24 June 2003 | paul2001sw-1
State of the nation, state of the art
What makes a good political thriller? Some things are obvious. Firstly, strong believable characters. Secondly, a fast-paced, complex, dazzling plot. But the plot must resolve into something comprehensible - there may appear to be one hundred mysteries, but beneath the smoke and mirrors, there must be one story. Anyone can write an infinite collection of coincidences and conspiracies - but a strong story makes simple sense in the end. Finally, a political drama needs to say something authentic about the current state of the world. If the final conclusion is that the Prime Minister has a prediliction for drinking the blood of teenage girls, then however plausible this is made to seem, an opportunity has been lost - if politics really is the subject matter, and not just the setting, then the personal drama must make some wider political point. Paul Abbott's 'State of Play' succeeds gloriously on all these points, and confirms his reputation as among the the sharpest writers in British television today.
Director David Yates also deserves credit, for keeping the mood tense but unmelodramatic throughout, while the cast show uniform excellence in bringing Abbott's characters to life. Abbott has commented that he knew he would have failed if any of his (largely journalistic) heroes could be sumarised as "mavericks" - a simple lesson ignored by ninety percent of writers today. Instead we have real, three-dimensional portrayals. What's especially impressive is how well the female characters are realised - neither passive decoration nor kick-ass post-feminists, but believable, not necessarily glamorous women - the contrast between the sexes has a low-key ring of truth. David Morrissey as the MP around whom the storm breaks is also excellent - when politicians are held in universally low stock, 'State of Play' avoids all the easiest shots. If one of the tragedy of politics is that many of its protagonists are first rate idiots, another is what it makes out of those who are not. Morrissey's Stephen Collins is never sympathetic, and yet comes across as the sort of man you might almost choose to try and run the country. Paul Abbott, meanwhile, is certainly the sort of man you'd choose to write a drama. In 'State of Play', he has produced the best British TV series since 'Holding On'.