Tough business, politics. There was an explosion at a PetroFex oil refinery in the north of England. Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins (Gabriel Byrne) is particularly moved by the disaster and seeks to make sure that PetroFex makes good on the disaster. But when PM Charles Flyte (Tobias Menzies) dies in a plane accident (or is it?), Dawkins is pushed headlong into the deep end of politics where his steady demeanor and military history are quite timely. What he finds is a Scylla of military/intellegence machinations and Charybdis of business interests through which he decides to pass with brute honesty and cunning. His allies include his bodyguard Wrigglesworth (Ralph Ineson)—what a terrible name, that I didn’t know existed until I looked it up you’ll be happy to know—Chief Whip John Hodder (Charles Dance), drunk former spook Anthony Fossett (Douglas Hodge), and (maybe) journalist Ellis Kane (Gina McKee) who stokes Dawkins’ initial investigation. Things get very tricky and it becomes very clear that being Prime Minister might not be enough to best the shadowy conspirators.
First things first: the good. Acting terrific. Characters interesting. Story high-speed. (Some good work on those points from writer Robert Jones.) Production values very high. Good direction from Ed Fraiman. Mostly entertaining. There’s also a decent framework for the characters and plot. That’s a lot of good things.
What irks me about the miniseries Secret State (2012), and to an extent it’s the same as what irked me by the original adaptation (of the faithful title), A Very British Coup (1988), is its uncompromising cynicism. In both adaptations, we are given a hero with some superficial scars. But make no mistake, they are heroes. Harry Perkins and Tom Dawkins take up policies that irritate a select few but are well-believed and democratically based. These select few flex their considerable muscles to destroy their attacker. But both Perkins and Dawkins are the Prime Minister in their respective universe. And I’ll ruin this for you, and I apologize for that, but they both lose. So these series’ argument is that the full force of elected government is nothing to that of business, the military, and the intelligence services. I find it strange that both Left and Right so frustratingly fail to observe that humans fill these positions and have values other than greed and ambition.
Where Secret State goes one better is that they stack the deck so strongly in Dawkins’ favor with an ally in MI-5, the press, politics, and the facts and oppose this with the specter of a war with Iran fueled by anger because, apparently, the MOD and intelligence services want war and it benefits British business interests. At least A Very British Coup had the decency to have a real coup when its popular hero doing popular things threw down the gauntlet. Here, we are led to believe that a man in whom the people trust gives a speech that is so obviously good sense (and even the opposition are in awe) and then throws the political gauntlet down that he loses the political game? I think you ask too much to prove a questionable point.
Dawkins is incredibly clever and, unrealistically I admit, constantly comes up with counter-check moves against his foes. Oh, you say you’ll move your business? Well we actually own your business indirectly. Oh, business we own directly won’t do what we say? We’ll make you by taking control of that business. Didn’t get a real response to that one, just a blue screen of death. The government makes the laws and when people break those laws, you call the cops and start putting people in jail. The cynical response seems to be, “Oh yeah, well the police are corrupt.” Then fire them. Why he suffers the two vipers to remain his Chancellor (Rupert Graves ) and Foreign Secretary (Sylvestra Le Touzel), I have no idea.
If Dawkins existed, he would have a 90% approval rating. Even when they controlled the story, these guys couldn’t manipulate events to be at least a little ambiguous. We’ve gone so far to prove to ourselves that corporate power is real and great that we’ve been confused into thinking that ordinary, traditional modes of power somehow aren’t actually powerful. As I read somewhere once, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The power of business exists only insofar as it is able to influence government (with money).
This is a continuation of the boogieman used by hysterical populists everywhere. The British seem rather susceptible to this—see also the relatively entertaining miniseries The Last Enemy (2008)— despite the fact that their leaders (and ours in America) so frequently prove their ineptitude and inability to keep secrets. You can’t be dumb and sinister. Are there problems with business influencing government? Yes. Does that mean that people are quid-pro-quo corrupt? No. What strikes you as more likely, Republicans in Congress don’t want to raise taxes because they’re involved in a plutocratic conspiracy or because it would require the admission that an inherited theory that they created as their raison d’ être was wrong.
Does that mean that these conspiracy films/series ought not be made or are uniformly stupid? Of course not, but they ought to be infused with a little more reality. Make the group small and show how they are able to influence powers in small ways that lead to terrible things. Example. The head of MI-6 (Michael Gould ) and the Chief of Defense Staff (Nicholas Farrell ) flat out lied to create a war with Iran. This isn’t 1910. The military and intelligence services are not flailing about desperately looking for reasons to get funding. In the US we’re debating about how much to cut growth. Do you think these men would risk war just because a weapons program got defunded? That’s insane. Now, if you set your premise that the extremists groups had gone quiet for a few years and cuts were coming about and the rank-and-file thought they were being betrayed by some smarmy character—the one Rupert Graves plays, for example—then you could see a subtle plan put into effect to take the PM down.
Available on Amazon.co.uk.