State of Play (TV series)

State of Play is a British television drama series, written by Paul Abbott and directed by David Yates, that was first broadcast on BBC One in 2003. The series tells the story of a newspaper's investigation into the death of a political researcher, and centres on the relationship between the leading journalist, Cal McCaffrey, and his old friend, Stephen Collins, who is a Member of Parliament and the murdered woman's employer. The series is primarily set in London and was produced in-house by the BBC in association with the independent production company Endor Productions. The series stars David Morrissey, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald, Polly Walker, Bill Nighy, and James McAvoy in the main roles.

State of Play
UK DVD cover
GenreConspiracy thriller
Political thriller
Created byPaul Abbott
Written byPaul Abbott
Directed byDavid Yates
StarringDavid Morrissey
John Simm
Kelly Macdonald
Polly Walker
Bill Nighy
James McAvoy
Marc Warren
Philip Glenister
ComposerNicholas Hooper
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
No. of series1
No. of episodes6 (list of episodes)
Executive producersGareth Neame
Laura Mackie
Paul Abbott
ProducerHilary Bevan Jones
Production locationLondon
CinematographyChris Seager
EditorMark Day
Running time60 minutes
Production companyEndor Productions
Distributor2 Entertain
Original networkBBC One
Picture format16:9
Audio formatStereo
Original release18 May (2003-05-18) 
22 June 2003 (2003-06-22)

The series was 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 series after BBC Head of Drama Jane Tranter asked him whether he would consider writing a piece "bigger" than anything he had written so far in his career. The serial was Abbott's third major writing project for the channel, following Clocking Off and Linda Green. The series was also a major turning point in David Yates' directorial career, as he began to direct various high-profile television projects following his work on the series.

The six-part series was broadcast on BBC One on Sunday evenings at 9:00pm from 18 May to 22 June 2003. Episodes two to five were initially premiered on the digital television station BBC Four at 10:00pm on the nights of the preceding episodes' BBC One broadcast; however episode six was held back for a premiere on BBC One, so as not to allow the final twists to be spoiled for those who did not have access to digital television. In 2004, the series ran in the United States on the BBC's BBC America cable channel. In 2005, the series 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 series and its favourable impression on BBC executives led to Abbott being commissioned to write a sequel, before the first series had even been aired.[1][2] In 2006, however, a second series appeared to have been abandoned, with Abbott telling Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4's Front Row in November that he "couldn't find a way to make the story work".


While investigating the murder of fifteen-year-old teenager Kelvin Stagg in what appears to be a drug-related killing, journalist Cal McCaffrey of The Herald (John Simm) and his colleagues Della Smith (Kelly Macdonald) and Cameron Foster (Bill Nighy) find a connection with the coincidental death of Sonia Baker, a young researcher for MP Stephen Collins (David Morrissey). As their investigation progresses, they uncover not only a connection between the deaths, but a conspiracy with links to oil industry-backed corruption of high-ranking British government ministers.



No. Title Directed by Written by Ratings (in millions)[3]
Sourced by BARB.
Original airdate
1"Episode 1"David YatesPaul Abbott5.7818 May 2003 (2003-05-18)
Fifteen-year-old drug dealer Kelvin Stagg is shot dead on the streets of London, and a motorcycle courier who witnessed the attack is also shot in an attempt to force his silence. Meanwhile, political researcher Sonia Baker (Shauna Macdonald) is also found dead, having seemingly fallen under a tube train in a freak accident. Investigative journalist Cal McCaffrey (John Simm) offers his former employer, Stephen Collins MP (David Morrissey), who was a close friend of Sonia, a shoulder to cry on. As he begins to investigate Kelvin Stagg's murder, he interviews Kelvin's distraught family, who claim that his portrayal in the media – seemingly led by the police – is wholly untrue, and despite claims, he was never involved in the sale of drugs, and was simply a pickpocket. Later, McCaffrey receives a tip-off from Kelvin's brother Sonny, who claims that shortly prior to his death, Kelvin came into possession of a potentially lucrative briefcase and was trying to sell it back to its owner for £200. Upon acquiring the briefcase, Cal discovers it contains a gun and surveillance material starring Sonia Baker. Aware that Baker may also have been murdered, McCaffrey informs fellow journalist Della (Kelly Macdonald), who tries to convince the police to place an armed guard at the bedside of the motorcycle courier, for fear of a reprisal attack. However, shortly after Della issues her warning, a fire alarm is activated in the hospital, and whilst trying to move the victim to safety, DI Stuart Brown (Rory McCann) is shot by a sniper and fatally injured just metres from her.
2"Episode 2"David YatesPaul Abbott4.5825 May 2003 (2003-05-25)
In the aftermath of DI Brown's death, a new lead detective, DCI William Bell (Philip Glenister), is assigned to the case. With phone records seemingly confirming a link between the two victims, the investigation continues to gather pace. Whilst investigating the origin of a letter sent to Collins' wife, Della discovers that a fellow journalist from the Mail, Dan Foster (James McAvoy), has obtained a copy of a document supposedly confirming that Collins intended to leave his wife and move in with Sonia Baker. Aware that Foster is somehow ahead of the game, Della tries to convince Cameron (Bill Nighy) to employ him as a freelance investigator. Dan reveals that he has traced the unidentified party who sent the fax works in the nearby Apex house. After luring the perpetrator into a trap, he is able to identify the man as Dominic Foy (Marc Warren). As Dan, Della and colleague Pete Cheng (Benedict Wong) prepare to speak to Foy, he makes it abundantly clear that he has no business in co-operating. Meanwhile, Della returns home from a night out with colleague Helen (Amelia Bullmore) and is angered to discover that her flat has been broken into, and accuses DCI Bell of masterminding the raid in an attempt to uncover information previously undisclosed to the police. Della realises that she has no choice but to declare to the police that the team hold a potentially vital piece of evidence in the briefcase, and Bell subsequently arrests Cal for withholding evidence, and states his intention to prosecute him for perverting the course of justice.
3"Episode 3"David YatesPaul Abbott5.551 June 2003 (2003-06-01)
Bell agrees a deal with Foster and McCaffrey to provide a decoy for Della, and McCaffrey is placed under the armed guard of DS Cheweski (Sean Gilder). During a midnight game of cards, McCaffrey receives a call from Anne and informs Cheweski that he intends to meet a 'contact'. As they head to a nearby hotel, Cheweski waits on guard. However, their movement hasn't gone unnoticed, and Cheweski soon realises that a rear security door to the hotel has been breached, and that the hitman is inside. As a deadly game of cat and mouse pursues, Cheweski manages to chase the hitman into the line of police fire. Meanwhile, Bell interviews Collins and suggests that the regular payments being made into Sonia Baker's account were the fruits of a blackmail plot, but Collins denies any malicious intent. Bell receives the final toxicology report on Kelvin Stagg, but the report now shows that Stagg's blood contained high levels of crack cocaine, whereas the initial report showed nothing unusual in his bloodstream. He confides to Della that he is under pressure from his superior officers to close the investigation: he and Cheweski agree to cooperate more with the journalists. As Anne and Cal's relationship begins to blossom, they are caught in the middle of a sexual encounter by a furious Collins. When it becomes apparent that Dominic Foy (Marc Warren) has a stronger connection to Sonia Baker than first thought, he soon becomes the prime target for both McCaffrey and Bell. McCaffrey hatches a plan to catch Foy as he departs an inbound flight from Spain, and tries to persuade him to reveal his side of the story by creating the suggestion that the police are desperate to talk to him.
4"Episode 4"David YatesPaul Abbott5.288 June 2003 (2003-06-08)
Foy is taken to a city hotel and questioned by McCaffrey, while Dan, Helen and Pete conduct a thorough search of his flat. Foy claims that he and Sonia had previously been in a relationship, but the accuracy of his claims is questioned by transcriptor Syd (Tom Burke), who claims that he had a sexual encounter with Foy several years previously. Helen uncovers a series of bank statements suggesting that Foy was paid £75,000 by a firm of lobbyists, Warner Schloss, who are seemingly incorporated within U-Ex Oil, a multi-national oil company who appear to have an axe to grind with the energy committee. McCaffrey comes to the conclusion that Sonia may have been a spy planted by the company, but is still unable to work out why they would have wanted her dead. In an attempt to ramp up the pressure, Della tries to convince Bell to create a smoke screen by trying to trace Foy at both his home and work addresses. Cameron tries to convince Collins to keep quiet about McCaffrey's affair with his wife. As Collins tries to make account to the police for the withdrawal of £2,000 per month from his personal bank account, he discovers that a weekend away with Sonia in a country hotel, which remained unpaid, was in fact paid in full by Warner Schloss. Foy begins to become paranoid when it appears that he is being followed, unaware that McCaffrey is in fact keeping tabs on him. Cameron is told by the newspaper's owner to end the investigation quickly.
5"Episode 5"David YatesPaul Abbott4.6715 June 2003 (2003-06-15)
Foy turns to McCaffrey for help as his paranoia begins to get the better of him. Della convinces him to return to the hotel for a second interview, and McCaffrey invites Collins to listen in. During the interview, Foy makes a shocking claim that Sonia disclosed to him that she was pregnant during the panic phone call on the morning of her death. Collins is unable to contain his anger and physically lashes out at Foy. Meanwhile, as it becomes clear that Sonia's position in Collins' department was engineered by his secretary, Greer (Deborah Findlay), Cal confronts her and discovers that Sonia was employed on the recommendation of George Fergus MP (James Laurenson), who claimed to know her family personally. Collins is furious to discover his colleague's actions and warns him that he intends to take action. As Cal tries to uncover evidence that Fergus was bribed by U-Ex Oil, Cameron is warned by the newspaper hierarchy to put a lid on the story. However, just as he plans to ignore his superior's orders and go to print, a gagging order is issued, preventing him from printing any aspects of the story. Unprepared to let matters lie, Cameron prints a four page spread which reads: "The Story We Can't Tell You. Because Westminster is Gagging Us. Ask U-EX Oil Why. Ask Your MP Why." As a result, Cameron is informed that his contract will be terminated, and a new editor is brought in. Fergus tells Collins that senior figures in the government knew that Sonia was working for U-Ex Oil, but let her remain there rather than upset the company unnecessarily.
6"Episode 6"David YatesPaul Abbott5.2722 June 2003 (2003-06-22)

Despite political and legal pressure, the investigation by Cal McCaffrey and the Herald team begins to bear fruit, in particular thanks to information from an executive at U-EX, who subsequently took his own life. After the revelation concerning Sonia, Collins decides to help the journalist by revealing everything he knows, preferring to refuse a post of minister after realizing that the leaders of the party were aware of Sonia's activities. But following an involuntary revelation from Collins, McCaffrey understands the truth about his friend MP : he enlisted the services of a former soldier he knew during his service, Robert Bingham, in order to monitor the deeds and actions by Sonia. But according to Collins, Bingham began to act alone out of admiration for him, resulting in the murder of Sonia and Kelvin Stagg. In shock, McCaffrey hands the recording of Collins' confession to Della and Cameron, who inform Inspector Bell. At the same time, Foy is arrested by the police as he prepares to flee England. The relationship between Cal and Anne comes to an end when the former cannot bear that the latter, who ignores everything, feels ready to return to Stephen.

Ultimately, the lead the paper can come up with isn't the political story it hoped for, but a sex and crime story about a deposed MP.


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."[1] Other newspaper critics were similarly impressed with the opening instalment. 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."[4] 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."[5]

The consensus appeared to be that the serial maintained 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."[6] The television critic of The Independent, Tom 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."[7]

Bill Nighy won the British Academy Television Award for Best Actor for his role. The series also won a Peabody Award in 2004[8] and 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 Festival, Broadcasting Press Guild, Cologne Conference, Directors Guild of Great Britain, Edgar Awards, and the Monte Carlo TV Festival.[9]


State of Play was adapted into an Americanized 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., and with certain aspects condensed and changed in order to fit the two-hour format.

The film was directed by Kevin Macdonald from a screenplay written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Peter Morgan, and Billy Ray. 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.[10] The film was generally well received, but not as lauded as the series.


  1. McLean, Gareth. TV review: The genuine article. "The Guardian". Monday 19 May 2003.
  2. Raphael, Amy. Not much cop at fame. "The Guardian". 4 January 2006.
  3. "Viewing Data — Top Tens". BARB. Retrieved 6 March 2014.
  4. 19 May 2003 "First Night",, Retrieved on 21 September 2005
  5. Ibid.
  6. Wright, Jonathan. Watch This: State of Play, 9pm, BBC1. "The Guardian" ("The Guide" section). Saturday 7 June 2003.
  7. Sutcliffe, Thomas. The Weekend's Television: The sticky end of the thriller. "The Independent". Monday 23 June 2003.
  8. 64th Annual Peabody Awards, May 2005.
  9. Internet Movie Database awards page for State of Play. Retrieved on 21 September 2005.
  10. "Ben Affleck: State of Play". 16 April 2009. Retrieved 16 April 2009.


  • ^ Abbott, Paul. The South Bank Show – Paul Abbott. ITV. Sunday 15 May 2005.
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