Undercover: Peter Moffat on making a drama out of a lie

31 March 2016

Betrayal lies at the very heart of Undercover, the new, prime-time drama by former barrister and award-winning screenwriter Peter Moffat. Inspired by recent front page news stories, Moffat goes deep into the issues concerning undercover police officers who form long term relationships while using false identities. Adrian Lester is the undercover cop in question and Sophie Okonedo plays his unwitting wife. While preview audiences have been divided in their reaction to Lester's character, he tells ALASTAIR McKAY, "It’s a good thing for a television drama that people will sit on the sofa and disagree with each other.”

Burying the past: Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester play a seemingly happily married couple in Undercover

Peter Moffat’s thriller Undercover starts with a matter of life and death. There is a prisoner on death row in Louisiana, played by Dennis Haysbert. And there is a lawyer, a British lawyer, played by Sophie Okonedo, who is battling to save him. All the aspects of the international suspense drama are in place.

There is a countdown, a song about hellfire on the rental car radio, a ringing iPhone, and a man facing imminent extinction. And then...
Well, that would be telling. Perhaps the prisoner survives. Perhaps he doesn’t.

What kind of organisation is it that feels that it needs to behave in such a neurotic and defensive manner?
Peter Moffat

But he does plant a thought in Okonedo’s head, telling her: “You can’t win trying to save people like me. You have to go big.”

After which the action switches to Hackney, in 1996, where Adrian Lester is changing a child’s nappy. Everything is cosy and domestic. Except that it isn’t.

As a writer, Moffat has form with legal drama. A former barrister, he has examined the moral architecture of his old job in North Square, Criminal Justice, and Silk, and attempted a Derbyshire Heimat with The Village.

Undercover is his fictional attempt to make sense of the issues raised by recent revelations about undercover police officers who formed long term relationships while using false identities.

“Also,” Moffat says, “undercover officers were spying on members of Stephen Lawrence’s family and friends, and probably his legal team as well.”

The murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 exposed issues of institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police, as well as prompting revelations about how undercover cops had been working to smear the reputations of the the victim’s family.

“I just thought, ‘What on earth are they doing? What kind of organisation is it that feels that it needs to behave in such a neurotic and defensive manner?’”

On death row: Dennis Haysbert as Rudy Jones

Undercover clips

Sophie Okonedo as lawyer Maya Cobbina
Everything is cosy and domestic... except that it isn’t: Adrian Lester as Nick Johnson

The story in Undercover is fiction, of course, and while it does feature a few familiar tropes of contemporary drama (the autistic son who can only deal with truth), Moffat does allow for a nuanced response to his characters.

Sophie Okonedo
Half the audience have no sympathy at all for anything Nick is doing, and others really do
Peter Moffat

Okonedo’s character, Maya, is central. She represents decency and ambition, having come to the criminal bar “to represent the dispossessed and the disadvantaged”, and the contemporary scenes show her battling to become the first black Director of Public Prosecutions.

Her husband, Nick (Adrian Lester), gets the short straw. Though he is now happily married to Maya, they met while he was working undercover, and his old contacts are now calling on him to spy against his wife. If he doesn’t, his past deceptions will be exposed, and his family will explode.

Moffat says that preview audiences have divided equally in their reactions to Nick.

“Half have no sympathy at all for anything he’s doing, and others really do. The reaction doesn’t seem to be based along gender lines."

"I think it’s a good thing for a television drama that people will sit on the sofa and disagree with each other.”

Sophie Okonedo as lawyer Maya Cobbina, in Louisiana
Dividing audiences: If Nick Johnson doesn’t agree to spy on his wife, his past deceptions will be exposed: Derek Riddell and Adrian Lester

Moffat says,“in real life lots of those police officers are, I think, really damaged by the way that they behaved. It’s incredibly difficult to spend years pretending to be something other than that which you really are."

I don’t think there’s much drama that compares with what the novel tries to do. I’m a fan of what Julian Barnes calls ‘trans-genre’
Peter Moffat

"It’s probably true that there were undercover police officers who were betraying the people they were in love with. That can’t be easy. But to steal the identity of a dead child and adopt it for your own in order to create a fake identity, must lead to emotional problems."

"The women this happened to often describe how they felt they were still in love with the person they’d been with, after they had discovered who they were in reality, at the same time as being terribly traumatised and angry about it. All these things can be true.”

The casting of two black actors in the lead roles of a mainstream drama has prompted some debate at a time when the institutional racism of the dramatic arts is under scrutiny.

Much of the story concerns racism, and Okonedo took an active role in the development of the character, so Undercover is less an example of colourblind casting than it is a story which validates the experience of black Britons.

Moffat makes no bold claims. “The racial element in the story was there from the start, so I don’t have much to say about it. Except that when I think about television history and how few lead black characters there have been, it does seem sad. I think it’s about to get a lot better.”

Moffat also suggests that television drama could afford to be more daring.

“We tend to like solid genre television, where you know where you are. I don’t think there’s much that compares with what the novel tries to do. I’m a fan of what Julian Barnes calls ‘trans-genre’. It’s interesting to slip around with subject matter."

"We have plenty of brilliant procedural police dramas, and plenty of brilliant period drama. There should be a lot more dramas that are not either of those two things.”

Watch Undercover

Nick Johnson (Adrian Lester)
Undercover

More from BBC Arts