of someone being drawn into an online pastime that turns out to have a far more sinister and far-reaching purpose, and knows far more about them than it should… sound familiar? “I think it’s very timely,” says Anya, down the phone from her east London lockdown. “That kind of escapism and relatable feeling of The Cipher.”

It was the writing rather than the concept which first grabbed Anya, though. “In the first speech, the first question Sabrina asks in the script is ‘how many books do you know with the word ‘girl’ in the title?’,” she says. “That is what drew me to the text initially. I really got a sense of Sabrina as a character. I loved the narration parts of the script as well, you could really be drawn in as an audience member on this journey where you can completely escape. With all the relatable things that it has as well, I think it’s a brilliant story.”

The twists are out of this world. Literally.

If you’re expecting a predictable ride through a common-or-garden serial killer thriller, strap in. The Cipher takes sharp left turns deep into sci-fi territory until what starts out like a retrained-for-cyber Se7en turns into a full-on War Of The Worlds. It’s perhaps the more fantastical elements that have made the series such a hit with Witcher fans. “The response has been fantastic,” Anya says. “I shouldn’t say I’m shocked but there’s a lot of good feedback and a lot of people saying they’re really enjoying it, which makes me really happy at a time where a lot of productions aren’t able to go on in the arts right now. We were able to do something during lockdown and for it to be so appreciated I’m really glad we’ve had that effect on people.”

It’s directed by a radio legend

The Cipher doesn’t just come with a great cast pedigree. The literary dramatisations and imaginative soundscapes of director John Dryden – as previously heard on his adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Tumanbay and Pandemic (made back in 2016) – have made him a favourite of BBC radio drama listeners for decades. “It’s been very different from TV, film or any other kind of recording I’ve ever done,” Anya explains, “because John Dryden does things in quite an incredible way. So many people love his material because you’re so involved in it as an audience member and on the other side of listening to it, he really creates that world for you as well. So it’s been a pleasure to work on.”

It’s entirely COVID-proof

Unlike The Witcher’s second season, which has stopped filming several times due to Covid outbreaks on set, The Cipher was recorded so safely that Toby Young will probably start tweeting about how it’s infringing on his personal freedoms before long. “We did this in a studio during lockdown,” Anya says, “so in separate booths, but the good thing about this is we were still able to see each other on video call through each booth, so we could connect with the character we were speaking to at the time.”


‘The Cipher’  is available on BBC Sounds now