As we’ve noted previously, Paul Abbott was one of Russell T Davies’ primary mentors in television. And State of Play remains his big prestige project, making it a useful thing to look at as we try to answer one of the most difficult questions about Doctor Who imaginable: what should we have expected Russell T Davies’s Doctor Who to look like. After all, we know the answer to this. We know it so well that it’s easier to look at Davies’ past career as a prelude to Doctor Who than it is to figure out what a reasonable set of expectations for his Doctor Who would have been. And so State of Play is interesting as a near-miss: a story by a writer Davies invited to work on the new series, written as a high-profile BBC One drama, but far enough away from Davies and Doctor Who that it doesn’t invite direct comparison. Instead it lets us ask the more important question: what does major BBC drama look like in the mid-aughts?
In many ways what’s most interesting is that we have major BBC drama again. The nineties were not good for the BBC, not least because of the consequences of John Birt’s management, itself a holdover from the Thatcher/Major era. But by 2003 Tony Blair’s Labour government was thoroughly established, life in Britain was seeming pretty peachy, and the swellings of something approximating national pride were underway – more on which next Wednesday. And the BBC was starting to get into a mood where it thought seriously about doing major productions again. It was getting a bit of Reithian spring in its step again and having executives unironically proclaim it a force for good and the like. And this changed the sorts of things it aired. Eventually it would lead to it having a daft idea to create family-friendly drama for a Saturday teatime slot in a mad bid to reclaim the time slot from ITV. But for now it’s somewhat simpler: the BBC starts making high profile event dramas again.
Or, perhaps more to the point, it starts making ones that aren’t costume dramas. Costume dramas, after all, were safe – endlessly exportable to America for flogging in the Masterpiece time slot. But something like State of Play? At six episodes it doesn’t easily and straightforwardly fit into anything except maybe the HBO/Showtime paradigm, and they hardly rush to buy random British programs. It wasn’t suitable for Masterpiece, nor for Mystery. So it was apparently going to have to live or die on its British qualities.
On the other hand the cast assembled for this is… impressive. A fair amount of it is “before they were famous” types, admittedly – David Yates wasn’t a film director yet, and James McAvoy was firmly up-and-coming. Nevertheless, this is a TV series that boasts James McAvoy, John Simm, David Morrissey, Kelly MacDonald, and Bill Nighy from the guy who went on to direct five Harry Potter films. You don’t assemble a cast like that unless you’re shooting for real quality, and you don’t attract them unless you have it in the script.…