Intrigue, adventure and mystery - it sounds like the promotional line for a new adventure story or action film. However, your average Hollywood big budget extravaganza has nothing on a well told story of back room political manoeuvring for covert action, intrigue and the well placed knife in the back.
If you think monsters from space or mysterious creatures from the depths of sea are frightening, they're nothing compared to the political operative who can smile to your face while contemplating your downfall. While American television has recently seen its share of political scheming, very few can compare to the British when it comes to depicting the machinations behind the scenes in government.
Of course it helps they have a few more centuries of experience to draw upon, an Officials Secrets Act which would drive conspiracy theorists on this side of the Atlantic crazy and a Old Boys network based on class which still believes in the right of titled to rule. Stir that pot of ingredients in just the right manner and you come up with something terrifying in its believability. The recently released DVD package of Secret State from Acorn Media combines the above elements with an amazing script and an impeccable cast to create almost two and half hours of spell binding television.
Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins (Gabriel Byrne) is sent out to give his government's response to an explosion at a petrochemical plant which not only resulted in worker fatalities, but destroyed the surrounding neighbourhood. His job is to assess the damage and reassure the population his government will provide appropriate compensation. With the Prime Minister meeting with the American company who owns the plant in Huston to negotiate compensation, Dawkins is the one taking the heat from press and citizens alike. When reporter Ellis Kane (Gina McKee) lets him know the company who owns the plant had known about the problem which caused the explosion he is livid. He phones the Prime Minister on board his plane returning from America for reassurances about compensation, but during the conversation their call is cut off and then the plane vanishes.
When the wreckage of the plane is found Dawkins is declared interim Prime Minister until a new party leader can be selected. This is where the first rounds of what will be an ongoing political battle are fought. Both the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ros Yeland (Sylvestra Le Touzel) and Treasury Minister Felix Durrell (Rupert Graves) want the top job. However, party whip (the guy who makes sure all party members toe the line) John Hodder (Charles Dance) thinks their best bet for re-election is Dawkins.
The infighting leading up to the choosing of Dawkins as new leader is fun, but it's nothing compared to what happens after he's chosen leader and leads the party to an unexpected re-election. For while there's no denying Dawkins' appeal to the voters, he has one flaw that alienates the movers and shakers in industry, financial circles, the military and the intelligence community - he speaks his mind. Even worse, he usually tells the truth to people who don't want to hear it. Things start to really become interesting when he not only pushes to find out the truth of what happened to the Prime Minister's plane, but tries to pressure the American Petrochemical company into paying compensation to the victims of the explosion.
When Dawkins attempts to do an end run around the financial and military establishment by reaching a deal with India for financing and firing the head of military intelligence for provoking a war with Iran the moves against him go into overdrive. He is now considered a threat to the established order and in a move spearheaded by Durrell and Yeland his own party seeks to have removed from office. His life is complicated even further when the military leaks confidential information about a mission he was involved with while a peace keeper in the Bosnian conflict to the reporter Kane where half his squad was killed.
This attempt to discredit him personally is a relatively minor incident as we watch the full weight of the spy industry in Great Britain be brought to bear on him. The threads of plot and intrigue twist and turn in ways that might leave you gasping for breath. However, what will really take your breath away is how believable the show manages to make all of them seem. These aren't the rantings of some conspiracy theorist, they are stark realities about how the world works and how a few powerful people can bring down governments and orchestrate events to suit their needs.
What's wonderful about this show is no matter how convoluted the story might sound most viewers should have no trouble keeping up with its sudden twists and turns. While there's nothing simplistic about the script, nor does it condescend to its audience by leading them around by the nose, it doesn't make make things unnecessarily complicated. It takes sufficient time to not only introduce the various plots, but also the characters involved in each strand. Once we are familiar with which characters are associated with each strand of action we can quickly identify what's going on and why. By keeping everything tightly compartmentalized until the end when everything converges we have no trouble keeping track of the net which is slowly closing around Dawkins.
What helps keeps us riveted to the screen is the cast led by Byrne. As the ex army officer who almost unwillingly steps into the job of Prime Minister, he gives one of the best performances I've seen from him. The supporting cast of Drance, Le Touzell, Graves and everybody else involved, are equally convincing. While the reptilian gaze of Drance's character as he plots his every move to Le Touzell's and Grave's elegant way of smiling to someone's face while plotting just where to put the knife in their back are frightening, all of the performances are also realistic and believable. What's truly terrifying about most of what you watch is how matter of fact everybody is while going about the business of putting their own interests above those of the people they supposedly represent.
Chris Mullen's novel A Very British Coup was first adapted for television in 1988. In the special features included on the DVD Mullen explains why he and the producer's decided to create a new adaptation now. He's updated the story line to reflect the changing world political climate and the new pressures being brought to bear on politicians. However, as the story makes clear, as far as he's concerned some things about the British political system have never changed.
Whether you're a conspiracy theorist or not, Secret State is a compelling argument that there is always more going on behind the scenes in politics than any of us will ever know. Beautifully acted, elegantly written and seamlessly directed it is probably the best tale of political intrigue you'll ever watch. One warning, allow yourself time to sit down and watch all four episodes at once, you're not going to want to wait to find out how it ends.
(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Secret State)
(Originally posted August 2014)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.