Channel 4’s bigger drama budget, created when it stopped pouring millions of quid and weeks of primetime schedule space into Big Brother, is kicking in. What better way to assert these new credentials than a staple of serious UK drama – the political conspiracy thriller? Edge of Darkness, House of Cards, State of Play and now Secret State (Wednesdays).
It began with Gabriel Byrne as Tom Dawkins MP, the Deputy Prime Minister, touring flame-ravaged terraces in Teesside. A petrochemical works had exploded, killing 19 people. The sleek Prime Minister reacted, controversially, by flying out to schmooze the giant American firm that owned the plant. He never came back: his plane home pitched into the Atlantic, leaving Dawkins in charge, temporarily or otherwise, as shady people conspired to shut down the victims’ quest for justice.
A luxury cast tried gracefully to scud over the mounds of exposition in the script. “Your military background will come in handy,” said Rupert Graves at a urinal, thus telling us that Gabriel Byrne has a military background. Where did he serve, though? Byrne went to visit his ex-wife. “You’re thinking about Bosnia, aren’t you?” she asked, suddenly. Ah. Bosnia. Byrne went to meet a man in a pub. Who was this man? “Tony Fossett!” said Byrne, clinking glasses with him and shouting his full name. They then handily spelled out their back story.
Secret State hovered an inch above spoof. Gina McKee laboured as a magic reporter who had all the secret documents in her hand at all the right moments. Douglas Hodge, as Tony Fossett (“Tony Fossett!”), was a whisky-guzzling, embittered ex-spy. Even the name of the evil American energy firm, PetroFex, had a touch of the Harry Enfields. And it wasn’t so much that significant moments and themes were signposted: we were strapped onto a monorail and led past billboards with them written on.
Outside No10, the Deputy PM broke the news that the PM had bought it. “Who’s running the country?” shouted a reporter above the hubbub. This was the also key question in the drama, see. But there were about 45 key questions to carefully sort through, about whether al-Qaeda brought the plane down, what MI5’s agenda is, what the chief whip (Charles Dance as Francis Urquhart) is up to and whether Byrne would take over as Prime Minister. It was hard to find any shards of character in this haystack of a plot, which made Secret State both exhausting and boring, complex yet unsophisticated. The sort of things that happen in political conspiracy thrillers were all thrown on.
Byrne’s Deputy Prime Minister was inert, a ditherer, suited to the stately insignificance of the post. A weakling lured or forced into power could be fascinating, but the conflicts within such a man were invisible as Byrne gazed with mild concern out of windows. Byrne can, as In Treatment showed, surf high waves of emotion with cool aplomb. This script had him rolling up his trouser legs and paddling. Dawkins’ rivals for the party leadership were blanks, too: a ruthless career bully played by Sylvestra le Touzel, and Rupert Graves as… a man.
Glossy, empty dramas are not rare, but Secret State had something special in the minus column: it was very loosely a remake of one of the best British TV dramas of all time, 1988’s A Very British Coup – or at least it drew on the same novel by Labour MP Chris Mullin, published in 1982. In the book and original TV series, a left-winger called Harry Perkins becomes PM but has to fight to carry out the electorate’s wishes, because they conflict with powerful interests in the civil service, army, security services and media.
Watching the new version, for the first time I felt the pain of Agatha Christie fans when TV dramatisations add things that weren’t in the book: a new murderer, plots based on Twitter hashtags, Marple and Poirot at it in a Novotel, etc. In this new Coup, the clear battle lines and relentlessly tightening tension had evaporated.
Perhaps this was inevitable. Party leaders Mullin had in mind, like Harold Wilson, Michael Foot and (nearly) Tony Benn, are no longer likely. Now a series merely “inspired” by the book, with Mullin in a cameo as a smiling vicar, seems to view rampant corporate influence and compromised democracy as ideas suited to a hammy, glossy, gadgety, ostentatiously labyrinthine caper, roughly on a par with Hunted or the “magic surveillance” sections of Spooks. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to see here.
For about 20 minutes, Dara O Briain’s Science Club (Tuesdays BBC2) looked like an eccentric commission. It was filmed in the Top Gear “banter in a warehouse” format, with the standing studio audience surrounding O Briain as he welcomed eminent biologist Professor Steve Jones to the sofa and introduced a jolly animation running through the basics of genetic science. Ed Byrne and a funky boffin from BBC4 were on the way with light-hearted items. Was this really going to fill an hour? Jones was resembling a One Show guest who has come to discuss their new interpretation of Hamlet, but has now stayed on to debate whether custard creams are getting smaller.
Before long, though, Science Club was revealed as a minor marvel, thanks to O Briain’s determination not to pander to people who are afraid of seeing science on the telly. Soon there was a meaty report on the achievements of the the human genome project – pitched at the sort of level we’re used to seeing in history and art programmes, but not science. The riffing and chat had been a sweetener to ease us in.
Actually, that’s not it. The jokes and the science weren’t offsetting each other. The point was that, since there’s nothing dry or forbidding about science, there’s no reason why a serious treatment of it can’t also be funny. Ed Byrne’s segment on the genes we share with Neanderthals turned out to be some of the best hard science in it. By the end, Professor Jones was doing the best gags.