If there’s one genre that’s really hard to get right on TV it’s the political thriller because for every State of Play or House of Cards there’s countless others that fall short of the mark. The latest programme to try and crack the political thriller market is Channel 4’s Secret State based on the novel A Very British Coup written by former politician Chris Mullins. Secret State stars Gabriel Byrne as Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins who we first see surveying the damage left by an explosion in a petrochemical factory located in the fictional Teeside town of Scarrow and owned by the American company Petrofex. Right from the word go Dawkins in presented as a somewhat honourable man as he promises to clean up the town and offer compensation to the families who lost loved ones in the explosion. It seems though that corruption runs deep in the company as local journalist Ellis Kane (Gina McKee) reveals that a similar explosion was avoided an American branch of Petrofex after new safety measures were bought in. Obviously Dawkins knows nothing about this however the Prime Minister Charles Flyte (Tobias Menzies) knows more than he’s letting on as he tells his deputy to ignore it. The Prime Minister isn’t able to stay on the line and it is later revealed that his plane went down with he and the other passengers presumed dead.
Following the accident Chief Whip John Hodder (Charles Dance) decides that Dawkins should temporarily take Flyte’s position to give the public a sense of stability. While Dawkins has no wish to lead the country his fellow party members are getting ready to step up to the plate with the big fight being between Home Secretary Felix Durrel (Rupert Graves) and Foreign Secretary Ros Yelland (Sylvestra Le Touzel) a conflict which sees both trying to secure Dawkins’ support. Things turn when Dawkins goes off script to give an impassioned speech about his former boss an action that makes the public trust him more and in turn makes Hodder suggest that Dawkins take over from Flyte. As well as the political struggles there’s still the mystery of who caused the accident on the plane with Dawkins pointing the finger at Petrofex it is up to the MI6 agentss to suggest that the cousin of one of Flyte’s advisors was behind it. Dawkins confides in the only person he can trust that being foul-mouthed, alcoholic former MI6 analyst Anthony Fossett whose sister once slept with Dawkins. While Fossett starts his investigation there is more intrigue afoot as a pathologist in Scarrow is killed following his discovery of toxicity readings in some of the victims of the explosion.
I think it’s a little harsh to judge Secret State by this opening episode alone as it has to introduce a fair bit of plot and a large cast of characters. It certainly has a memorable opening as a striking visual sequence sees the camera follow Dawkins as he surveys the damage left by the explosion in Scarrow. After these opening scenes though Secret State’s pace starts to flag as we are introduced to the various ministers and agents who are integral to the story. The adapted script by Robert Jones, who most recently gave us the gripping Murder, does have some great lines in it as well as some memorable sequences but lacks any depth to really draw the viewer in. Having said that he does set up a couple of mysteries namely how much involvement Petrofex has in Flyght’s supposed death and what happened in Bosnia to make Dawkins quit his position as a Captain in the army.
What Secret State lacks in memorable scenes it makes up for with some well-written characters and a great cast of actors who really get under the skin of the politicians they’re portraying. Byrne is amazing in the lead role and for me the character of Dawkins was definitely the best thing about Secret State as the actor is able to make his Deputy PM into a fully-rounded character. We are shown the difference between him and the rest of the cabinet as he is presented as a reserved character seeking refuge in soulless hotels while blocking out the sounds of everyday life with the use of earplugs. Byrne also gives us the impression of Dawkins’ military background as he is definitely a man of action rather than a man of words so that’s what makes his speech about the fallen prime minister all the more impressive. The one thing I could say about Dawkins is that he doesn’t really seem like a real-life politician but the same couldn’t be said about the supporting players all of whom seem interchangeable with our current cabinet. Graves is fantastic as the former public schoolboy who sees himself as the most logical choice for PM while Le Touzel’s foul-mouthed Ros is well-qualified but lacks people skills which was witnessed when she threatened to break Dawkins’ F***ng nose if he ran for PM. Charles Dance is predictably great as the Machiavellian Hodder however I do feel his performance owes a debt to that of Ian Richardson’s in House of Cards. Additionally I loved Douglas Hodge’s performance as the drunken Fossett however I did feel that the brilliant Ruth Negga was wasted a bit in her role as an intelligence operative.
The reason the political thriller is probably a tricky genre to get right for TV due to the fact that it has to stretch a story over a number of episodes, four in the case of Secret State, which in turn has an impact on the pace. Certainly I felt Secret State was a little overly-talky however I didn’t mind too much as I enjoyed hearing these well-rounded characters chew over the script while it is also one of the best acted dramas of the year thanks to contributions from Byrne, Dance, Hodge and Le Touzel. It certainly does have its problems however as the mysteries are solved I can certainly see Secret State improving over the next few weeks and I was definitely given enough reasons in this first episode to tune in for the next instalment.