TV review: Secret State | Fresh Meat | Peep Show

Secret State, featuring Gabriel Byrne as Tom Dawkins.
Secret State, featuring Gabriel Byrne as Tom Dawkins.
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IN FRESH Meat, which finished last week, JP (Jack Whitehall) was persisting with his ludicrous hipster-speak. “Not a chance, Charles Dance,” he blarted. I took this to be a sneer at ­Secret State, starring Dance, which also ended.

For while the political drama had to pack everything into four episodes, the students’ comedy got to bathe in the luxury of eight – and indeed JP was bathing in a hottub by the final scene. There will be no more Secret State but, incredibly, given that everyone seemed to be moving on, Fresh Meat will be back next year for a third series.

Does this suggest we don’t much care for affairs of state conducted by older people in thick overcoats and would much rather watch good-looking yoof frolic and fornicate and find their way in the world? It would seem so. Secret State wasn’t bad. The first episode was sturdy, just like Tom Dawkins (Gabriel Byrne), the deputy prime minister charged with leading us through a crisis, and by the middle, things got quite gripping. But it was over too soon. How those involved must have envied The West Wing (seven seasons). Even Edge Of Darkness and State Of Play, the British conspiracy thrillers to which ­Secret State was compared, were six-parters.

A mere four meant the narrative couldn’t twist and turn in too many unexpected and intriguing directions, that characters had to be painted in broad strokes. Dawkins was the good guy; just about everyone else squirmed and hissed in a vipers’ nest.

This was a black-and-white world with very little grey –save for Dawkins’ faint gunmetal hue from his dodgy military past in Bosnia – and certainly not 50 shades of the stuff. (Fifty Shades Of Grey? What a great title – I’m going to copyright it).

There was no time for anyone to have a private life. Dawkins’ glamorous ex-wife was introduced and promptly forgotten about. His hoped-for fling with the investigative journo (Gina McKee) never materialised. The government-engulfing sex scandal we all wanted to see – leading to mass resignations and brief statements at five-bar gates about wanting to spend more time with the family – never got started (don’t say you wouldn’t have enjoyed that, missus). But thank goodness for Fresh Meat, where the whole Prof Shales-Oregon-his son love triangle finally combusted, with the setting of a literary garden party ensuring this was as excruciating as we dared hope.

I was underwhelmed by the start to the second run and unconvinced the whole way through by the additions to the student house, Heather and Sabine, who only seemed to be there to disapprove of the original six, a wholly unnecessary function given we already know how juvenile, berkish, slovenly and psychotic they could be, and how much we enjoyed that. They would not be denied, though, and there have been many priceless moments in this run, not least the Bullingdon Club-style initiation ceremony where JP was required to smoke a “pipe of pubes”.

Just before his world collapsed, Shales tried to move Oregon to another uni, suggesting York and offering to find a place for the equally troublesome Vod as well. “There’s a rail museum,” he said, to which Vod replied: “You’re a rail museum.” It’s not all about the yoof. Fresh Meat wouldn’t be as funny as it is if the lecturers weren’t lecherous, cynical, vain, bitchy and pretentious, just like The History Man’s Howard Kirk – although Kirk reckoned he was cool and Shales, played by Tony Gard­ner, will never be that. (By the way, that’s two mentions in consecutive weeks for Gardner; I assume the cheque’s in the post).

Where does the show go from here? At the end, there was a touching speech from JP: “Dad’s dead, Mum’s sold up, I’ve been deserted by all my friends in purple trousers and, yah, when I first met you guys I thought you were a bunch of freaks, losers and pinheads – but I need you.” By the natural order of undergraduate life some should drop out, but let’s hope Howard stays. The very first scene where Greg McHugh turned a hair dryer on Peking ducks strung up on a kitchen pulley while wearing a Killing jumper and nothing on his bottom half was one of the all-time great entrances by a Scotsman. “Sorry,” he said, “but I’ve got used to wearing trousers of the mind.”

Fresh Meat is from the people who brought us Peep Show which, just to make Secret State even more jealous, is back for an eighth series. Student behaviour, albeit from two men who should know better? One of whom is a rail museum? If Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong only have one joke, it’s a very good one. «

Secret State, Channel 4, Wednesday, 10pm

Fresh Meat, Channel 4, Tuesday, 10pm

Peep Show, Channel 4, Sunday, 10pm

Twitter: @aidansmith07