Secret State production notes
Sometimes stellar TV dramas can come from very humble beginnings. The genesis of Secret State occurred in 2009 when director Ed Fraiman picked up and started to re-read Chris Mullin's novel, A Very British Coup. "The themes and concepts at the heart of the novel struck me as being as relevant today as they were during the height of the cold war." The book had been adapted into a Channel 4 drama in 1988, but Fraiman began looking into the idea of making a contemporary adaptation.
Fraiman approached executive producer Jason Newmark, and the two went to meet Mullin (by now an MP) in Parliament, where he pronounced himself excited about the prospect of his novel being re-imagined. Fraiman an Newmark initially examined the idea of a feature film version of the book, but concluded that the format of a mini-series offered so much more screen time to develop both plot and character.
Top of the agenda, explains Newmark, was re-setting the tale in a more contemporary scenario. "The original novel was set in the 80s against the backdrop of Cold War tensions, and the thriller played upon the perceived Soviet threat to Britain as a reason for the establishment's corruption of democracy. In contemporary Britain such a stark paradigm no longer exists, but there are other, more hidden ways in which democracy is compromised. We retained the bones of the story of the original novel, but focused our thriller on the latent power of the military-industrial complex and global corporate capitalism as new threats to democracy."
Once the drama's new concept had been settled upon, Newmark says that the next step, finding a broadcaster, was a no-brainer. "Channel 4 was the logical home for Secret State. Not only did it seem to fit their appetite for edgy drama, but the original screen adaptation was one of the Channel's most iconic dramas, and we thought the idea of a new version would appeal. Or at the very least be one they couldn't afford to let go!"
His instincts were right. Channel 4 took on the idea enthusiastically, and brought in Company Pictures to work with Newmark and Fraiman. Now it was time to flesh out the broad ideas for the drama. Basically, it needed writing! Enter Robert Jones. "When Channel 4 came on board, Robert's was the first name mentioned for the project," recalls Newmark, "and once we met him our minds were made up; we loved his desire to collaborate, and his shared ambition to create an exhilarating and thought-provoking thriller."
Anyone who thinks quality dramas are churned out over a matter of weeks, take note: What then ensued was a two-year development process. Jones and his team discussed ideas and scenarios with a broad coalition of consultants, ranging from political figures like Tony Benn and Neil Kinnock to intelligence experts like Colonel Richard Kemp (former commander of British forces in Afghanistan) to economic experts like Faisal Islam and Baron Desai. It was a process Jones enjoyed enormously. "It was fantastic. I suppose you get to see people you've seen on the television in a much more relaxed and candid light. Some were cagier than others, but on the whole they were very straightforward and very forthcoming. All of that helped hugely in making sure the story had those touchstones of reality."
Jones also read the book and watched the original drama. "It soon became obvious that the political situation now is so different that we had to start from scratch. So that was all I did, read the book and watched the TV series, and then we went away and completely started from scratch. What we've kept is the idea that a Prime Minister comes up against sinister forces because of being outspoken and taking a principled stand."
Newmark expands on the theme: "It is a classic story of one man against the system. In the UK, we tend to think of a coup as something that happens in less developed countries, or those with less stable governments. Rebooting the novel was a chance to explore the extraordinary notion of regime change through undemocratic forces in our own country, and how that might actually happen; or worse still, how that might be happening in a more insidious way right now, right beneath our noses."
Key to the drama's success, of course, was casting the right actor to play the heroic, principled politician at the heart of the story. "As soon as Gabriel Byrne's name was mentioned, I did think that he had everything that this character needed - a sort of depth and a gravitas and a sort of soul that you believed in," says Jones. "And the look of someone who's lived a bit and knows the way of the world. His name, as soon as it was mentioned, seemed to tick all the boxes, really." But there was a problem - he wasn't available for the production dates.
Fortunately, the dates ended up shifting. Byrne professed to a keen interest in the project, remembering the original with great affection, and was very interested to read the scripts for the reboot. Director Ed Fraiman and Producer Johann Knobel conference called with the actor while he was home in New York. Fraiman then met him in London. "I wanted to convey the passion, vision and ambition I had for the project. And to invite him to join the team and collaborate with us. I told him that with Channel 4's commission of Secret State we had a real opportunity to craft a political thriller that would not only be gripping and entertaining but one that could rally its audience as well."
It worked. Byrne readily accepted. According to producer Johann Knobel, getting the rest of what is a hugely impressive cast was relatively straightforward. "Given the quality of the scripts and the fact that Gabriel Byrne wanted to come on board, the casting process was relatively easy, as is evidenced by the quality of the supporting cast."
And so, in February of 2012, almost three years after Fraiman picked up that book, photography commenced in Manchester. The shoot encompassed six weeks in Manchester and Liverpool, and a further three in London.
The end results, says writer Robert Jones, are nothing if not timely. "We were told two or three years ago that politics seemed to matter less and less to people. And yet in the two-and-a-half years that we've been doing this, there's been the Arab Spring, the crash, the Murdoch phone hacking thing with the press, intrusions on people's privacy, the Occupy movement, all sorts of things have brought politics to the fore in a way that perhaps wasn't true three or four years ago. All through the rioting, there seemed to be things cropping up that you felt "That's just like we were thinking of doing." So yes, I hope it's a topical time to be doing this."
Knobel declares himself delighted with the results. "We are very happy with it. It's a rare combination of character study, political drama and entertaining thriller which we believe will make great television."