On paper, Channel Four’s “reimagining” of Chris Mullin’s “A Very British Coup”, both an excellent novel and TV series, must have seemed like a very good idea. Indeed, when Chris Mullin spoke in Dublin last year he mentioned the remake, suggesting the possible plot of a Tory prime minister under pressure from a devious right-wing conspiracy. The end product, “Secret State”, starring our own Gabriel Byrne as Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins, is disappointing, flat, and pretty aimless in places.
Why? Well, it isn’t because of a want of trying, with a pretty solid cast including Gina McKee (Our Friends in the North), Charles Dance (pretty much everything), and Rupert Graves (Sherlock’s Lestrade) as an oily Chancellor of the Exchequer. No, “Secret State” fails by wanting to claim the kudos of the 1988 Ray McAnally series (stating in its credits that it was inspired by Mullin’s book) but missing all the factors that made AVBC so watchable in the first place.
AVBC was a very political show. Ray McAnally’s PM Harry Perkins was a hard-left (but very likable) Labour leader implementing a clear hard-left agenda. His opponents, from the CIA to centrists in his own party, clearly opposed those stated policies, and there was debate about them in the series. You knew what both sides wanted.
“Secret State”, in contrast, is almost politics free, clutching to that lazy fiction idea that politics is not about choices but about wanting to do the right thing or not. It starts with a major industrial accident in a US chemical plant in the North of England which kills 19 people and injures 94, and a mysterious plane crash which kills the British PM. It then descends into a story about banks, drone attacks, the possibility of war with Iran, and a very vague conspiracy of powerful business people trying to, well, do something. Byrne’s PM makes a few populist speeches that don’t amount to much, and seems to do almost nothing for most of the series other than brood at his powerlessness. You never even find out which party he is supposed to be leading, and the series seems to be more interested in moody music-cued atmospherics than actually providing an interesting plot, other than “the world is run by bankers, and we’re all screwed.”
It’s just too “these are bankers, so they must be baddies”, and misses the fact that AVBC, although using Perkins as the source of audience sympathy, foisted him with an agenda that many viewers would profoundly have disagreed with.
Byrne’s Tom Dawkins, on the other hand, is on the side of “the people”, whatever that is. I wouldn’t say don’t watch it, because it is nicely put together and is entertaining enough, but it remains that most frustrating of beasts: A political drama without any politics in it.
And Chris Mullin is in it for about 5 seconds. Which was nice.