The Code, BBC4, Dan Spielman, Ashley Zukerman, Lucy Lawless PREVIEW

Jesse Banks (ASHLEY ZUCKERMAN) The Code
Jesse’s hacking skills open up a world of danger in The Code. Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★½

BBC4: starts Saturday, 11 October, 9pm

Story: Australian political thriller set in the heart of government. Reporter Ned Banks is alerted to a strange accident involving a couple of Aboriginal teenagers. Unwittingly getting his computer genius brother involved, Ned stumbles on a national conspiracy.

SATURDAY NIGHTS on BBC4 have become a vicarious getaway for crime fans in the last few years. Sweden, Denmark, Italy and even Belgium have all been on the itinerary, but this weekend it’s Australia’s turn with a new six-part thriller.

Which is unusual. Oz has not offered a whole lot on the crime front. There’s been Wentworth Prison, a descendant of the prison soap of Prisoner: Cell Block H. Guy Pearce turned up in 2012’s pretty decent Jack Irish drama, which was based on the novels of Peter Temple. And then there was the very average Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries around the same time.

Sophie Walsh (CHELSIE PRESTON CRAYFORD), Randall Keats (ADEN YOUNG) The Code
Stirring trouble – Sophie and Randall

The Code is a change of gear from all of these, and from the Swedish period whodunit Crimes of Passion, which has just ended. It’s a conspiracy thriller with techno and political themes.

Government leak gone wrong

It starts in a traditional way for the genre, with a journalist stumbling onto a huge story by accident. Ned Banks is leaked a dossier by government spin doctors that is designed to destroy a minister’s career.

However, in the envelop containing photos showing him getting into a scuffle after groping a woman is also a reference to ‘Lindara’, where two Aboriginal teens on a joyride have run into serious trouble. Clarence is found by teacher Alex covered in blood, apparently unable to account for what happened to his girlfriend or the car he was driving.

With Alex’s help, Ned – who is assisted by his brother Jesse, a hacker and Asberger’s sufferer – soon uncovers a video that suggests the teenager’s accident had more sinister causes. When his internet newspaper publishes the video, some outside agency causes the whole operation to crash and disappear off the web.

The Code is pacey and looks great

The setting, switching from government HQ in Canberra to remote Lindara, should easily satisfy the

Ned Banks (DAN SPIELMAN) The Code
Poking his nose in – reporter Ned

Saturday night BBC4 crowd’s wanderlust, and the story is a good mesh of political cynicism and Big Brother menace.

Ned’s disobedient pain of a brother is initially annoying, but comes to fill a vital role in the story. The narrative balances several threads with pace, from the Alex’s story in Lindara, to Jesse and Ned’s increasingly desperate attempts to avoid danger, to the political shenanigans.

It’s not in the same league as more haunting dramas, such as Edge of Darkness, but The Code shifts at a sharp pace and the cinematography is superb.

Cast: Dan Spielman Ned Banks, Ashley Zukerman Jesse Banks, Adele Perovic Hani Parande, Adam Garcia Perry Benson, Chelsie Preston Crayford Sophie Walsh, Paul Tassone Andy King,
Dan Wyllie Lyndon Joyce, Lucy Lawless Alex Wisham

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Utopia series 2, Ch4, with Alexandra Roach, Fiona O’Shaughnessy, Neil Maskell

Pietre in Channel 4's Utopia series 2
Mad about the boy – young Pietre in Utopia 2. Pics: Ch4

Rating: ★★★★

Ch4: July, date and time to be confirmed

Story: How did the Janus project to save humanity begin during 1979’s Winter of Discontent? And, in the present day, what has happened to Jessica, Arby, Ian, Grant and Becky…

NO SOONER has Fargo been put into cold storage than Ch4 has another drama for viewers needing something a little, shall we say, outre

Utopia‘s first series last year was certainly on the excessive side, with teeth-gnashing violence and a stunningly off-kilter conspiracy tale.

It’s great to see it return with its surreal style, quirky soundtrack (by Cristobal Tapia de Veer) and nightmarish mood.

Utopia series 2 Fiona O'Shaughnessy as Jessica Hyde
Where is Jessica? Locked up…

Utopia returns with a double-bill

Series two launches as a double-bill over consecutive nights, with the opener being an hour-long

flashback to the origins of the whole mad Janus conspiracy. We see how scientist Philip Carvel (Tom Burke) dreams up a plan with security agent Milner (Game of Throne‘s Rose Leslie) to save the world from overcrowding by secretly sterilising 95 percent of the population.

In the time-honoured tradition of know-it-all scientists from Dr Frankenstein to Dr Strangelove, the best laid plans – ‘We’re creating Utopia’ – go awry as Carvel and Milner’s relationship fractures.

In addition, Carvel fears for his daughter Jessica – yes Jessica Hyde, protagonist of series one – whom Milner is threatening, while also consumed with guilt over his experimentation on his toddler son, Pietre.

Rose Leslie as Milner in Utopia 2
Rose Leslie as deadly agent Milner

Neil Maskell, Fiona O’Shaughnessy and Adeel Akhtar

With the little monster child, writer Dennis Kelly’s sadistic humour flourishes again. Carvel’s deranged bid to use the boy as a guinea pig for a treatment to inhibit violence turns the lad into a mini-Hannibal Lecter instead.

The opener is a wonderful evocation of that period of 1970s industrial mayhem, political paranoia and conspiracy incontinence. Thrown into the mix are Margaret Thatcher, Airey Neave (played by Tim McInnerny), the IRA, Aldo Moro and much more.

Episode two reunites us with the old gang who became embroiled in the conspiracy last time round – Jessica (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), who’s been held captive by latter-day Milner (Geraldine James), Arby (Neil Maskell), Ian (Nathan Stewart Jarrett), Grant (Oliver Woollford) and Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar). The story rumbles on with news of the Network and its plans for ‘V’ Day…

Without ever trying to make a coherent case about the political shenanigans of the past 35 years, Utopia remains an engrossing and distinctive mashup of paranoia, dark suspicions and black humour. When it comes to conspiracy yarns, the drama is – to borrow the title of the 1979 Madness album – one step beyond.

Check out these links…
Utopia series 1 review
The music of Cristobal Tapia de Veer
Utopia Channel 4

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Utopia, Channel 4, with Alexandra Roach, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, James Fox

Assassins Arby and Lee are chasing The Utopia Experiments. Pics: C4

Rating: ★★★★½

Channel 4: starts Tuesday, 15 January, 10pm

Story: When a small group of previously unconnected people, who have met on a forum, take possession of the original manuscript of a fabled graphic novel, they find themselves relentlessly pursued by a shadowy unit called The Network.

Utopia is about a mysterious graphic novel, and the thriller is off-kilter and slyly witty enough to have been based on a cult comic itself.

Instead, it’s the work of writer Dennis Kelly, best known for the sitcom Pulling and co-writing Matilda The Musical. His attempt at a conspiracy thriller could be one of the most distinctive and talked-about dramas of 2013.

Becky’s pub drink ends in a run for her life

The Utopia Experiments lead to violence and terror
A group of young, unconnected individuals – including an IT worker, a student, a conspiracy nut, an 11-year-old tearaway – meet on a forum and find themselves in possession of the manuscript of The Utopia Experiments, a legendary, mystifying graphic novel. Very quickly they are pitched into violence and terror.

Two nonchalant assassins are after that manuscript, and we meet them as they brutally wipe out the nerds and customers (including a child) at a comic shop. Arby and Lee, played by Neil Maskell and Paul Ready, are pretty disturbing, with Arby droningly and mysteriously asking each victim, ‘Where is Jessica Hyde?’

Wilson Wilson comes eye to eye with Lee

Alexandra Roach as Becky
The offbeat band on the run are beautifully cast, with Alexandra Roach as Becky the student, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as the stroppy IT guy Ian, and Adeel Akhtar as the barmy Wilson Wilson. ‘I don’t drink tea,’ he tells a detective. ‘Caffeine was invented by the CIA.’

The group meet in a pub for the first time in the hope of encountering forum member Bejan, who claims to have the original artwork for the graphic novel. However, he gets a visit from Arby and Lee, and the manuscript is swiped by young hooligan Grant, another forum member.

Wilson Wilson tortured by Arby and Lee
All kinds of horrors are then visited on the forum members, with various trumped-up charges of sexual deviancy from the police hitting Becky and Ian, and Wilson having chili, sand and bleach rubbed into his eyes during a gleeful torture session by the deadly duo.

Meanwhile, civil servant Michael Dugdale is being blackmailed by a Russian-sounding hood over his getting a prostitute pregnant. After an intimidating meeting with two corporation honchos played by smiling, menacing Stephen Rea and James Fox, Dugdale hoodwinks his minister into buying a Russian flu vaccine on behalf of the government.

Danger boy – Grant has the manuscript

The Network
This is crux of the story, with themes of manufactured diseases and an alarming group called The Network, represented by Fox and Rea. Does The Utopia Experiments have coded messages about some vast conspiracy?

Utopia is stylishly shot like an indie film, with an atmospheric, chiming soundtrack. It also mixes moments of dread that will make some viewers flinch, with offbeat humour. There’s a disastrous sex scene, and Wilson Wilson is always a pleasure, even when blindly aiming a gun at his torturer.

Terrific cliffhanger
The schedules are littered with series that get off to a good start in setting up an intriguing story, only to descend into dross with each subsequent episode. Here’s hoping that Utopia, the first instalment of which concludes on a fine cliffhanger, keeps up the pace and surprise of this opener for the remaining five episodes. That will be a sight for sore eyes.

Cast: Paul Higgins Dugdale, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett Ian, Alexandra Roach Becky, Neil Maskell Arby, Fiona O’ Shaughnessy Jessica, Adeel Akhtar Wilson Wilson, Oliver Woollford Grant, Michael Smiley detective, Paul Ready Lee, plus James Fox, Stephen Rea

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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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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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Hidden with Philip Glenister PREVIEW

Thekla Reuten, Philip Glenister and David Suchet. Pics: BBC/Origin

Rating ★★★

BBC1 from Thursday, 6 October, 9pm 

It must be a sign of scandal-plagued times that TV is getting paranoid. Hidden is the third in a recent sequence of absorbing conspiracy thrillers following Exile and The Shadow Line, and is at least as good as its predecessors.

It’s a murky piece of noir with dark streets, a femme fatale and a dodgy hero, played very believably by a brooding Philip Glenister. He is Harry Venn, small-time solicitor suddenly confronted by ghosts from his past.

He gets a visit from a mysterious lawyer, Gina Hawkes (Thekla Reuten), who is representing an old mate of Harry’s, Steve Quirke. Steve wants Harry to find another old chum – and criminal – by the name of Joe Collins.

Harry Venn – out of his depth?

Scandal for the Prime Minister, riots on the streets
Trouble is, most of these of former mates of Harry’s were involved in his own criminal past, for Harry is a solicitor with a lot of baggage. When he visits Steve in the nick events turn surreal, with Steve telling Harry he’s recently Hillman. Harry is angry to hear this because Hillman’s body was identified in a morgue many years before.

The action intercuts with a robbery from their younger days that went disastrously wrong, with Hillman and Harry’s brother both ending up dead, along with two policemen getting shot. Harry was the getaway driver.

While Harry’s head is spinning with his commission from the elusive Gina – who’s promised him £20,000 to find Collins – in the background are political scandals revolving around the Prime Minister, Brian Worsley, and riots on Britain’s streets.

It’s a terrific story from Ronan Bennett, who also wrote the Johnny Depp biopic about John Dillinger, Public Enemies. Night-time London is startlingly filmed, and Glenister moves up a gear from his recent indelible roles in Mad Dogs and Ashes to Ashes.

Drug taking, bribes and burglary
Harry Venn is a far more gritty performance. He’s man on the edge who sleeps with his ex-wife, is insulted by his son, takes cocaine, smokes dope and is willing to bribe and burgle his way to finding out who Gina Hawkes is really working for.

Gina meets Harry in a London hotel

But he is also a sharp operator. Asking a hotel employee how much he wants to allow Harry to snoop round Gina’s hotel room, he is told £500. ‘Let’s split the difference and call it 30 quid,’ Harry replies.

There is a nicely menacing scene between Harry and Gina’s doctor, and events finally turn very disturbing for the solicitor.

It’s a four-parter, with David Suchet joining the story after the opening episode as Sir Nigel Fountain. While it is always tricky to judge a series after one episode, Hidden was so good it already looks like one of the best crime dramas of the year.

Cast: Philip Glenister Harry Venn, Thekla Reuten Gina Hawkes, David Suchet Sir Nigel Fountain, Anna Chancellor Elspeth Verney, Mark Powley Mark Venn, Mark Flitton Paul Hillman, Thomas Craig Fenton Russell, Richard Durden Dr Sturgess, Richard Dormer Frank Hanna, Peter Guinness Jason Styles, Paul Ritter Steve Quirke, Lisa Kay Lauren

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