Posted: 05/23/2009


State of Play


by Jon Bastian

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State of Play, the 2003 BBC produced series that inspired the recent motion picture, starts off running and doesn’t stop until the last frame. It begins with a bang – literally – which sets in motion a taut, complex game of cat-and-mouse between the press, police, politicians and various parties, both guilty and wronged, and it will keep you guessing until the very last moments.

The action begins with a seemingly random street killing, as a fifteen year-old petty thief (Gregory Poorman, in his debut) is chased down and shot in the face. On the same morning, Sonia Baker (Shauna Macdonald, MI-5), research assistant to up-and-coming Member of Parliament Stephen Collins (David Morrissey, The other Boleyn Girl), winds up dead beneath a commuter train in the tube. This latter death has the unfortunate side effect of Collins having to reveal to his governmental superiors that he had been having an affair with her. This revelation is not as big a bit of news to his wife as he had expected, but it also becomes the starting point for the press frenzy, especially when Collins’s friend and former campaign manager, Cal McCaffrey (John Simm, Doctor Who, learns of the affair – and that Sonia’s death may not have been the suicide the police are calling it. Determined to protect his old friend, McCaffrey embarks on a journey to get the truth, aided and abetted by a group of crack (and sometimes cracked) reporters, and a transcriptionist who eventually proves himself more than willing to do what it takes to get a piece of the story, while alternately sparring with and relying on the advice of his seasoned editor Cameron Foster (Bill Nighy, Valkyrie).

I am normally not a fan of procedurals, but at the Beeb, they know how to unravel a story gradually, like peeling an onion. Then again, all six episodes were penned by the same writer, and it is his name, not the director’s, which appears with the title in each episode: “State of Play by Paul Abbott”. This was not writing by committee, and it shows in its singular vision. Abbot constructs a complicated jigsaw puzzle in which each new piece changes the interpretation and placement of a previous piece without resorting to coincidence or contrivance. On top of that, the dialogue is realistic, often funny and always bristling – although if you’re not up on your Modern Accents of the UK, you may appreciate the inclusion of English subtitles at times. What carries all of this along are the characters, who are well-defined, with all their quirks and flaws right out front.

Have no doubt that this is McCaffrey’s story, and Simm is well up to the task as the less than scrupulous but no doubt loyal and ultimately honest reporter crusading to get to the real story. Sometimes a bit of a putz, other times with his heart way out on his sleeve, unfolding events have the most impact on his character, and in a scene near the end where he can only answer two questions by nodding, otherwise being curled into a corner like a misbehaving child confronted by his parents, conveys all the pain of his character with silence. McCaffrey’s big story turns out having its biggest impact upon its author.

Simm is abetted by some amazing talent. Standouts are many. James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) as Dan Foster, starts out as a chip-on-his-shoulder celebrity scandal reporter and eventually proves himself to be one bloody resourceful chap. This was before he became largely known to American audiences outside of his turn in the Children of Dune miniseries on the SciFi Channel, but all of his star qualities are on display here, when he was barely 24. He imbues his character with just the right combination of cockiness and competence

Kelly MacDonald (Choke) as Della Smith, McCaffrey’s Scottish sidekick who has the bad habit of developing a conscience at exactly the wrong time, treads the fine line of portraying a delicate novice reporter who is finally learning the ropes and discovering her inner strength. Tom Burke (Donkey Punch) plays Syd, the lowly transcriptionist who uncovers a couple of major bits in the story before the rest of the reporters even know his name, and gets to tell the hilarious tale of how he has absolute proof of the sexuality of a person of interest in the case.

Providing nice comic relief is Marc Warren (Colour me Kubrick) as Dominic Foy, a witness and person of interest who was intimately connected to Sonia, but is probably ultimately not as important to the solution as anyone thinks, much less himself. Warren delineates this tricky character from his first appearance, a wannabe in a full-length faux-fur vest who has a habit of jetting off to Spain, or just running away, when confronted with unpleasantness. He ultimately winds up the very image of Malcolm McDowell from the end of A Clockwork Orange, neckbrace and spoon-feeding and all, and his last attempt at running away is both pathetic and touching. Foy’s problem is not that he’s guilty. He’s just much more innocent than he thinks, and Warren manages to portray this without betraying his character. Foy himself could be the center of a Britcom spin-off.

Hovering above them all as the cynical, world-weary editor is the fabulous Bill Nighy, who has played the necessary politics of the newsroom so many times that it has become an instinct. His performance is nicely nuanced, so that we know when he’s playing a source or outright lying to a superior, and despite his character’s no-nonsense abrasiveness, he comes across as truly likeable because Nighy, and Abbott’s writing, make him absolutely understandable.

If there is a flaw to the production, it’s that the finale seems a little bit open-ended. However, this may not have been Abbott’s fault. Reportedly, the BBC wanted to go on with a second series, which finally didn’t happen because Abbott didn’t know how to continue the story – and he probably couldn’t have, because everything mostly comes to a nice conclusion. Mostly… but it’s a “mostly” that is, in all other respects, a grand slam knocked right out of the park, if it’s appropriate to use a baseball metaphor for a series that comes from the land of cricket. My only complaint about the DVD version is that it’s very light on special features (something common to BBC US releases, but that’s more a complicated artifact of international business agreements than it is an intentional slight), and, anyway, when the feature is so special, missing extras aren’t that much of a turn-off.

This is a series well worth watching, a brisk five hours and fifty minutes that just shoots by, leaving you wanting more. It has a little bit of everything – procedural, politics, scandal, sex, violence, comedy, drama, witting dialogue and great characters. If you’re like me, after you get a taste in the first episode, you’ll wind up watching the other five back to back. And you won’t figure it out until the end, either.

Own it on DVD.

Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…

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