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BBC's ‘State of Play’ thrills journalists

‘Love Actually's’ Bill Nighy stars a British newspaper editor who uncovers the truth about a government scandal.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Cameron Foster is an unconventional newspaper editor who stands fast behind a rogue reporter determined to cut through political spin and uncover the truth about a government scandal.

Bill Nighy, who plays Foster in the BBC America miniseries “State of Play,” says the British media “adored” the drama because journalists “are seen as heroic and that doesn’t happen often.

“Usually they are brought on to demonstrate the shallower side of life, like actors are brought on to demonstrate how dumb or egotistical people can be.”

A big hit in England, the six-part conspiracy thriller airs on BBC America beginning 9 p.m. ET Sunday.

A plum role for NighyNighy is best known to American audiences as the drug-addled, over-the-hill rocker Billy Mack in last year’s romantic comedy “Love, Actually.”

The over-the-top role won him a BAFTA award, the British equivalent of an Oscar, as well as a nod from the Los Angeles Film Critics, which also honored his work in three other recent films: “AKA,” “I Capture the Castle,” and “Lawless Heart.”

Actually, Nighy, 53, was a second choice for Foster, editor of the upmarket broadsheet The Herald. Writer and executive producer Paul Abbott had imagined the part for popular British character actor Michael Kitchen, who was unavailable.

Yet Abbott says Nighy proved to be “fantastic” because he’s somebody who can step into complex occupational roles — whether it be a rock musician or newspaper editor — and play the parts convincingly.

Ripped from the headlines?Abbott’s drama begins with two seemingly unrelated and very disparate deaths on the same day in London that are gradually connected to the same government scandal.

It also was inspired by Abbott’s anger “with the way modern government is going ... hijacked by PR and spin,” he said. “A lot of the characters reflect my own grief.”

Since Abbott wrote the script, several high-profile scandals on both sides of the Atlantic, including the deaths of Washington intern Chandra Levy and British weapons expert David Kelly, made it look as if Abbott ripped — or ripped off — his story from the headlines. Instead, Abbott suggests he was the one ripped off. “They’d nicked mine!” he jokes.

Abbott, who’s writing a second “State of Play” series, is a champion of “meaty six-parters,” a format he believes outsmarts the predictability of regular hourly drama series in which “the shape really bores you after a while, because you know they can’t turn any corners without showing the bend.”

Nighy says real journalists reacted to the character of Foster with notes begging, “Please will you be our editor?” or comments like, “I’ve learned how to save the world, and still be in the pub by half-past five.”

Nighy looks the part
This is not the first time Nighy has played a media type.

“In a career like mine you have phases,” he explained. “There was a time in my 30s when I played journalists, then there was a time when I played adulterers, just adulterers ... I tend to play tall, shallow men, who are a bit of a nuisance around women ... and I also always have hair that’s slightly too long for my age.”

Imbued with wit and self-deprecating charm, Nighy is fond of telling stories about his life’s journey.

He briefly aspired to be a journalist himself, but was rejected by his hometown paper in Southeast England. His desire to be a writer continued, but the closest he got was a job as a messenger boy delivering copies of The Field magazine to posh London hotels.

Eventually Nighy went to drama school and in the early 1980s, began working extensively in theater.

He was cast in the David Hare play “A Map of the World” in the early ’80s as “a man who couldn’t breathe every time this woman walked into the room.” The woman was played by Diana Quick, best known as Julia Flyte in the miniseries “Brideshead Revisited.”

They’ve been together ever since, and have a grown daughter who’s following them into acting.