About 45 minutes into The Trick (BBC One) the drama briefly rises to the occasion. Professor Phil Jones (Jason Watkins), the scientist at the heart of the Climategate scandal, is about to be interviewed by a newspaper after months of silence. He is being coached by two crisis comms PRs, Neil Wallis (Jerome Flynn) and Sam Bowen (George MacKay). After a lifetime of research, Jones isn’t used to simplifying his answers for a general audience. He struggles to abandon his scientific jargon and to see his work, and the controversy in which he has become embroiled, through the eyes of someone mulling over the Sunday papers. The scene has conflict, subtext and high stakes, both for the people involved and the wider world.
It’s fitting that this, and a similar scene as he prepares for a select committee hearing, are the only moments when The Trick comes to life. Climategate was always a crisis of communication above all. The facts, as they finally emerged, were relatively banal. In 2009, in the months before the UN’s Cop 15 climate change conference in Copenhagen, hackers stole emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. They released them selectively to give the impression that scientists had manipulated the data to exaggerate the threat from climate change. Climate sceptics and their cheerleaders, the James Delingpoles of the world, leapt on this as evidence of some vast conspiracy among the scientific community. It was nothing of the sort, and Jones was cleared of any malpractice. But the way the information was presented, first by the anti-science activists and later by the institutions trying to defend themselves, turned it briefly into one of the biggest stories in the world.
With this year’s Cop 26 conference coming up in Glasgow next month, The Trick is one of a raft of earnest programmes scheduled to remind us of the scale of the problem and the dark forces at work to suppress information. Written by the poet, novelist and playwright Owen Sheers, it is billed as a “conspiracy thriller”, which takes manipulation and exaggeration to a whole new level. Really, it’s a tale of one man taking far too long to explain himself. The script constantly struggles to balance the desire to lay out what happened with a desire to wallop us over the head with its environmental message. Characters break the fourth wall to lecture us about the long-term impact of rising temperatures. Even when they are talking to each other, it often feels like they are really talking to us. “This is where it gets interesting,” says cybercrime expert Gareth Ellmann (Rhashan Stone) as he scrolls through emails. If you have to make a character say those words, it probably isn’t.
This kind of dialogue wastes a strong line-up. As the distraught scientist, Watkins has to spend the first half an hour gawping like a carp on ketamine, but when he finally gets the chance to do some acting, he is as sympathetic as ever. Victoria Hamilton, as Jones’s wife, Ruth, is one of the few characters who gets properly angry at how her husband is being treated. Flynn makes a convincingly grizzled comms maven, wise to the tricks of the newspapers. Mostly, however, the characters muddle through this edu-drama, explaining obvious things to each other and nervously restating the significance of the science, as if any viewers awake and facing the right direction in 2021 aren’t aware of it. The challenge for dramatists is how to turn spreadsheets, emails and numbers into tense, watchable TV populated by rounded characters. Too often, watching The Trick, I found myself craving the raw data. If the people in your show are less interesting than tree rings and thermometer readings, something’s gone awry.