TV review: Secret State | Imagine: Ian Rankin | Nigel Slater: Life Is Sweets

Secret State featuring Gabriel Byrne as Tom Dawkins
Secret State featuring Gabriel Byrne as Tom Dawkins
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IF THE West Wing’s Jed Bartlet is the wise, witty, decent, compassionate history bore we’d all like to have as president of America, then Tom Dawkins in the new political conspiracy thriller Secret State might just be the deputy prime minister of our fond imaginings.

Secret State

Channel 4, Wednesday, 10pm

Imagine: Ian Rankin

BBC1, Tuesday, 10.35pm

Nigel Slater: Life Is Sweets

BBC4, Monday, 9pm

With his craggy features and melancholic middle-distance stare, he definitely looks old enough to vote (unlike the PM himself). He’s good in a crisis, and just as well, because the PM’s plane has gone down over the Atlantic. He doesn’t display the screeching ambition of other potential No 10 replacements – “If you say you’re standing I’ll break your f*****g nose!”; this from a woman – and seems to be in politics for all the right reasons. He stands up to America. When he goes jogging there isn’t an official car crawling behind him with a fresh suit.

Re clobber, his overcoat appears to be made of chipboard, painted black, but he still manages to look trustworthy, stately. He has a beautiful ex-wife and therefore an intriguing past not yet revealed. From the same intriguing past, he keeps up with his old uni chum even though the pal is quite clearly off his rocker. And best of all: Tom Dawkins is played by Gabriel Byrne.

I could watch Byrne hold clasped hands to his face for an entire box-set (and do: In Treatment, which never leaves the shrink’s surgery, is brilliant). So it takes a bit of getting used to, seeing him do the walking thing – along exploded streets, through corridors of power, into whatever darkness, or Edge Of Darkness, lies ahead. Inevitably, Secret State has been likened to that big daddy of political conspiracy thrillers.

It’s inspired by Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup. A US-owned chemical plant in England’s north-east has blown up, killing 19. The company’s biggest shareholder is a bank that had to be bailed out by guess who? (The government). Secret State has got everybody in it: Gina McKee as the journalist feeding Dawkins leads and Charles Dance as the chief whip. One of the useless men from Mistresses plus redoubtables from The Thick Of It and Waterloo Road – and Finchy from The Office as our hero’s security detail. No sign yet of Deputy Dawg’s sidekick Vincent Van Gopher, but I’ll keep watching. “You give off stability – people are craving that,” said the chief whip as Byrne pointed his coat away from lies and towards truth. “Give off stability” – it could be the ­tagline for a new aftershave. Not the sexiest, perhaps, but in times of crisis the people don’t necessarily want sexy.

In documentaries last week, the crime writer Ian Rankin and the food writer Nigel Slater went back to their hame toons, walked around their old school playgrounds and told poignant stories about their fathers. Rankin was in Cardenden, Fife, where he grew up and where they’ve named a street after him. But, with some guilt, he revealed he earns more in a year than his dad did in a whole half-century of graft.

The old man was a “brilliant liar” – ideal father material, you’d guess, for the budding novelist. Imagine was a fascinating insight into the writing process. As Rankin strove to create characters who could successfully lurk in the shadows of his fiction, Alan Yentob lurked in his shadow. “You do know what a mondegreen is, Alan?” asked Rankin, testing the presenter, before explaining how a misheard song lyric had given him the title Standing In Another Man’s Grave. Wisely, Yentob then left the author to it, and a video diary captured the early struggles: “The 65-page pause”, “the fear” and those moments when all Rankin felt able to report was that he’d had a haircut.

For the latest book, he was bringing back his most famous creation, Rebus. Like his character, Rankin is a rock music nut. In his Edinburgh study he played some Tangerine Dream, an album you sense had got him over the finish line before. And even though he can Google this stuff nowadays, he drove all the way to the Black Isle to ensure his grisly scenes were spot on. “The farthest I’ve ever been from a pub,” he declared, before repeating the line into his recorder to give to Rebus. “And the weather is just as I’d imagined – mingin.’ ” (You do know what mingin’ is, Alan?).

Life Is Sweets was like Slater’s foodie memoir Toast but entirely sugar-coated. Well, the sweets were. Slater’s mum died when he was nine. His relationship with his father was difficult but dad, remembering how the boy once remarked that marshmallows were “the nearest thing to kisses”, left a bag by his bed every night after that. Psychologist: “And that was enough?” Slater: “No.”