Secret State“You get to the top and you realise it’s really only the middle…”

Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins is called to be the public face of the government elect on a PR trip to Teesside after an explosion at a petrochemical plant devastates a community. PetroFex have friends in high places: a truth demonstrated by the speed at which the Prime Minister flies to stand by their side as they reassure the world (and a fragile commodities market) that it has nothing to fear.

Prime Minister Tom Dawkins is the man tasked with holding his country together after the plane carrying his predecessor crashes, taking the truth about PetroFex down in its wake. Tom (Gabriel Byrne) determines to lay bare the facts behind the Teesside disaster and to break the choke hold big business has on the land he now leads. The conspiracy he discovers has roots that spider deep into the shaky ground that government itself stands upon. He publicly calls out the conspirators but, with a secret of his own to shield, does he have the integrity to see the skirmish through?

Channel 4’s four-part political drama Secret State examines the relationship that exists between a democratically elected government, the military and the markets. The exemplary cast includes Charles Dance, Stephen Dillane, Rupert Graves and Gina McKee. It considers a, not implausible, political world where conflicts of interest are an occupational hazard. And it does so with great class. This is British television at its best – elegant, buttoned-up, restrained and utterly compelling. With a conspiracy plausible enough to evoke chills.

Mobilised by inside information leaked by journalist Elis Kane (Gina McKee), Tom calls upon the services of an old, and paranoid, friend to dig a little deeper into PetroFex. Ex-MI5 man Tony Fossett (Douglas Hodge) ought to be paranoid – government agencies are eavesdropping on his life hoping the alcoholic hacker will spill some dirt on past agency misdemeanours. Among the listeners, Tony finds an unlikely ally – Agnes – a low level operative who begins to do some digging of her own…

The tension wrought between these two characters – who never meet and never speak – demonstrates the quality of the work they, and all the principles, contribute to Secret State. The ram-raid brutality of an attack perpetrated in Tony Fossett’s home is enhanced by Agnes’ powerlessness as she listens in to a delayed recording. The machinations of the merciless political machine are never more evident than in the starch-stiff upper lip of Charles Dance’s Chief Whip, who oozes disdain as he shepherds errant frontbenchers into line.

I particularly relished an exterior Downing Street exchange between the Prime Minister and the head of the Royal Caledonian Bank – an institution which has taken more than its pound of flesh from the UK population – and the revenge Tom exacts on him thereafter. The concept of an honest political leader is a slippery one to grasp but jolly good fun to watch once one has come to terms with it.

Stress-spikes are evenly distributed across all four episodes and dramatic tension is well maintained throughout. As hints of Iranian terrorist involvement in the former PM’s demise are revealed, so the pressure for Tom to strike back with military action increases. These war room exchanges were, for me, the weak points of an otherwise excellent series. I would be happy to see this one return.


Secret State is available on DVD and from 3rd December 2012

The DVD includes a 13 minute Behind the Scenes featurette