In Ed Fraiman's latest adaptation of former MP Chris Mullin's political novel, A Very British Coup, conspiracy certainly isn't what it used to be. Back in the 1980s, under its original title, the brilliant Ray McAnally played Harry Perkins in Alan Plater's excellent version, parading a cautionary tale about radical values and what happens to them once you're in power and the men from the ministry get a hold of you. Plater's version had an international context involving the concerns of the day, not least American nuclear missiles on British soil, and this newly rebooted 21st Century story carries that a step further by putting the villainous cast of the 'war on terror' age - multinationals, rogue Middle-Eastern regimes, military chiefs of staff - firmly in the spotlight. But back in the day, the original drama sat side-by-side with other mini-series like Edge of Darkness, Harry's Game and House of Cards while films like Defence of the Realm - which Byrne starred in during the 1980s - The Whistle Blower and then later Hidden Agenda, not only gripped but opened up possibilities about the British state apparatus that wider society, let alone TV/film culture, hadn't dared contemplate before.
This new take on the dark corridors of Westminster is fine, mind you. Gabriel Byrne plays loyal party apparatchik Tom Dawson with a steely-eyed determination, Douglas Hodge is terrific as a drunk and gone-off-the-rails computer hacker and fixer, while Charles Dance could win BAFTAs simply for the way he unbuttons his suit jacket and gives that look of his. But it's an odd 24hr news cycle world that hasn't spotted the PM turning up rather too frequently at the local Drum and Monkey boozer to have a pint with former colleague Fossett, as Dawson seems to do endlessly here, while there doesn't appear to be a single person in London who hasn't got his mobile phone number! Gina McKee's determined reporter Ellis Kane seems to have a front door key to No.10 she's there so often, and Rupert Graves - who's a terrific actor - is handed a role here that gives off all the gravitas of a man who thinks he should be head of the local comprehensive's Sixth Form, but appears to have stumbled into the job of Chancellor of the Exchequer! It adds up to a lot of fun; Manchester Town Hall shows up as the inside of Westminster brilliantly, Ruth Negga is genuinely great as out-of-her-depth GCHQist Agnes Evans, and Mullins himself even appears as a vicar to top it all off.
But the world has moved on from the 1980s and so have we probably as a watching public. Secret State pushes all the familiar buttons of 21st Century secrecy and cover-up, and does it very nicely. But it's so familiar to us now, the power of this kind of TV has lost a little of its bite in a political culture where Fahrenheit 9/11, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Inside Job are documentaries, but ones offering up all the drama of real events in an elite, establishment world that long ago lost much of its grip on reality.