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State of Play (BBC DVD)

People must discard their ethics as quickly as cigarette butts, or so you would think watching State of Play. If the award-winning BBC mini-series was to be believed, you’d be reading this review fresh from clubbing your dear old Nan with a sack of oranges in order to steal her social security to pay for Pogs. Pogs that you will later use to blind schoolchildren. Oh, and you’d mope about it, just to be morally “grey”.

We follow Cal McCaffery (John Simm), one of many reporters investigating the death of Sonia Baker, an assistant to rising-star politician Stephen Collins (David Morrissey). If you guessed there would be red herrings where characters behaved suspiciously for no reason, you’ve seen too many mysteries. Same goes if you immediately figured out that there was a personal connection between Collins and McCaffery.

It’s easy to forgive a clichéd storyline if it’s produced with some panache. State Of Play’s greatest failing is that the series often confuses stylishness with aggressive, meaningless camerawork. I don’t understand modern TV’s fascination with shaky, handheld visuals, as it has long stopped being an effective way to boost realism and tension in a story. The direction feels rushed, as if the BBC were eager to make up for five decades of shows where the camera never moved by ensuring that everything’s filmed solely for the ADD-ridden. Not everything has to look like CSI or 24, which was just as true in 2003 as it is now.

If the unimaginative direction fails to increase the tension, the thudding electronic music soundtrack destroys it. There was once a time when a television show used its soundtrack to compliment a scene or convey a mood that you only could with music, but who needs artistry when you’ve got loud, pulsing rhythms every few minutes like most other TV drama of the last fifteen years? Electronic scores can work, but only when they have personality.

Flaws aside, I wouldn’t dismiss the series outright. It’s well-cast and writer Paul Abbott sometimes shows a real flair for character. While Morrissey and Simm deserve praise for their star turns, it’s Bill Nighy who steals the show as Simm’s deadpan boss. Nighy’s punchy, lightly sarcastic performance nearly takes your mind off the grossly padded script.

While by no means a poor outing, Abbott’s mini-series is very disappointing. For all the plaudits State Of Play has received, it’s just another run-of-the-mill political thriller about intrepid reporters going toe-to-toe with corrupt politicians and shifty corporate reps. With a stronger script and crew, it might have been engaging, but it’s reputation is grossly unearned.

Adam Clarke