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Chris Patrick’s SEARCH – an audiodrama that was released earlier this year – appears to lift the lid on a devolved deep state. The eponymous “search” is spread across Scotland and it is one in which Matt McNair (Colin Little), an investigative journalist, is hunting both for a mythical superhero and for news of his own missing father. Yet the story promptly flips over and on the flipside sizzles a search for McNair himself, who is now accused by the police of poisoning most of his sources.

The motif of the chased chaser, along with the Scottish backdrop, makes SEARCH liable to resemble John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. Certainly SEARCH is pacy enough as a thriller for this to hold up for a while as a likeness. What interests me about this story, however, is the unease that increasingly surrounds its villains. They indeed conduct themselves like a deep state. If this lot were in the USA, then they would be responsible for the Kennedy assassination and for 9/11. If they were Russian, then they would be rather more real and responsible for a long necklace of political assassinations. But what are they doing in devolved Scotland, a nation that is supposedly virtuous and modest and with no terrible secrets to tell of?

“Don’t worry,” Chris Patrick seems to announce. “These villains are just part of the private sector. Their company is discreet enough to masquerade as a charity.” Unfortunately, this explanation is never convincing. The Wells Foundation clearly has a budget of billions of pounds, since it organises pioneering medical experiments and it runs a vast surveillance network across Scotland. To operate on the scale that it does, the Wells Foundation must collude with the police and be afforded considerable protection by the state. It raises severe questions about the quality of McNair’s journalism that he never once stops to ask what the Wells Foundation actually is.

It is in itself a funny comment on the enormity of today’s charitable sector that the Wells Foundation can hide within plain sight as a charity. Ernst Stavro Blofeld had been never able to claim that his volcano lair was merely a regional headquarters for Oxfam. This would be probably possible now though.

The most realistic recourse for Patrick would be to put forward a deep state that is operating out of London, with quantitatively-eased pockets that are deep enough to bankroll its top research laboratories. But he evidently does not wish to end up with an embarrassing ethnic cliché on his hands, namely that in which cosy Scots are pitted against unfeeling English outsiders. Even worse would be to give the London-Rule agents Scottish accents, with the unpleasant implication that they are quislings. All of these escalating sensitivities have thus led to the deep state being disguised as an obscure Scottish private company, which is in turn disguised even further as a charity.

The Wells Foundation can never hope to be this depoliticised. It cannot flit through our world without anything coming to stick to it. It is currently unimaginable that Nicola Sturgeon’s government could run a deep state. Devolved finances have been hollowed out to such an extent that Holyrood can barely keep hospitals going. Nonetheless, Sturgeon is so irrepressible or ineradicable a force that she comes to haunt SEARCH in the person of its supervillain, Eleanor Wells (Natalie Clark).

Like Sturgeon, Wells is stern and no-nonsense. Like Sturgeon she is also humorous, emotionally intelligent and “a good communicator.” Like Sturgeon, she is surrounded by men who are devoted to her but who are still obviously quite a step down from her own brainpower and charisma.

SEARCH is a post-superhero story and it participates in that genre in which superheroes are no longer straightforwardly idolised. Think of the audiodrama The Bright Sessions, for example, in which the superheroes are clapped into therapy. Wells initially supports superheroes, rather as Sturgeon’s Scottish independence is meant to inject heroism into civic life and make us all heroes. She simultaneously controls and manipulates her superheroes, rather as Sturgeon has previously introduced authoritarian legislation such as the Named Person surveillance scheme and the OB(F)TC Act, under which football fans had been arrested for singing certain songs. For Wells, the ultimate superhero is her foundation, just as Sturgeon’s tendency is to demand soaring freedoms for her own government rather than for her fellow citizens.

I do not know if this analogy is what SEARCH had been searching for when it had first started. The final impression of this show is of a world where the Scottish government has vanished but where an acute, displaced caricature of it has fully subsumed its importance. Eleanor Wells is in effect just a lopsided portrait of Nicola Sturgeon.

[Previously on Tychy: “Podcast Review, The Secret of St Kilda.”]

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