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Why this paranoid political thriller is not so far-fetched now

'Paranoia will destroy ya." That suggestion is made in several songs. It's not true – paranoia will keep you sharp.

As I write this, the whistle-blower Edward Snowden is allegedly anchored down at the airport in Moscow, seeking a safe haven. The United States wants him because he revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency has long been targeting private telephone and Internet connection data to gather information. Since he spilled the beans, it has been suggested that the NSA placed electronic listening devices in the office of the European Commission and eavesdropped on the private meetings of European leaders.

It is especially piquant to watch the good, blunt British political thriller Secret State (Super Channel, 10 p.m.) in this new context. It's as paranoid as all get-out. And, while some aspects of it must have seemed far-fetched when it aired in the U.K. a few months back, they seem rather sobering now.

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A four-parter, it opens with the deputy prime minister of Britain, Tom Dawkins (Gabriel Byrne) walking through a devastated town. A scorched notice on a wall says, "Let's Build A Brighter Britain." It turns out that a major industrial accident has killed dozens of people in this area in the north of England, and Dawkins is there to assess the damage and talk to the locals. It also turns out that the accident happened at a plant owned and run by a giant American corporation called Petrofex. And, as Dawkins listens to the locals hurling abuse at him, his boss, the PM, is in the U.S. meeting with Petrofex. Then, as ill-luck would have it, the PM's plane crashes on the return journey.

During his visit to the devastated town, a journalist named Ellis Kane (Gina McKee) approached Dawkins suggesting she knows some things about Petrofex that he might want to know. While the drama of the PM's plane crash unfolds, there is a short scene, at what is called "Government Communications HQ" in England. A chap strolls in, and says to someone sitting a computer, "Ellis Kane, journalist. The Americans want to tap her phone." It appears that somebody gets right on the job.

Secret State then proceeds along lines that constantly suggest serious international skulduggery. It is very much in the tradition of such fine paranoid Brit thrillers as Edge of Darkness and State of Play, and is very loosely derived from the novel A Very British Coup, on which the classic 1988 miniseries of the same title was based.

It is a peculiar production, this one. It's unsubtle from the start and the viewer is in no doubt that the premise is this – a giant American chemical corporation and the U.S. government are blithely interfering in British politics. Perhaps even getting rid of a PM to install a more friendly one. You can react any one of several ways to this premise. When Secret State aired in the U.K. one reviewer called it "ludicrous" while another called it "a cracking series" to make "the hair zing on the back of your neck." There you go – you can buy into the paranoia or utterly reject it. Thing is, an overriding theme is that every conversation, even between a deputy PM and a colleague, is being monitored by somebody, somewhere. As the fugitive Snowden has revealed, that's not paranoia, it is probably true.

One thing is certain – connoisseurs of British drama will savour Secret State. Byrne is excellent as the quiet and brooding but ultimately cunning politician. Around him, some of the usual suspects in quality Brit drama show up to add acid to the mix. Charles Dance is a cool, manipulative senior civil servant who is obviously as untrustworthy as he is impeccably dressed. Douglas Hodge plays an ex-MI5 officer with a talent for mischief and a fondness for whisky. Rupert Graves (DI Lestrade on Sherlock) is a smooth politician and Gina McKee (The Borgias, The Forsyte Saga) returns to playing the tough, acerbic contemporary woman she first did in the classic series Our Friends in the North. There are hushed and brutal conversations in the corridors of 10 Downing St. and rogue MI5 agents.

It's always possible to dismiss a series as fixated on conspiracy theory as this one, as silly entertainment fostering outrageous fears. But it's best to watch and enjoy Secret State in the knowledge that what was once thought crackpot now has validity. Yes, the NSA tracks countless private conversations. Yes, giant corporations seek to influence politics. Stay paranoid and you stay real.

Also airing tonight

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Frontline: WikiSecrets (PBS, 10 p.m.) is repeat of an excellent Frontline investigation into Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and the biggest intelligence breach in U.S. history. Assange doesn't emerge with much credit from it.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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