He barely raises his voice in the first hour of this four part political thriller, inspired by the 1980s novel A Very British Coup.
Byrne plays Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins, thrust into the spotlight when the nation is tested by two tragedies in the run up to a general election.
First there’s a devastating industrial accident at a petroleum plant in Scarrow, leaving 19 people dead. It’s Dawkins who must face angry locals, and a visit to the morgue resonates with him, more as man than elder statesman.
Then the PM’s plane crashes mysteriously en route from a meeting with Petrofex in the US, leaving Dawkins to face the media. He rises to the occasion leading his party to push for him as its new PM.
But surrounding the two tragedies there is a smell of conspiracy, with hints of terrorism and suggestions the two events are linked.
Watching on is MI5 with all the techno-wizardy of big brother. Charles Dance plays a Chief Whip puppeteer, driven more by self-interest and power than justice. Rupert Graves and Ros Yelland also appear.
Dawkins, who is already impacted by a failed marriage, finds it a challenge to maintain a sense of righteousness and I suspect much worse is to come. If politics is about compromising your vision, Tom Dawkins will have much to contend with here.
The writing in Secret State is economic, never over-gilding the lily and allowing the audience to do much of the guess-work. The Brits are excellent at subtext. While the first episode doesn’t have the thrill-ride of a Spooks hour, this wouldn’t be out of place alongside State of Play or Edge of Darkness.
It remains to be seen whether Byrne’s rather gallant performance is ultimately credible within the context of this narrative. Do we really believe politicians can remain honourable, or is it too much of a stretch? Does the British electorate get the politicians they deserve, or do they just end up with Charles Dance, quietly orchestrating an outcome from the sidelines?
Either way you’ll be drawn in.
Secret State premieres 8:30pm Saturday November 23 on UKTV.