Secret State: a conspiracy out of time

Channel 4’s new thriller serial is hard to swallow when our real-life politicians are too clueless to organise a decent plot.

David Bowden

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On a purely artistic level, the makers of Secret State must have been rubbing their hands with glee at the timing of their four-part drama on Channel 4. A thriller exploring the murky links between the British government, big business, media and the intelligence services already clearly has plenty going for it in topicality, with the Leveson Inquiry looming over the future of the British press.

The producers surely could not, however, have anticipated it being aired amid the extraordinary fallout from the Savile affair, with allegations lurking of abuse and cover-ups at the heart of Whitehall. Secret State has been trailed as the British answer to Homeland but, with this sense of timing, the US hit drama may well be looking to it for inspiration.

Except, peer a little deeper, and there is nothing new here. Even the new James Bond film Skyfall manages to allude to the Leveson era of public inquiries, though perhaps more by way of fortuitous timing (the Hutton Inquiry being a more likely inspiration). Hell, Secret State doesn’t even claim to be original, being instead a loose adaptation of Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel A Very British Coup, itself inspired by claims that paranoid Cold War warriors had planned to overthrow UK prime minister Harold Wilson during the 1970s. That claim is itself an echo of the ‘Zinoviev Letter’ affair of 1924, where a forged letter was used to destabilise the incumbent Labour government.

A rich source of conspiracy, both real and imagined, to draw on, then, largely derived from the annals of the Labour Party: Mullin wrote the original novel, of a radical left-wing Labour prime minister being undermined by the forces of establishment conservatism, in anticipation of Tony Benn’s expected leadership bid. Benn famously never did become leader of Labour, but Mullin did go on to serve the party in parliament from 1987 to 2010 and became a celebrated backbench chronicler of the New Labour years.

It is therefore curious to see this text resurrected on our screens in 2012. Robert Jones has brashly updated it to the present day for a Tory-looking government, with our hero now being deputy prime minister and Bosnian War veteran Tom Dawkins, who is suddenly thrust into the hot seat of a UK reeling from an accident at a nuclear plant on Teeside and the prime minister’s sudden death in a mysterious plane crash.

It’s certainly a classy looking affair, with twinkly-eyed Gabriel Byrne as Dawkins, Gina McKee as a crusading journalist, Charles Dance in his natural villainous habitat as the sinister-looking Conservative whip, and Rupert Graves and Sylvestra Le Touzel having fun playing modern-looking Tory challengers to the throne. Meanwhile, two unknown GCHQ officers of uncertain loyalties do their shiny Spooks-style monitoring of proceedings and a shady American lobbyist lurks in the background.

It’s difficult to tell how it will work out in the end: the original novel ended, rather than began, with the nuclear accident. The heroes and villains seemed clearly signposted from the beginning, so we may expect a few twists and turns along the way. But it would be a surprise if it achieves Homeland or even The Killing levels of success: early viewing figures hardly indicate as much.

Part of the problem is, of course, that after the emotional incontinence of the New Labour years and the bumbling activities of the current Lib-Con coalition, it’s very difficult to muster enough menace to the great offices of state. Who cares whether Charles Dance is a Secret Service wheeler-dealer when we imagine his erstwhile real-life counterpart Andrew Mitchell angrily shouting at policemen on his bicycle? After the half-hearted muddling which led to the New Labour ‘dodgy dossier’ over the Iraq War, we’ve learned that modern politicians are motivated more by their own puffed-up sense of purpose than by Machiavellian political wrangling. As the genuinely unnerving Black Mirror demonstrated last year, we can more readily imagine the PM fucking a pig on air for a bit of positive press coverage than organising a robust defence of their own purpose.

Conspiracy theories are, of course, supposed to thrive in such periods of weak authority, functioning as much as a comfort blanket as anything else. Mullin’s A Very British Coup fed into Labour’s own mythology that its electoral failures were the fault of an evil conspiracy of Rupert Murdoch and big business. Never mind the party’s own political shortcomings. Current Labourite darling Tom Watson MP was grandstanding about the ‘secret state’ in the run-up to Leveson last year, too. (Watson himself heroically failed in his own alleged coup against Tony Blair on behalf of Gordon Brown.)

Jones may have been savvy enough to drop the Cold War paranoia of the original, but Secret State still feels quaint and old-fashioned in its production values and its worldview. In a more cynical age, the audience knows that most of the real conspiracies are carried out in plain sight: elected representatives are as likely to be toppled for not complying with Eurozone austerity measures as they are for declaring class war; apparently all-powerful press barons can find themselves shutting down their newspapers at a moment’s notice; it remains to be seen where the revelations over Savile may yet take us. Secret State could yet turn out to be compelling drama, but so far it seems to be suffer by not being outlandish enough to be taken seriously.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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