It’s a moment of sheer anguish and conflict. Nick, a former policeman and now author and wannabe athlete, listens to an odd voice-mail from his tearful barrister wife, pleading with him to come and find her. He makes to leave – and then the hospital calls. His father is dying. In a flash, everyone watching Undercover, a fascinating new six-part drama premiering on BBC First on Monday, will immediately ponder who exactly they would prioritise in that situation.
Problem is, Nick cannot do anything but go to his wife – because Maya (brilliantly played by Sophie Okonedo) doesn’t even know he has a surviving father. Nick, it transpires, has been living a double life as an undercover policeman for 20 years. “In a way I had to play two characters,” says Adrian Lester, who brilliantly imbues Nick with a quiet desperation. “Because he’s not able to be honest with his dad either. What is so fascinating about Undercover is that you see the cost of that on someone’s life. He’s been carved into pieces, really. Every day he’s kept a small lie going.”
Inspired by shocking real-life revelations that a number of British women in political or anti-racist groups had been tricked into long-term relationships by undercover policemen keen to gather information, playwright and screenwriter Peter Moffat wrote Undercover after wondering what happens when a whole marriage – an entire family – is based on not just a terrible secret but a complete betrayal.
“The thing is, Nick is actually a devoted father and husband, that’s the essence of him,” says Lester – who dedicated viewers of British dramas might remember from con-artist caper Hustle. “He was assigned to spy on an anti-fascist group that Maya was part of 20 years ago and she just has no idea who he is or who he was. And in a way, that’s all fine – apart from feeling incredibly guilty he can cope with that, until he’s asked to resume his old activities when Maya is suddenly in line to become next director of public prosecutions.”
Lester says that Undercover has allowed him to explore a character with the kind of complexity usually only reserved for the Shakespearean characters he plays with such elan on the stage. “Shakespeare has this great push and pull between what characters want to do and what they should do, and Undercover felt just like that – which is very rare in television,” he says.
And it’s also refreshingly uncommon to find the first episode of a brand new series introduce its themes and situations so slowly – at first it’s just Okonedo trying to save a prisoner on death row as Nick battles with domesticity. The political issues, a suspenseful police/legal drama and family life are very gently brought towards boiling point.
“The set up is rich, fertile ground for drama and tension, but yes, it was quite brave to do it this way,” agrees Lester. “Undercover certainly doesn’t spoon feed you. But I think you have quite a lot of confidence very quickly that this is a great idea for a political thriller, full of dilemma and complexity. It’s seriously hard-hitting, heavyweight drama that questions how we operate in society. But in many ways it’s also a heartbreaking love story.”
And at the heart of it is Adrian Lester’s character. In effect he is the villain of the piece, but the subtleties of his performance mean that audiences will naturally hope he does the right thing. Lester thinks a lot of that paradox comes from the writing – Moffat has said that he was fascinated by the men going undercover who somehow managed to both betray and love the same person, and how that would inevitably damage them.
“I hope that people think about the real cases,” agrees Lester, “and just what we give authority license to do. I mean, these organisations that were being spied on… there was nothing about them which was endangering public safety. It was all about protecting the police.”
It’s hugely refreshing that Undercover manages to cover all these elements through the prism of one family and yet never resort to soapy drama or polemic. And while some elements of the British press have noted the pleasing rarity of a primetime BBC drama with two black leads where the colour of their skin has little to do with the plot – Undercover comes after the BBC set out plans to improve its record on diversity both on and off the screen – for Lester it’s not an issue whatsoever.
“I just wish I could get to the end of an interview without talking about diversity,” is all Lester will say on the matter. Fair enough: he’s absolutely within his rights to be tired of constant questions about the colour of his skin – for him it’s not actually that remarkable to be cast in such a role, since being a middle class Dad is everyday life for lots of people in Britain.
Still, Undercover will surely end up making far more headlines for the reasons he hopes: the fabulously tense story of a family – and a legal system – dealing with an extraordinary situation.
Undercover premieres on BBC First at 10pm on Monday