State of Play

Sunday, May 18, 2003 by

The BBC announcer advised that State of Play would contain “strong language and a violent opening,” and to prove the point a petty thief is shot in the head in the opening few seconds, whilst a small child looks on. The assassin then goes at it to gun down a motorcyclist who witnessed the incident. The viewer would be forgiven for thinking they were in for something in the mould of a ITV1 cop show, but instead it’s the spark for an engrossing political thriller.

Like all good pot boilers, a series of random events play out over the first quarter which slowly begin to knit together. As well as the shooting incident, a political researcher appears to commit suicide. Her boss, a high ranking MP Stephen Collins (David Morrissey) breaks down in a press conference signaling an affair he had been having with her. The only journalist who isn’t interested in the story Cal McCaffrey (John Simm) turns out to be an old friend, who now finds himself in a conflict of interests. Also sniffing around is Della Smith (Kelly MacDonald) who makes the (admittedly expected) connection between the thief and the researcher.

The first real surprise is that all this is being written by Paul Abbot, who of late has become the king of northern comedy drama (Linda Green, Clocking Off, Coronation Street); but this forgets his sterling work on the much blacker Robson Green dramas Reckless and Touching Evil, and his writing on Cracker. He knows his way around psychology, intrigue and suspense. It’s also fairly obvious from the start that both he and director David Yates have homeworked the genre. When we first see reporter Cal, it’s in a dash through a massive open plan office ending with a late entry into a newspaper editorial meeting. It evokes All the President’s Men, and as the show continues beats mirror moments in The Parallax View and a raft of other ’70s thrillers; the drip by drip of information.

Disappointingly, there really isn’t anything all that new here, and in terms of delivering truly new dramatic shocks it runs a poor second to the mighty 24 which it has the misfortune to nestle beside in the schedules. But it’s the handling and spinning of the elements it really excels at. Knowledge of a similar real world investigation helps to make scenes such as the one in which a witness sells a briefcase full of information to Simm’s character seem pretty realistic; whether he would be able to give his disgraced politician friend a room without compromising his journalistic balance is less certain. But we know he’s going to be keeping both parties in the loop, manipulating each until the truth comes out so it feels like part of some larger plan and therefore acceptable.

There are some lovely small character moments: When Della and a police informant (The Book Group‘s Rory McCann) meet for the first time upon realizing they’re both Scottish: “Where are you from?” he asks. “Glasgow” she replies. “Edinburgh” he confesses. In that moment, an instant bond forms. Knowing that said briefcase (now deemed to be quite illegal) is on the premises, the receptionist talks to the editor, asking for a lawyer, “Out of your league, Buffy, try the mail room.” Or – know your place girl …

These are helped in no small part by the performances. John Simm offers a charismatic performance, a classic gumshoe; Kelly MacDonald’s understated delivery as the bringer of exposition is just right and cracks at the right moment; David Morrissey offers a new spin on the disgraced politician, hurt but aware of evident consequences of his actions. Quite how Shakespearean a tragic figure he is to become will unfold. He’s more than a match for Simm as their characters clash over the ideologies of their chosen employment at an inopportune moment.

With a lead in from the unnervingly popular village comedy Born and Bred and opposite yet another cop show (Blue Murder) on ITV1 this is in the perfect position to give the general audience something a bit more intelligent to follow on a Sunday night, and for some reason seems to fit the evening like a glove. Like Spooks and the trashy Trust it’s another example of the BBC taking ideas from across the Atlantic and giving them a British spin. This is very, very good so far; but it would be easy to see everything spiral turgidly and unbelievably into space, suspension of disbelief stretched to breaking point. In this show it really does run very close. This reviewer hopes that doesn’t happen and that in six weeks, when everyone is watching I can have the satisfaction of saying I was there from the start.


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