Channel 4’s Secret State is a taut and gripping political thriller ‘inspired’ by Chris Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup. The plot follows Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins, played by Gabriel Byrne, as he tries to keep control of a chaotic situation.
In the run up to an election that the Government is likely to lose, an industrial plant in the North East of England goes boom. The owners of the planet, PetroFex – who are an American multi-national and therefore shady – hadn’t learnt their lessons from a similar accident in America. On top of this, on the way back from meeting PetroFex the Prime Minister’s plane disappears over the Atlantic.
Was it terrorists or PetroFex? Helpfully Dawkins has his own investigative journalist who passes him confidential information pointing to our big bad business.
What makes this programme so good, and certainly memorable, is the brilliantly unreal sequence at the very start of the programme. We watch as Dawkins walks through the destroyed remains of a Tyneside town. Dust and ash cover everything. Behind him an ironic, blackened sign reads “Let’s Make Britain Brighter.” The only colour is a young girl’s pink jacket. He reaches down and turns over her glove and inside is her severed hand.
It’s bold and horrifying: when do you ever see parts of dead children on a mid-week 9pm thriller?
Another impressive aspect of the programme is the range of character we’re presented with, particularly Charles Dance’s John Hodder. Doing his best Ian Richardson impression, Dance commands every scene he is in. Indeed if he doesn’t say “you might very well think that, I couldn’t possibly comment” at some point I’ll be very upset.
His main role is to help his party to choose the right replacement leader. Our choices are ball busting, party rebel Ros Yelland (Sylvestra Le Touzel), and slightly too innocent posh boy toff Felix Durrell (Rupert Graves). Both actors are excellent- as you might expect from heavyweight veterans Graves and Le Touzel- however, that doesn’t excuse the characterisation of Dawkins. For me the contradiction at the heart of his character needs to be corrected urgently. Something happened in Bosnia that stops him from standing as leader of his party, but which apparently doesn’t prevent him from becoming deputy prime minister: hardly a job you just fall into.
However, this is really only a small problem in a good opening episode. All our pieces are on the conspiracy chess board and the red herrings are being hung up to gain flavour. Hopefully Secret State won’t stay a secret for long.