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State of Play is a 6-part British television drama serial, first broadcast on BBC One in 2003. Produced in-house by the BBC, in association with independent production company Endor Productions, it was created and written by Paul Abbott, directed by David Yates and starred David Morrissey, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald, Polly Walker, Bill Nighy, and James McAvoy. It tells the story of a newspaper's investigation into the death of a young woman, and centres on the relationship between the leading journalist and his old friend, a Member of Parliament and the woman's employer.



The serial begins with the murder of a young man, in what appears to be a drug-related killing, and the apparently coincidental death of Sonia Baker, the young researcher for MP Stephen Collins (Morrissey). As the deaths are investigated by journalist Cal McCaffrey of The Herald (Simm) and his colleagues (including Kelly Macdonald as Della Smith and Bill Nighy as editor Cameron Foster) it appears that not only were the deaths connected, but that a conspiracy links them with oil industry-backed corruption of high-ranking British government ministers.


The serial was Paul Abbott's first attempt to write a political thriller, and he initially made the majority of the plot up as he went along. He was prompted to write the serial after BBC Head of Drama Jane Tranter asked whether he would rather write something "bigger" than he had usually written so far in his career. The serial was Abbott's third major writing project for the BBC, following Clocking Off (2000-2003) and Linda Green (2001-2002).

Transmitted on BBC One on Sunday evenings at 9pm, State of Play consisted of six one-hour episodes and ran from 18 May to 22 June 2003. Episodes two to five were actually premiered on the digital television station BBC Four at 10pm on the nights of the preceding episodes' BBC One showings – episode six was held back for a BBC One premiere so as not to allow the final twists to be spoiled for those who did not have access to digital television. In 2004, the serial ran in the United States on the BBC's BBC America cable channel.

In 2005 the serial was released on DVD by BBC Worldwide, in a two-disc set. Episode one features an audio commentary from Abbott and Yates, and episode six a commentary from Yates, producer Hilary Bevan-Jones and editor Mark Day.

The success of the production led to Abbott being commissioned to write a sequel, which as of January 2006 was partly written– it was commissioned before the first had even been transmitted, so impressed were BBC executives with the original. However, by 2006 the second series appeared to have officially been abandoned. Abbott, talking to Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4's Front Row in November 2006, said that he couldn't find a way to make the story work. However, on 25 April 2007, Abbott was quoted in the Sun newspaper as saying that he was currently writing scripts for a second, six-episode series of State of Play, with John Simm and Bill Nighy reprising their roles.

Critical reception

Reviewing the first episode for The Guardian newspaper the day after it had aired, Gareth McLean wrote that "'s bloody magic. The story is gripping, the acting is ace and Paul Abbott's script is outstanding. His ear for dialogue, and for different voices, is exceptional. The exposition is swift, nifty and joyously unclunky. The characters are credible and rounded. If you can count the best dramas of recent years on the fingers of both hands, it's time to grow a new finger."

Other newspaper critics were similarly impressed with the opening installment. In The Times, Paul Hoggart wrote that "Two excellent performances [from Morrissey and Simm] ensure that the relationship has a turbulent dynamism that is credible and engaging." James Walton in The Daily Telegraph was more cautious, feeling that the opening episode had been promising but the serial as a whole still had the potential to go wrong. "At this stage however, the programme is certainly good enough to make me hope not and to ensure that I'll be back next week to find out."

The consensus appeared to be that the serial did maintain its quality to the end. Previewing episode four, Jonathan Wright of The Guide section in The Guardian described it as "A political conspiracy thriller that's as buttock-clenchingly tense as Edge of Darkness, as cynical about the British political system as House of Cards, and stands comparisons to both." The television critic of The Independent, Thomas Sutcliffe, wrote of the final episode: "I'm not sure that a thriller can end in anything other than anti- climax. If it has been good you're sad it's over, and if it ends badly you're quite likely to feel that you've been duped. Paul Abbott's State of Play, which has had me swallowing double doses on a Sunday evening whenever the schedules allowed, left us with the first kind of let-down rather than the second."

Bill Nighy won the British Academy Television Award for Best Actor for his role. The series also won BAFTAs for Best Sound (Fiction/Entertainment) and Best Editing (Fiction/Entertainment). It was nominated, but did not win, in the Best Actor category again, for Morrissey; in the Best Drama Serial category; Best Original Television Music and Best Photography and Lighting. It also won major awards from the Royal Television Society, Banff Television Festivalmarker, Broadcasting Press Guild, Cologne Conference, Directors Guild of Great Britain, Edgar Awards, and the Monte Carlo TV Festival.

Film adaptation

State of Play was adapted into a feature film that was released in the United States in April 2009. The plot retained substantial similarities to the original six-hour series, retaining the main characters, but with its location changed to Washington, D.C.marker, and with certain aspects condensed and changed in order to fit the two-hour format.

The adaptation is directed by Kevin Macdonald and is written by Matthew Michael Carnahan. Ben Affleck, Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams and Helen Mirren appear in the lead roles. In an April 2009 interview to promote the film, Affleck, who plays Congressman Stephen Collins, said he drew on the experiences of Gary Condit, Eliot Spitzer, and John Edwards while preparing for the role.


  1. McLean, Gareth. TV review: The genuine article. "The Guardian". Monday 19 May 2003.
  2. 19 May 2003 "First Night",, Retrieved on 21 September 2005
  3. Ibid.
  4. Wright, Jonathan. Watch This: State of Play, 9pm, BBC1. "The Guardian" ("The Guide" section). Saturday 7 June 2003.
  5. Sutcliffe, Thomas. The Weekend's Television: The sticky end of the thriller. "The Independent". Monday 23 June 2003.
  6. Internet Movie Database awards page for State of Play. Retrieved on 21 September 2005.
  7. .


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