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State of Play (2003)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of State of Play (2003)
Endor for BBC, 18/5-22/6/2003
6 x 60 min episodes, colour
DirectorDavid Yates
ProducerHilary Bevan Jones
Written byPaul Abbott
PhotographyChris Seager

Cast: David Morrissey (Stephen Collins); John Simm (Cal McCaffrey); Kelly Macdonald (Della Smith); Polly Walker (Anne Collins); Bill Nighy (Cameron Foster); James McAvoy (Dan Foster); Marc Warren (Dominic Foy)

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When an MP's researcher is killed, journalist Cal McCaffrey begins to uncover a complex story involving surprising links between the government and the oil industry.

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While the Thatcher/Major era saw a string of high profile political dramas, the early years of Tony Blair's premiership passed with little direct comment from TV writers. Blair's 2001 re-election, however, seemed to signal the end of the honeymoon, and in the following two years, three major dramas peered behind the curtain of New Labour: The Project (BBC, 10-11/11/2002) explored the party's ruthless single-mindedness in securing victory in 1997, while The Deal (Channel 4, tx. 28/9/2003) examined the curious mix of mutual hostility and interdependence characterising Blair's relationship with chancellor Gordon Brown. Sandwiched between these was State of Play (BBC, 18/5-15/6/2003).

Paul Abbott's serial expressed the widely-held belief that New Labour had betrayed the longing for a new 'ethical politics' which had brought it to power, replacing the 'sleaze' scandals of the Major years with what looked to many like more of the same.

But State of Play was far more than a piece of political tub-thumping. At the heart of its complex, multi-layered plot were two tragic, very personal stories - of ambitious and talented young MP Stephen Collins (David Morrissey), ruined by the consequences of his sexual infidelity, and of Cal McCaffrey (John Simm), journalist and Collins' one-time friend, whose ill-advised affair with Collins' wife Anne (Sally Walker) brings him to personal despair at the moment of his professional triumph.

Morrissey, Simm and Walker delivered faultless performances; Morrissey, in particular, was extraordinary in a role that confirmed him as arguably the most consistently remarkable TV actor of his generation. Similarly impressive were the supporting players, including Kelly Macdonald as the quick-witted Della, James McAvoy (subsequently in Abbott's Shameless (Channel 4, 2004)) as cocksure Dan and, best of all, Bill Nighy, glorious as the dry, sarcastic newspaper editor, Cameron Foster.

Abbott's highly ambitious narrative stirred in the ritual and intrigue of Parliamentary life, with its committees, spin-doctors, three-line whips and backroom deals, the power of the oil multinationals and the shadowy world of industrial public relations into a rich and satisfying stew, garnished with perhaps the most sustained celebration of the journalistic profession ever seen on British television. No wonder newspaper critics loved it.

But above all, State of Play is a six-hour homage to the power of The Story, its almost sexual allure, its intoxicating rush (memorably demonstrated in a wonderful scene in which we learn the real meaning of 'stop press'), its relentless and, for some, devastating momentum.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Interrogation (2:10)
2. A case or a story? (2:27)
3. Little bits of truth (2:22)
4. Totally unprofessional (1:10)
5. A deal (2:42)
Complete episode 3 (59:46)
Edge of Darkness (1985)
House of Cards (1990)
Project, The (2002)
Abbott, Paul (1960-)
James, Geraldine (1950-)
Macdonald, Kelly (1976-)
Morrissey, David (1964-)
Nighy, Bill (1949-)
Simm, John (1971-)
Conspiracy Drama
TV Drama in the 2000s