‘State of Play’: Politics Now

[7 December 2011]

By Lesley Smith

The title State of Play might remind you of the big-name, big-yawn 2009 movie State of Play. But don’t let that put you off the original, a six-part TV series now coming to BBCA. This intoxicating State of Play follows journalists in pursuit of a hot story in a capital city, where the best and brightest in politics, culture, and international business collide—and corruption creeps up so flatteringly that one’s soul is sold at the first hello.

The story itself is standard stuff for a political thriller involving seemingly random deaths. These are linked by a single phone call, a rising political star with too many secrets, and a broadsheet journalist, Cal McCaffrey (John Simm), whose nose for a good story forces him to question all his loyalties, public and private. Writer Paul Abbott’s script delivers both slow-burn character development and broad meditations on individual loyalty and the nature of British society just after the turn of the millennium. Cal and rising political star Stephen Collins (David Morrissey), both in their early 30s, are navigating that last rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood, as their idealistic university friendship is challenged by the personal and professional temptations of fast-track careers hitting high gear.

Through this relationship, State of Play dissects cynicism and misguided hubris generally. And though it was first broadcast in 2003, it seems now to have looked ahead, examining the particular malfeasances of New Labour’s second term in office that left the country blindsided by the recession of 2008. In this way the series recalls John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, published in 1974 and serialized for British television in 1979, which probed the shoddy disorder of Britain’s political and economic leadership during the decline of the 1970s.

Not that State of Play is ever slow or preachy: Abbott’s script and David Yates’ direction filter the weightier themes through a delicious recreation of the grind and guts of investigative journalism. Cal, his younger colleagues Della (Kelly McDonald) and Dan (James McAvoy), and their editor, Cameron (Bill Nighy), don’t succumb to the clichés of film and TV journalists, fueled by intuition, informants, and impatience. 

Instead, they embark on a swerving, backtracking journey of poking in garbage cans (literal and metaphorical) and pretending to believe the half-lies and half-truths of friends and enemies alike. The series nails nails how any big story leads to the collapse of ideals, not so much of “truth,” but of the illusion that the small compromises of human greed and aspiration are ever harmless.

These ideas emerge most potently in State of Play‘s performances. Nighy won the BAFTA for Best Actor, but the younger actors are also brilliant. Simm is electric, conveying Cal’s fuming energy whether pacing the well-worn path through the newsroom to his editor’s office, or slumped in a sitting room opposite his best friend’s more than flirtatious wife, Anne (Polly Walker).

McAvoy brings another sort of energy to his part, exuding the raw confidence and furtive swagger of the gutter journalist confident he can scoop the broadsheets whenever he likes. In his open-collared shirt and too-big leather jacket, Dan personifies both the edge behind British journalism’s biggest exposes, and the sources of its greatest scandals. And Morrisey is mesmerizing as the polished young MP heading towards the Cabinet. Discreetly well dressed, Stephen appears to think before he speaks, and understands the disarming power of confession and self-abnegation. 

These characterizations help viewers to invest in individual trajectories even while following the investigative team’s slow assembly of the story. This even as the characters are themselves are building prickly alliances and coping with unexpected revelations. Although his recent work on the last four Harry Potter films does not suggest restraint, Yates in State of Play handles introspection, silence, and inaction as compellingly as he orchestrates snippy repartee, full-scale rows and grandstanding set pieces. 

Many of these are anchored by their locations: the series uses London not simply as an atmospheric backdrop, but as yet one more character in the series. Yates sites a key late-night meeting in the darkened grounds of the city’s lonely, but much loved, white elephant, Alexandra Palace, and houses his protagonists in neighborhoods where rising professionals congregate, the fringes of north London and the gentrified rows of working men’s cottages and middle-class terraces south of the river.

These domestic scenes are essential to the ultimate success of State of Play. As Americans face a 2012 presidential election, and Europe continues to unravel in debt and austerity, State of Play asks what happens to personal integrity when money, power, self-interest and betrayal beckon, when old alliances fracture and the key questions of public life become who will be used by whom and for what ends.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/152164-state-of-play/