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In the Secret State (1985)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of In the Secret State (1985)
For Screen Two, BBC, tx. 10/3/1985
90 mins, colour
DirectorChristopher Morahan
Production CompanyGreenpoint Films
ProducerAnn Scott
ScreenplayBrian Phelan
From the novel byRobert McCrum
PhotographyNat Crosby
MusicRichard Harvey

Cast: Frank Finlay (Frank Strange), Matthew Marsh (James Quitman), Geoffrey Chater (Michael Hatherley), Michael Byrne (Guy Preger), Thorley Walters (Johnny Davenport), Ronald Fraser (Barnaby Tucker), Malcolm Terris (Cooper), Ken Campbell (Hoskins)

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When an operative at a secret government intelligence department apparently commits suicide, departing boss Frank Strange conducts his own private investigation, and uncovers disturbing information about his former colleagues.

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"Suspicion. It's a virus. We are the carriers. We're like rats scuttling through medieval sewers," says Quitman (Matthew Marsh) in Christopher Morahan's In The Secret State (BBC, tx. 10/3/1985). The opening sequence contains a startling shot of a rat bursting out of a bin liner - a key image in a film about degeneration and its beneficiaries.

Veteran director Morahan had triumphed the previous year as producer and joint director of The Jewel In The Crown (ITV, 1984). Actor-turned-writer Brian Phelan adapted the screenplay from Robert McCrum's 1980 novel. McCrum's concerns about the security services, pertinent then, had become yet more relevant by the time of the film's transmission in March 1985.

The drama aired in the same week that Channel Four finally broadcast the documentary MI5's Official Secrets (tx. 8/3/1985), which alleged that MI5 had spied on legal organisations such as CND and had passed the intelligence on to the Conservative government to be used for party-political ends. The IBA had banned the programme, fearing prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. Against the background of the miner's strike, a sustained IRA bombing campaign, and the superpower stand-off in Europe, political sensitivities were acute. Small wonder that the location of the fictional Directorate's database was nervously changed from Cheltenham (as it was in McCrum's novel) to Southampton.

The film tours a jittery Establishment. Whitehall, Westminster, public school, the army, the press: all the key institutions are laid out before us, a flow-chart of self-sustaining privilege. Outside, however, society is crumbling away. Rubbish is left uncollected in the streets; picketers huddle at the entrances to industrial estates; power cuts occur daily. Villains Hatherly and Preger - the twin faces of conservatism - represent two equally dismal reactions to national decline. Little-Englander Hatherly wants to reverse the disintegration, but only so as to impose his narrow idea of national identity. Amoral profiteer Preger, meanwhile, is solely interested in scavenging what he can from the detritus.

Scrupulously even-handed, the film gives us a plotter from the left as well. In another departure from the book, it is strongly hinted that the departmental controller Dangerfield is a communist agent - the irony being that his blue blood makes him unassailable in the very system he is seeking to destroy. Britain gets the traitors it deserves. As Hoskins bitterly remarks when asked if Lister could have been a Soviet spy: "he went to the wrong school for that game."

Keith Shuaib

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Video Clips
1. 'Hoskins will help me' (2:42)
2. 'Bury it and bury him' (4:27)
3. Davenport (3:39)
4. 'The work we do' (3:11)
Finlay, Frank (1926-)
Morahan, Christopher (1929-)
Richardson, Natasha (1963-2009)
Conspiracy Drama