Byrne's drama is a real state

AFTER lambasting The Gathering, Gabriel Byrne is back doing the day job in Secret State, a four-part thriller "inspired by" Chris Mullin's novel A Very British Coup, which was more faithfully and effectively adapted by Channel 4 in 1988.

Byrne is British Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins, a quiet, thoughtful and compassionate man -- which makes you wonder what he's doing in politics -- who finds himself at the eye of the storm when a petrochemical plant in the north-east of England explodes, killing 19 and maiming almost 100. Surveying the aftermath, Dawkins finds a dead child's charred glove -- with the fingers still inside!

Meanwhile, the prime minister is in Texas, schmoozing with the plant's owner, an American corporate giant called Petrofex. But when his plane, which is owned by Petrofex, goes missing on the way home, Dawkins finds himself thrust into the limelight.

At a press conference, a walking cliche of a reporter played by Gina McKee, shoves a secret document seemingly detailing previous murky misdeeds by Petrofex into Dawkins' hand. This, plus a phone call from a frantic pathologist who's found huge levels of lethal toxins in the dead child's body, begins to eat away at his conscience.

On top of all this, there's an election coming and Dawkins, who, bizarrely, appears to have no political ambitions of his own despite being the government's second in command, is being pressurised by the Home Secretary (Rupert Graves) and the Foreign Minister (Sylvestra Le Touzel), who both want to be the next party leader and promise him they'll keep him as their second banana if he supports them.

Suddenly, though, Dawkins grows a backbone and, with the help of McKee's reporter and a posh, boozy ex-MI5 agent (Douglas Hodge), embarks on a quest to uncover the truth about what's really going on, all the while being spied on by his own security people, who are recording his every move and word.

Secret State harks back to 1980s conspiracy thrillers like the BBC's Edge of Darkness and the excellent movie Defence of the Realm -- which, as it happens, starred Byrne as a Fleet Street reporter investigating a government cover-up. But it's never as good as either of those (or as A Very British Coup) and riddled with ridiculous glitches.

Byrne gives an understated performance as Dawkins, a former army captain haunted by something that happened in Bosnia, but everyone else overacts wildly -- especially Charles Dance as a scowling, growling, manipulative Chief Whip whose eyebrows look like a pair of brawling caterpillars.

When the pathologist who tipped Dawkins off was found hanged in his lab near the end, you could practically map out where Secret State is headed over the next three weeks.

Deora De (God's Tears), the first in a brace of programmes under the heading Am an Ghatair (Times of Trouble), was another terrific drama-documentary of the type TG4 seems able to turn out with insouciant ease.

In the garrison town of Templemore, Co Tipperary, in 1920, a supposedly naive, simple-minded 17-year-old called Jimmy Walsh claimed he was having daily visions of the Virgin Mary -- and he had a collection of statues that wept blood to prove it.

The country was gripped by a religious frenzy as thousands of pilgrims flocked to the town. Hostilities between the IRA and the RIC and Black and Tans were temporarily suspended. The IRA raked in money from charging visitors a toll and so did Jimmy, who decided he could cure the sick and lame. But the bandwagon stopped rolling when Jimmy was hauled up to IRA HQ in Dublin and told by Dan Breen to cut it out.

When the IRA's campaign resumed, the pilgrims vanished and so did Jimmy, who emigrated to Australia and changed his name. In a marvellous final scene, Michael Collins, who'd requested one of the statues be delivered to him, broke it open.

Inside, he discovered a couple of bloody sheep hearts attached to a clockwork device.

An incredible and often hilarious tale, brilliantly told.