No-one does political thrillers like the BBC, and in an age when focus-group wisdom prescribes an attention span of two episodes (hence endless ITV two-shot dramas), no-one holds out for a good, old-fashioned six-parter like the BBC, either. Thus we have State Of Play, a tough, all too believable seat-of-power piece that’s spending a month and a half telling us its tale of intrigue and danger in Westminster and Fleet Street.
There’s nothing particularly new about State Of Play’s conspiracy-murder-cover-up format, although it is very well done. The two central characters are Stephen Collins (David Morrissey), a rising-star Manchester MP and Chairman of the Energy Select Committee, and Cal McAffrey (John Simm), formerly Collins’ campaign manager and now a top investigative reporter. Collins’ researcher/mistress and a young drug dealer are killed on the same day, McAffrey discovers a link between them (plus a briefcase full of guns), and it’s game on.
And on and on, because as a true serial drama telling a single story, State Of Play is equivalent to a film lasting six-hours, a duration that would make even Kevin Costner blush. Much of the four hours to date has been invested in well-crafted illustrations of how journalists create and use contacts, plus a well-paced development of the relationship between McAffrey and Collins’ wife Anne (Polly Walker). Rather less, however, seems to have gone into moving the central narrative along; the murderer’s been shot (by the police), there’s now fairly conclusive evidence that a big oil company was using the researcher to spy on Collins, and, er, that’s roughly it.
Perhaps we’ve seen one next-day conclusion too many and lost the ability to immerse ourselves in something longer, but there is a feeling that State Of Play has gone round the houses more times than is strictly necessary, especially in the journos’ dealings with PR man Dominic Foy (Marc Warren). Foy is supposed to be the key to the mystery, but unfortunately comes across as slightly comical, thanks to a taste for Afghan coats and a more than slight resemblance to the comedian Freddie Starr. Episode after episode sees McAffrey and colleagues pumping him for information, which he yields at a rate of roughly one snippet per hour. That’s probably how it happens in real life, but unlike TV audiences, top reporters are paid big bucks to be that patient.