Reviews

This Week in TV: Secret State and Pound Shop Wars

A quiet TV Week means only two shows in this instalment – a promising political thriller and a bargain bin documentary

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The first of this week’s two shows is political thriller Secret State which stars Gabriel Byrne as Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins. The start of Secret State, which is adapted from Chris Mullins’ a Very British Coup, sees Dawkins travel to the fictional town of Scarrow which has recently been the victim of a horrific explosion. The explosion was caused in a petrochemical factory which is owned by the American company Petrofex and has caused the people of Scarrow no end of tragedy. The honourable Dawkins promises to help clean up Scarrow however he later learns that this isn’t the first time that a Petrofex-owned factory has caused an explosion. Smelling a conspiracy, Dawkins phones the prime minister but is call is cut off as the PM’s plane goes down and he is assumed to be dead. Chief Whip John Hodder decides Dawkins should temporarily step into the Prime Minister’s shoes while a new leader is chosen. However after Dawkins gives an impassioned speech praising his fallen leader, Hodder suggests that he be a permanent replacement. This angers other cabinet members namely Home Secretary Felix Durrell and Foreign Secretary Ros Yelland both of whom aspired to be the new Prime Minister. As well as focusing on the political struggles, Secret State also looks at the mystery surrounding the Prime Minister’s plane crash. Dawkins points the finger squarely at the shady Petrofex executives however one of his MI6 agents suggests that the Prime Minister’s American cousins. Unsure of who to trust, Dawkins turns to his only true ally former MI6 analyst Anthony Fossett, whose sister once had a relationship with Dawkins. While Fossett starts his investigation, there is more intrigue afoot as a pathologist in Scarrow is killed following his discovery of high toxicity levels in some of the explosion victims.

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I feel it’s a little unfair to judge Secret State by this first episode alone as it had a lot of plot to get through and a lot of characters to introduce. The drama certainly has a striking opening scene, as Dawkins surveys the damage left by the Perofex explosion. However, I did find Robert Jones’ script to poorly-paced as I felt we were introduced to one minister after another without any explosive scenes to match the opening one. Having said that, there are at least some mysteries established namely Petrofex’s involvement in the PM’s plane crash and why Dawkins quit his position as an army captain following a stint in Bosnia. What Secret State does having go for it is a brilliant cast lead by the outstanding Byrne. Byrne portrays Dawkins as a reserved character who seeks solace in soulless hotel rooms and blocks out the sounds of everyday life with earplugs. Byrne’s anti-politician character is perfectly transposed by other players in the drama who are absolutely convincing as conniving MPs. Rupert Graves is utterly believable as the privately educated Home Secretary who believes he is the best man for the Prime Minister job. Meanwhile Sylvestra La Touzel shines as the frosty Foreign Secretary who lacks the people skills to be an affective party leader. They are backed up by an astounding turn from Charles Dance as he manipulative Chief Whip. Though Secret State needs some work, primarily with its pacing issues, it does definitely shows some promise. This is mainly due to the fantastic cast who are all utterly believable as their respective characters. So, while I might not have been blown away by this opener, I’m going to stick with Secret State as I’ve got a feeling that, if it improves, it could become a very accomplished political drama.

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My other featured show couldn’t be more different from Secret State, that being BBC1′s docusoap Pound Shop Wars. The programme focuses on two family run single price stores in the Southern based 99p store and the Northern based Poundworld. 99p store’s chief executive is Hussein Lalani who is every bit the shrewd businessman. Hussein is consumed by his work, so much so that he spends most of his nights in a Northampton hotel instead of at home with his beautiful new wife. The programme sees Hussein open a new store in Deptford, where his PR guru Graham is organising the latest of their 99 second trolley dashes. We learn that one of these dashes was a complete disaster after a former Deal or No Deal contestant abused the concept and went away with over 250 items. Hussein learnt everything from his father Nadir, who is the company’s CEO, as he built up his business empire over a number of decades. Nadir’s first enterprise was one of London’s first late night convenience stores and from there he was eventually able to create the 99p store in 2001. Meanwhile up North, we meet Poundworld’s CEO Chris Edwards who is a stickler for detail and likes everything in its place. Chris has been running the business since his father passed away fifteen years earlier from a heart attack. Keen to make sure her son’s health is in check, Chris’ 85 year old mother Alice is always in his office making sure he’s OK. Alice is also his eyes an ears on the frontline as she often surveys Poundworld stores making sure her son’s empire is in check. As well as being the CEO of Poundworld, Chris also has a cabaret-style night club in Manchester. Chris’ club is another of his passions and it seems as if he’s a frustrated entertainer himself.

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The wars of the title refers to the fact the each of the two brands are encroaching on each other’s territory. Chris strikes first, by buying up a lot of empty stores previously owned by the now defunct Peacocks, and opens up seven stores in London. Hussein strikes back by opening shops in Chester and Salford but the biggest challenge for both is yet to come. As Chris buys another empty Peacocks store in Burnley, Hussein realises that his biggest competitor will be moving into the store next door. I personally thought a god final scene would have the two CEOs meet on camera but unfortunately this wasn’t the case. As a TV programme I found that Pound Shop Wars had a lot of character but lacked any real structure. I personally thought the format would fit a three or four part series, but instead we were only given this one-off. I loved seeing some of the products on offer – 18 condoms for 99p, as well as meeting customers like bride-to-be Nicola who was buying bargain wedding favours. Ultimately though this was about Hussein and Chris both of whom were trying to outdo each other for the title of the one who was most like David Brent. However, I found much to like in both of their personalities and hope that we see more of the Pound Shop Wars format if just to spend some more time in their company. Ultimately I feel that a lot more could’ve been done with the Pound Shop Wars programme and to me this felt more like a pilot to a potential documentary series, than a simple one-off look at high street bargain stores.

That’s your lot for now, I’ll see you next time.

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