(Hands up if State of Play is amongst your finest achievements)
Before Shameless, before Bill Nighy was recognised as a national institution, before John Simm (pictured above) woke up in the 70s in Life on Mars, before Polly Walker bared her teeth and more in Rome and before James McAvoy and Kelly Macdonald went to Hollywood. Before all of this there was State of Play.
For the uninitiated, State of Play is a riveting six-part political thriller, written by Paul Abbott and directed by David Yates, which first aired on BBC1 in spring 2003. As well as the aforementioned cast – almost a ‘Who’s Who’ of British talent in itself – it features Geraldine James (Band of Gold), Philip Glenister (Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes) and Rebekah Staton (Pulling) in supporting roles.
The series opens unforgettably with a professional hit and a young woman disappearing under a tube train. The woman, Sonja Baker, is the researcher of rising-star MP Stephen Collins (David Morrissey, pictured below), and his emotional reaction to her death reveals to the assembled press that the two were intimate. Journalist Cal McAffrey (John Simm) is Stephen’s former campaign manager who, with his team at The Herald – under the stewardship of their editor Cameron Foster (Bill Nighy) – makes connections between the two incidents, uncovering political corruption and what appears to be a murderous corporate conspiracy. The personal and professional become further entangled when Cal starts-up an affair with Stephen’s wife, Anne (Polly Walker).
If you’re thinking that a six-part political thriller is not really your cup of tea, then let me assure you it’s a rollercoaster; action-packed but peppered with wit and warmth and bursting with character, as you might expect from the creator of Shameless and Clocking Off. The opening ten minutes is breathtaking in its economy and exhilaration, ensuring audiences will be hooked from the outset.
Paul Abbott writes with his usual idiosyncratic verve and irreverence, refusing to let the unfamiliar terrain take the edge off his writing. When Cal’s colleague Della (Kelly Macdonald) turns up at the crack of dawn with a new piece of information he asks her, “what’s the matter, have you wet the bed?” Later, during a heated row with Collins, he spits at him, “you’ve been greasing your own arse since they gave you a shining star badge.” Abbott admits that he researched neither the political or journalistic arenas before setting about writing State of Play, and had never even set foot in a newsroom. His astonishing guesswork was vindicated when the script was checked by journalists from The Times and The Guardian and they had negligible corrections.
State of Play makes the case for journalism as a simultaneously seedy and righteous profession, with Abbott, as ever, the master of drawing out the pride and passion in the reviled. It moves with a thundering pace; frantic but assured, like a nervous heartbeat. Multi-faceted, it is at once a testament to the thrill and momentum of ‘The Story’, a blistering attack on the duplicity and disappointment of New Labour; a love story, murder mystery, comedy and caper. Nothing is as it at first seems and revelation after revelation confound, as the story swerves off in ever-more surprising directions. The cast of world-beaters are unsurprisingly exceptional to a man and woman, and director David Yates brings a cinematic sense of scale and story (he has subsequently gone on to direct the final four parts of the Harry Potter saga). The serial’s outstanding achievements were acknowledged with six BAFTA nominations and three wins; for Editing, Sound and a Best Actor gong for Bill Nighy. It is also no coincidence that 2003 was the year that Paul Abbott collected BAFTA’s Dennis Potter Award for exceptional writing.
Of further testament to its instant classic status is that it was quickly picked-up for an American feature film remake. Released in 2009, it stars Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck as Cal and Stephen respectively and is directed by Kevin Macdonald. It condenses the near six hours worth of story into a mere 122 minutes and is all the worse for it. Forgivable amendments include that Della becomes a blogger (a neat contemporary revision) and the shadowy UX oil morphs into nefarious US security contractors. However, it lacks the character, wit, excitement and crucially the emotional impact of the original; being utterly formulaic and, at best, reasonably efficient filmmaking.
State of Play, the serial, is quite simply amongst the best work of all concerned and was rightly heralded at the time as unmissable, ‘event’ television. It’s a fantastic advert for British TV as, despite its relative brevity, it can confidently compete with the best HBO has to offer. In the age of box-set consumption, go on – give it six hours of your time. You won’t be disappointed.
Watch the trailer for State of Play