SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO READ BETWEEN THE LINES.
Paul Abbott had enjoyed great success as a writer for British television, cutting his teeth on Coronation Street and moving on to weightier matters, such as Clocking Off, a series he created in 2000. When he decided to write a thriller for the first time in his career, the BBC got so excited about the results that they instantly wanted him to pen a follow-up. A second season of State of Play never materialized, but the original miniseries was a much cherished hit featuring several of the actors from Clocking Off.
The first episode begins with a 15-year-old kid running from a man who eventually catches up with him and executes the boy. When a motorcyclist passes the scene the killer is forced to shoot him as well. At the same time, Member of Parliament Stephen Collins (David Morrissey) learns that Sonia Baker, a researcher for the energy committee on which he sits, has been found dead on the railway tracks. The Baker incident gets every London paper going, not least when Collins breaks down during a press conference. The assumption is that he was having an affair with Baker and Herald reporter Cal McCaffrey (John Simm) reluctantly agrees to get in touch with Collins even though he considers the whole story to be tabloid fodder.
He soon finds reason to reconsider, along with his colleague Della Smith (Kelly Macdonald) and editor Cameron Foster (Bill Nighy). It turns out that Baker was likely murdered and that the crime is connected to the hit on the 15-year-old and the attempted murder on the motorcyclist. The more the Herald investigates the facts behind these stories, the deeper a conspiracy seems to stretch into the British government involving Big Oil.
The power of guilt, sex and political interests
There’s much more to this story than that, small and big surprises, although the final one revealed in the last episode isn’t all that shocking. Abbott allegedly made up much of the plot as he went along and there are times when the story seems more confusing than anything else. State of Play would be even better were it four or five hours long rather than six. Still, this is a gripping thriller dealing with the power of guilt, sex and political interests. Above all, it is an engaging (and quite convincing) portrayal of life on a major newspaper; Nighy is particularly good as the editor who knows when to push his reporters and when to offer them support. Simm and Philip Glenister share a few scenes together; they were both in Clocking Off and would deliver even greater performances in Life on Mars. Morrissey, who can be a bit stiff at times, is terrific as the MP who tries to continue functioning in that capacity even as his family is falling apart.
Abbott devotes much interest to the relationship between Cal and Collins’s wife (Polly Walker), but what gets our adrenaline going is the tension director David Yates creates in several sequences; our need to find out what’s behind all this isn’t satisfied until the last scene and that’s good.
Before writing this review, I watched parts of the first episode again and there were plenty of details that seemed different in light of what I know now. That tells me State of Play has a future beyond a first look.
State of Play 2003-Britain. Made for TV. 360 min. Color. Produced by Hilary Bevan Jones. Directed by David Yates. Teleplay: Paul Abbott. Cast: John Simm (Cal McCaffrey), David Morrissey (Stephen Collins), Kelly Macdonald (Della Smith), Bill Nighy, Polly Walker, James McAvoy.
Trivia: Originally shown in six episodes. Remade in the U.S. as a movie, State of Play (2009).
Last word: “I wrote ‘State of Play’ as a tantrum. A journalist called me white bread, what’d you call a redneck. So I wanted to show him I could make something posh, to show it wasn’t my upbringing that lets me write like this. It’s fucking talent. Yes, ‘State of Play’ is posh but it’s armature posh.” (Abbott, The Hollywood Reporter)