TV UK, 19 June

The writer of State of Play appeals to 'the paranoid nature of the British public'.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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Politics is a notorious turn-off for most people, certainly in the West. But Paul Abbot, writer of State of Play, is keen that TV executives should not reject all programmes with political content. Just because we don’t vote, doesn’t mean we can’t engage with politics on some level. In particular, he feels that political thrillers have a future.

Speaking on Time Shift (BBC4 on Sunday), Abott explains that while things have changed since the heyday of political thrillers in the 1980s (the classic Edge of Darkness starts again on BBC4 the same night), good writers can still use politics to make good drama.

For Abbott, though, Big Conspiracies are no longer credible, since contemporary politicians are more urbane, and their corruption more insidious. In State of Play, he appeals to ‘the paranoid nature of the British public’ and manipulates popular prejudices about politicians and corporations, as well as journalists. His trick is to introduce an element the audience will spot and then ‘completely turn the corner and play with expectations of television architecture’.

Without giving anything away ahead of Sunday’s final episode, I can say that Abbot honours his promise in the letter if not the spirit. (That is, if it’s possible to honour a letter like ‘television architecture’.) State of Play has plenty of twists and turns, but politically it is hardly breathtaking. Abbott argues that the drama is political because it is challenging an ideology, and then he mumbles something about big business, and looks a bit bashful. It only goes to show that ‘artistes’ are the last people qualified to talk about their own work.

More important than the shifting suspects and political sentiments are the shifting motives of the journalists, and especially Cal McCaffrey. For all that Abbot has set the drama in a particular political context, drawing on particular political sentiments and suspicions, it is rooted in characters that are at once more general, as humans we can all identify with, and more specific, as distinct fictional creations.

The producers employed Guardian journalist Kevin MacGuire as a consultant for the series, and by all accounts he has done a good job of helping recreate the atmosphere of a newsroom and keeping the characters believable as journalists. Whatever the details, though, like Cal’s recurring use of ‘Yeah, whatever, just bike it over’ as a telephone trope when someone is listening, the drama stands on its merits as a drama. In this case, ‘romp’ is a plaudit rather than a putdown.

The one constraint imposed on the drama by the contemporary world is that it is the journalists who are attractive and exciting (even more than the cops!), while the politicians come across as feeble and ultimately powerless. This state of affairs was forcefully demonstrated the other week on the special ‘professions’ series of University Challenge, when an all-party group of MPs was utterly humiliated by a team from The Times. And they wonder why we don’t vote.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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Topics Politics


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