IoS TV review: Secret State, Channel 4, Wednesday Some Girls, BBC3, Tuesday Heston's Fantastical Food, Channel 4, Tuesday

The latest TV portrait of British politics is a watchable but silly conspiracy thriller

Rhiannon Harries
Sunday 11 November 2012 01:00
Gabriel Byrne stars as Tom Dawkins in 'Secret State'
Gabriel Byrne stars as Tom Dawkins in 'Secret State'

Channel 4's new political thriller, Secret State, began stylishly, with moody, saturated shots of a suited-and-booted Gabriel Byrne edging across the literal fallout of some unknown disaster. He stoops to pick up a child's mitten from the charred remains littering the ground only to make the grim discovery of five tiny fingers still enveloped inside.

With hindsight, it was then that a disappointing fissure began to open between the real world and this reworking of Chris Mullin's A Very British Coup. Most would have dropped the thing in horror, with a four-letter expletive and some significant retching; Byrne cupped it delicately and stared gravely into the middle distance. Between the slick production and Byrne's extant stock of charisma and gravitas, it took a while to register on the silliness scale, but as the first episode of this four-parter progressed, it became apparent that there's only so much slack that an excellent cast (Gina McKee, Charles Dance) and nice camerawork can pick up in a lazily constructed drama.

Byrne plays Tom Dawkins, the deputy prime minister, sent to visit the aftermath of a refinery explosion in a Teesside town. Meanwhile, the PM himself has, by remarkable coincidence, been hobnobbing at the headquarters of the said refinery's owners, an evil-sounding US outfit called Petrofex. En route back to the UK, the private plane laid on by the chemicals giant goes down, killing the PM and landing Dawkins at the centre of a conspiracy-tastic, occasionally ludicrous, web of goings-on.

For a start, McKee keeps popping up as an investigative journalist with a Zen master-like exterior who claims to have evidence of corporate negligence by Petrofex. Before the hour is out, the pathologist carrying out the post-mortems on the explosion victims has hanged himself. Then come suggestions of a terrorist attack on the plane. Evidence? The PM's Muslim aide texted his cousin in Luton moments before take-off (I'm not making this up).

Naturally, with the PM's death, intra-party jostling for power ensues, with plenty of clumsy "If you let me be PM, I promise you can be foreign sec" exchanges in corridors, as Dawkins is courted by various slippery colleagues who are mysteriously keen to lead their party into an election they seem destined to lose. All of which is interspersed with surveillance scenes that must be delicious confirmation of a paranoiac's fears but which left me wishing – and sincerely doubting – that anybody, anywhere, had such a comprehensive idea of what's going on in the world.

If all of this sounds damning, it's worth saying that Secret State wasn't unenjoyable. It was easy to sink into its familiar tropes and be swept along by the plot. It's just that you could feel your buttons being pushed. The highbrow veneer and comparison with superior offerings in the same vein (State of Play, Homeland) made that all the harder to take.

Also light on realism was BBC3's new comedy Some Girls, which wouldn't matter if it weren't equally featherweight on laughs. I rather liked the premise – four inner-London teens playing on a women's football team chimes with these post-Olympics times – but it turned out to be a weird mixture of right-on correctness, with its multicultural line-up, and half-hearted irreverence. Teenage mothers swigging cider and dropping ash on their babies were stereotypes that worked to no particular end. Still, lurking below the surface was some kind of positive message about friendship, even if at times it felt less like the view of an out-of-touch adult than that of someone who had never been to planet Earth. I still preferred it to the creepy, sexed-up version of teenhood that is Skins.

Heston's Fantastical Food was more of what we've come to expect from the maestro of molecular gastronomy, although this time he was working on a macro rather than micro level. Ordinarily, Blumenthal is my kind of TV chef, which is to say that watching one of his shows usually involves no expectation that you are going to rise from the sofa and reproduce the on-screen culinary delights any time soon. So I was alarmed when he started talking about his "mission" to reawaken the British public's childish delight in food, starting with the English breakfast. Fortunately, this socially minded rhetoric was just that, an excuse for him to concoct utterly frivolous things such as giant boiled eggs made from yoghurt and sausages that looked like tomatoes.

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