This review was first published in the television section of The Student, Edinburgh University’s student-run newspaper (Tue 13th November 2012)
Secret State, Channel 4, Wednesday 10pm
Channel 4’s new conspiracy thriller Secret State certainly feels timely given the string of Establishment cover-ups recently brought to light, from the phone-tapping scandal and Hillsborough disaster, to the malingering BBC/Jimmy Savile debacle.
In this four-part drama, Gabriel Byrne stars as Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins, a moral gemstone in a cess-pit of corruption. When an explosion at a Teesside refinery owned by US petrochemical company Petrofex kills nineteen locals, including small children, Dawkins makes it his business to uncover the ugly truth behind the disaster. Later, when a plane containing the Prime Minister goes missing as it returns from a Petrofex conference in Texas, it seems that Establishment ties to the company might lie behind the disturbing and increasingly mysterious events.
It’s a clever and compelling plot, (very) loosely based on Chris Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup, but it’s bogged down by an often clunky script and dodgy characterisation. Dawkins seems too transparent, ethical and unambitious to be in the high-powered position he’s in. Charles Dance does his usual Charles Dance thing as Chief Whip (stern, powerful, reptilian), and then there’s the obligatory ball-busting female politician, Ros Yelland, who barges into men’s toilets and barks lines like ‘Fuck the polls!’
Gina McKee’s plucky journo has far too much ill-explained access to classified goings-on, and characters keeps insisting on conducting secret conversations in public parks. There are too many politicians looking thoughtfully into the middle distance, and viewers could be forgiven for wanting Malcolm Tucker to stride in and give them all a good talking to.
The show’s pace also feels slightly off-kilter; too much happens too quickly, accompanied by a near-constant ominous soundtrack. Unfavourable comparisons to dramas like Homeland seem inevitable, with the US show allowing its plot to unfold in a far more organic and satisfying manner. Viewers may also feel irritated by the plot sign-posts scattered throughout Secret State, which take away the enjoyment of working things out independently.
There are some genuinely thrilling moments, such as when Dawkins picks up a knitted glove still containing a child’s blown-off fingers, or when he receives a call from a freaked-out pathologist concerned with the toxicity levels found in the dead bodies. Byrne delivers a fine, dignified performance as a man of quiet but steadfast integrity, though even his unquestionable talent can’t distract from the smell of ham wafting from a few of his colleagues.
However, this is only one of four parts, and the information-dump of part one is likely to ease off as the drama progresses. Flaws aside, the story itself is undeniably intriguing, and with Byrne carrying most of the show on his shoulders, Secret State may yet shape up to be a decidedly enjoyable yarn.