An Adequate Spy Thriller for Television and Nothing More
Clearly inspired by their brilliant adaptations of John le Carré's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (in 1979) and "Smiley's People" (in 1982), the BBC commissioned this adaptation of journalist Robert McCrum's middling paranoia thriller "In the Secret State" to close out the first series of "Screen Two", their premiere anthology follow-up to "Play of the Week". But despite copying several of the more successful elements from the George Smiley series, "In the Secret State" never manages to be anything more than acceptable.
Despite the ads focusing solely on Frank Finlay, "In the Secret State" has two lead characters. One is Frank Strange (Frank Finlay), an idiosyncratic but fatherly spymaster pushed out by an ominously self-named "new regime" and his star pupil James Quitman (Matthew Marsh). On Strange's last day in the service, one of the employees in his department, a raving alcoholic named Richard Lister (Pip Donaghy) commits suicide by jumping from the roof of a building. However, Strange is suspicious and launches a private investigation into his death during which he uncovers that Lister had named a senior officer of the MI6 as having "misused" certain classified files. Meanwhile, Quitman is officially assigned to the case by the oily deputy chief of MI6 (Geoffrey Chater) and told to keep an eye on Strange whom the powers-to-be want arrested on trumped up charges. But, as it turns out, they don't quite believe Quitman either. Will the two men join forces to uncover the true enemy or will Quitman believe their lies and have his old friend and teacher arrested?
Despite fine performances all round (though none of them quite manage to stand out) "In the Secret State" has two major problems which eventually bring it down. First is that the novel upon which it is based is simply no "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy". McCrum's spy yarn is fine airport reading but very far from memorable. The characters are two-dimensional cliches with Strange being nothing more than a thinly veiled regurgitation of George Smiley. Meanwhile, it's view of the MI6 is quite naive and sensationalist making it hard for us to really care about anything that's going on. On top of that, the plot barely contains any twists or surprises even though it constantly introduces new characters and situations very few of which really amount to much. If you're not able to guess who the bad guys are and why from the very beginning than you need your eyes tested.
The other problem this ill-fated adaptation encounters is time restraints. While "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" had the luxury of unfolding its complex tale over the course of five hours, "In the Secret State" has to do with 100 minutes. The result is a story which moves at such an erratic pace that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up. Characters, situations, and plot points are thrown at us constantly in a manner resembling a rubbish truck dumping its content at the dump. We have no time to process the information we've learned or to get to the point where we care about any of the characters before we're on to the next scene. The impression one gets is of watching a badly shortened cut of a much longer movie or having the plot of a complex spy novel retold to you by someone suffering from ADD. Because of this, the atmosphere suffers and Christopher Morahan's competent direction, in the end, falls flat.
"In the Secret State" has not been repeated (as far as I know) since its original broadcast and has due to its rarity acquired something of a cult status which is wholly undeserved. Frank Finlay gives a typically strong performance as does Matthew Marsh, but this TV movie is nothing more than a nicely diverting spy thriller which you'll forget by the next day. It carries no emotional punch, there are no staggering revelations nor a particularly interesting plot, and if you've so much as seen one spy thriller beforehand you'll be able to confidently guess who the bad guys are before the first half-hour is through.
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