Complicit, Channel 4, with David Oyelowo, Arsher Ali

David Oyelowo as Edward in Complicit
Man on a mission – David Oyelowo as MI5 agent Edward Ekubo. Pics: C4

Rating: ★★★½ 

Channel 4: week of Saturday 16 Feb, day to be announced 

Story: Edward, a British MI5 agent, has been monitoring a suspected terrorist in the UK for three years. He is convinced that Waleed Ahmed is planning an atrocity in the UK involving a ricin attack and is racing against the clock to prove it.

Complicit is like Homeland with an injection of reality. It’s low-key, compelling and will probably have viewers arguing about it as the credits role.

It covers similar themes to the hit American series, including surveillance, the supposed guilt of those under suspicion and torture. But Complicit is about ambiguities and the difficulty of making the right call in a life-and-death situation.

David Oyelowo is Edward, an MI5 agent who becomes convinced that British citizen Waleed Ahmed is involved in a planned ricin attack on the UK. With some difficulty he convinces his bosses that Waleed should be shadowed on a trip to Yemen, ostensibly to attend a wedding.

David Oyelowo as MI5 agent Edward
Alienated? Edward feels up against it in Cairo

Beaten brutally by the police
When MI5 agents then lose Waleed, only for him to be spotted again and arrested in Cairo, Edward rushes to Egypt to confront his suspect. But Waleed knows his rights and claims he has been beaten by Egyptian state police, demanding that Edward investigate them.

That’s the bare bones of the plot, but the whole thing is shaded in uncertainty. Edward, one of the few black agents in his department, feels he has been ignored for promotion. Is he too hasty in suspecting Waleed after 14 years in the service?

He also seems lonely, separated from the mother of his daughter, and perhaps obsessing about work. On arriving in Cairo the local police say a farm where Waleed was arrested was not being used to make ricin, but the state police – who tortured the farmers – claim it definitely was.

‘Follow instructions – or do what is right?’
As the British embassy and Edward’s Oxford-educated field agent colleague seem intent to drag their feet over the investigation, Edward – graduate of Warwick University – fears the ricin may already be in the UK. Does Edward feel like an outsider who has to prove himself?

The siren words of the state police colonel and torturer taunt Edward – ‘Do we follow instructions or do we do what is right?’ That is, torture Waleed before it is too late.

If Edward sanctions brutality, he may be proved right but ruin his own case against Waleed, allowing him to escape justice. On the other hand, if ricin is found, will anyone care that Waleed was tortured?

David Oyelowo and Arsher Ali
David Oyelowo, taking a break from Hollywood blockbusters such as Lincoln and Jack Reacher, is terrific as the patriotic Edward who may be overreaching himself. Arsher Ali almost steals the show as Waleed, however, and his confrontation with Edward in the interrogation room bristles with hostility and hatred.

Written by Guy Hibbert and shot beautifully by director Niall MacCormick, Complicit is absorbing, though whether viewers like or not may depend a little on whether they find in Edward a character to root for.

Should Edward sanction torture to save lives? Is Waleed really part of an horrendous plot? You can argue among yourselves at the end of a tense two hours.

Cast: David Oyelowo Edward Ekubo, Arsher Ali Waleed Ahmed, Rupert Procter Ralph, Wahab Sheikh Mohammed, Asheq Akhtar Majid, Kaleem Janjua Mr Akmal, Nasser Memarzia Khalil, Olivia Sparks Katy, Paul Ritter Thomas, Denise Gough Lucy, Anna O’Grady Secretary, Monica Dolan Judith, Lee Whitlock Coffee Shop Owner, Shanaya Rafaat Anjali, Adam Kotz Marcus, Sebastian Armesto Gareth, Stephen Campbell Moore Tony CoveneyMounir Margoum Moaz El Halwani, Ashraf Makram J KhouryColonel Hazem

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Secret State – a thriller that’s well worth investigating

Rupert Graves as ruthless minister Felix Durrell

Writer and blogger Pat Nurse checks out C4’s Secret State and uncovers a cracking contemporary conspiracy thriller, despite the low ratings

Burned-out images of a small northern town blown up in a petrochemical incident opens new TV political thriller Secret State. The only colour image is that of a child’s small woollen glove with tiny hand inside amid the debris, which shows that every political decision affects the lives of ordinary people.

And if we could choose as leader someone like Tom Dawkins, played by Gabriel Byrne, then we probably would. He’s a man of integrity who is trying to do the right thing, but the question remains whether he can do so given the machinations of Global Government and Big Business.

  • Secret State episode 3: Channel 4, Wednesday 21 November, 10pm

Secret State is edge-of-the-seat stuff. Tense, gripping, too plausible to be comfortable, but with the added WOW factor of a fast-moving and exciting drama that imagines what might potentially go on behind the scenes when government is faced with a crisis.

Front bench, frontline – Gabriel Byrne as the PM

Viewing figures are reportedly low – just 1.2 million viewers for the opening episode. We don’t know whether that’s because of recent real life political scandals, that have led to a lack of appetite for dramatic representations of dirty dealings, or whether it’s down to the simple fact that there has been little promotion of this excellent series by Channel 4.

A Very British Coup
It’s based on former Labour MP Chris Mullin’s left wing novel A Very British Coup, but Secret State is not ideologically driven from the left or right, neither are the politicians defined by their party. They are driven by the hopes of the electorate, the restrictions of the system, and their own career ambitions.

But does it contribute to the burgeoning cynicism among the great unwashed that in recent times has been sickened by the actions of their political leaders?

Gabriel Byrne says we all have our role to play in the kind of society and political system we get.

“I think the function of a really good political thriller is not providing the answers, but to raise questions,” said Byrne. “And that’s why I believe these kinds of films are important, because you come in with the really big ideas on the back of a gripping story.

Gina McKee as investigative reporter Ellis Kane

“I think, if we’re really honest, we all make a collective bargain with denial, and we allow things to pass because we either just haven’t got the energy to concentrate on them, or because we don’t want to know the reality of it.

Can Dawkins hold the petrol giant to account?
“But we have to find a way between being, in a vague way, terrified of everything that’s happening and going to happen, and a sense of our own responsibility as people who elect these people, and that we must hold them accountable and call them to task.”

Certainly Byrne’s character Dawkins is trying to hold the fictional Petrofex to account for what happened in that small town called Scarrow and he holds the image of that child’s hand in his mind to keep him focused. But there is much more to it than meets the eye, with evidence surfacing of a toxin found in the child’s hand and in her Petrofex worker father’s blood – a discovery that has already led to the death of the pathologist who demanded answers from the multi-billion pound company.

Dawkins reluctantly takes on the role of leader of his party and PM following the death of his predecessor, who appears to have been the victim of a terrorist plot to bring his plane down. But junior officer Agnes, played by Ruth Negga, who works in British Intelligence at GCHQ, is not so sure.

Agnes plays a dangerous game
She’s spotted something unusual, which doesn’t fit with the official line of who is responsible for the attack, in the final photos taken of the PM and his team by the fatal plane before they board. But no one in her unit is taking her seriously.

She secretly visits her mentor for help and confides her suspicions to him. But has she put herself in danger, as he appears to be in with MI6 who play down what she has to say? Can the man be trusted? We’ll have to watch the third episode of this four-part series to find out and try and keep in mind that it isn’t real. It is a political fable and of course our real leaders only have our best interests at heart.

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The Fear starring Peter Mullan Ch4 PREVIEW

Red alert for Richie Beckett (Peter Mullan) in The Fear. Pics: C4

Rating: ★★★★ 

Channel 4: starts Monday, 3 December, 10pm  

Eyeball to eyeball with the Albanians

Story: Richie Beckett, former gang boss turned respected Brighton businessman, pledges money to help rebuild a pier. But Richie’s mind is in turmoil and the empire he runs with his sons is endangered by a vicious Albanian gang.

Tony Soprano famously suffered panic attacks and had to see a shrink. In C4’s new hard-knuckle crime drama The Fear we have another gang boss whose mind is under assault.

But Richie Beckett’s turmoil is more serious and urgent, because just when his Brighton-based empire is under siege from a gang of Albanian psychos, Richie is starting to lose his identity.

He is suffering from some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s. This would be alarming enough in the new role he has taken on as respectable local businessman, but when his family and interests are suddenly under threat from the vicious newcomers in town, this is calamitous.

Richie with sons Cal and Matty

Grisly killing
Peter Mullan is excellent as the fearsome family head, veering alarmingly between menace and bewilderment. Harry Lloyd and Paul Nicholls are his sons, Matty and Cal, who, along with their mother (Anastasia Hille) think their father is on the booze again.

Cal, the eldest and a creep who revels in his dad’s notoriety, wants to broker some deal with the family of Vajkal, the Albanian guvnor. But the Albanians implicate him in the grisly murder of a prostitute he has used, keeping her beheaded corpse as evidence to incriminate Cal if the Becketts don’t fall into line.

Richie is therefore dragged into a meeting at the Albanians’ farmhouse retreat. Irritable, sleepless, forgetful – Richie can’t even remember battering a young man on the front in broad daylight – his presence at the farmhouse is as sensible as juggling gelignite.

Cal (Paul Nicholls)

Peter Mullan is terrific as a gangster in decline
The Fear is being shown over four consecutive nights and is a bruising but riveting portrait of a criminal in decline, haunted by his past and out of touch with the present. And it’s a story with emotion, as in the scene where Richie enters his wife’s bedroom and asks if he can lie with her. Amid his confusion and increasing aggression, he seeks some feeling of closeness with his estranged wife.

Brighton is evocatively photographed as a lurid but at the same time genteel backdrop, regency buildings juxtaposed with drag entertainers and night-time revellers.

Writer Richard Cottan has created a rich thriller, though having Richie’s wife buying a couple of paintings called Confusion 1 & 2 was not the most ingenious bit of symbolism.

Still, the opener sets up a drama full of tension and dread, setting in motion what can only be a fearsome, tragic train of events.

Cast: Peter Mullan Richie Bennett, Anastasia Hille Jo Beckett, Harry Lloyd Matty Beckett, Paul Nicholls Cal Beckett, Demosthenes Chrysan Vajkal, Dragos Bucur Marin, Shaban Arifi Davit, Julia Ragnarsson Zana, Danny Sapani Wes

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Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne PREVIEW

Chaos – Deputy Prime Minister Dawkins (Gabriel Byrne) inspects the damage. Pics C4

Rating: ★★★★

Channel 4: starts Wednesday, 7 November, 10pm

Story: Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins vows to take on the American petrochemical company PetroFex after a devastating accident on British soil. But an array of clandestine powers are ranged against him.

This is a juicy conspiracy drama for these days of official cock-ups, cover-ups and corporations ganging-up on the rest of us.

It’s the second time C4 have made a version of British politician Chris Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup – the first being shown in 1988 with Ray McAnally – but our dread of what goes on in the corridors of power and commerce has rarely been sharper.

In this new version there’s another Irishman playing the man in Number 10 – Gabriel Byrne. He is deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins, who’s left with a crisis when an exposion at a petrol plant owned by a US company kills several people in Teesside and devastates a community.

Dawkins and his rivals, Ros Yelland (left) and FelixDurrell

The Prime Minister is killed
When his boss, the Prime Minister, is then killed in a plane crash while returning from America where he’s been meeting the PetroFex honchos, safe-pair-of-hands Dawkins becomes temporary PM. That is, until one of the two government velociraptors – Felix Durrell or Ros Yelland – can slug it out in a leadership contest.

This pair waste no time elbowing their way to power, with Ros not exactly breaking down in grief at the PM’s demise – ‘He’s dead. We would have had to replace him anyway after he lost the election.’

The plot thickens nicely as Dawkins balances between these two while at the same time becoming aware that there is a whiff of scandal behind the tragic events, largely thanks to the efforts of journalist Ellis Kane.

The Americans ask GCHQ to bug a journalist
Was the plane the Prime Minister was travelling on, owned by PetroFex, hit by terrorists, or sabotaged by other interests? Why is the pathologist, who’s found toxicity in the bodies of blast victims, being blocked in his work? Why have the Americans asked GCHQ to monitor the journalist’s mobile phone?

A dark, menacing mood of unseen forces pervades the opening episode (of four). And a terrific cast plays up the shifty-eyed, duplicitous potential of the story for all it’s worth.

Gabriel Byrne is definitely star of the show as the establishment’s odd man out with his shred of integrity still in tact. He’s certainly an actor with an adventurous past (Miller’s Crossing, The Usual Suspects, In Treatment) and a fascinating future (the Beeb’s new detective series Quirke).

Investigative reporter Ellis Kane (Gina McKee)

Gina McKee, Charles Dance and Rupert Graves
Charles Dance’s baleful glances are perfect for the chief whip, while Rupert Graves is a shit once again as Felix. Gina McKee is the journo and Ruth Negga is the GCHQ analyst with a birds-eye view of what’s going on.

A slight criticism is that the politicians are a little too grotesque at times, with Felix Durrell and Ros Yelland resembling Alan B’Stard more than real life forked-tongue public servants.

But Secret State is engrossing and intelligent. Executive producer Jason Newmark explains why he and director Ed Fraiman thought Chris Mullin’s novel was ripe for an update: ‘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.

Threats to democacy
‘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.’

Conspiracy theory or not, in the light of the banking meltdown, Hillsborough and the expenses scandal, who’s to say the powers that be would never behave with such malevolent self-interest?

Cast: Gabriel Byrne Tom Dawkins, Charles Dance John Hodder, Stephen Dillane Paul Jacob Clark, Don Gayle Lead Journalist, Rupert Graves Felix Durrell, Ralph Ineson Wrigglesworth, Russell Kilmister Nillis Jacobson, Sylvestra Le Touzel Ros Yelland, Anna Madeley Gina Hayes, Gina McKee Ellis Kane, Ruth Negga Agnes Evans, Jamie Sives Lee Foulds, Al Weaver Joss Leyton, Douglas Hodge Anthony Fossett, Nicholas Farrell General Munnery, Michael Gould William Hawley, Kika Markham  Carol Molloy, Lia Williams Laura Duchenne

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