MIPTV: 'Undercover' Writer Talks "Desperate Paucity of Black Lead Characters" on U.K. TV

Undercover, Sophie Okonedo, Adrian Lester - H 2016

The BBC Worldwide drama from Peter Moffat is seen as a British TV milestone for having two black actors — Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester — in the lead roles.

Among the many British series heading to MIPTV in Cannes this weekend is BBC Worldwide's Undercover, the latest offering from playwright and screenwriter Peter Moffat, best known for the legal dramas Silk, Criminal Justice and North Square, as well as 2004's Benedict Cumberbatch-breakout Stephen Hawking biopic Hawking.

Starring Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda, The Secret Life of Bees) and Adrian Lester (Hustle, The Day After Tomorrow), Undercover — which will air on BBC One in the U.K. and BBC America in the U.S. — is a six-parter following a family torn apart after a major deception that has been going on for 20 years is uncovered.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Moffat discusses the harrowing real-life stories that gave him the inspiration, and casting two black actors in lead roles while a diversity debate still rages across the British TV industry.

You’re best known for legal dramas, but this seems a slight venture away. Where did the idea come from?

The initial idea came from the true stories of women we're married to, had children with and sometimes had long, long relationships with men before coming to realize that they were undercover police officers. That was the starting point, and it felt like natural drama territory.

Is Undercover a dramatization of one of these real-life stories?

My version of that story is entirely made up. I didn’t base it on any of the women I met and talked to and got stuff from, partly because of the legal proceedings — some are still ongoing. There was a massive apology from the Metropolitan Police. “We’re so sorry, grovel grovel grovel.”

Wasn’t that quite recent?

Yeah, about a month ago. One of the women is carrying on — she hasn’t settled.

How were the women that you met?

I think obviously they’re very damaged and traumatized by it. Most of them actually thought this was "the one." Because that’s the point. If you’re infiltrating the life of somebody by forming a relationship with them, it’s pretty important that that person loves and adores you and then gives you everything that you want from it. What’s really interesting to me though, as well, was that in several incidents the men who are doing the spying are also falling in love with the women that they’re spying on. Where does that leave them?

So how did you eventually frame the story?

It’s set in two time periods. In 1996, when Sophie and Adrian’s characters get together. At this point she has no idea who he is. That’s the story in that period — how they get together, why, what happens and how the relationship grows and shifts. And two-thirds of it is set today, when they have three teenage children. She’s about to become the director of public prosecutions; she’s about to become a really significant and important public figure. At which point you might think the darker areas of the police force and other agencies might have an interest in what she’s thinking … and off you go.

How would describe Undercover?

Well, it’s a thriller, it’s a political thriller and a thriller thriller, in that there’s real danger in it, to be a bit crass. It’s also a relationship drama. It’s also about a family and what happens to them when they’re put under the most serious pressure you can possibly imagine. It’s full of good questions, I think. What if you’ve been happy for 20 years and stuff comes out that means you can’t be together? Do you tell the children? And if you tell the children what does that mean for them, as their lives are over? So maybe you don’t tell them. Maybe you have to stay together but you can’t because your life has been a lie. Hasn’t it? What is lying? It’s very interesting.

The real-life cases were highly publicized in the U.K. Has there been anything similar in the U.S.? What do you think the reaction to Undercover would be there?

In the States, my experience over the last couple of months is that everyone goes, "Jesus f––ing Christ, you’re kidding," and then asks, "Does that happen here?" To which my answer is, "I bet you, but we don’t know about it." There are no stories that I’m aware of in the States of this happening. But I’m quite interested actually in a reformatted U.S. version, just on the basis of those reactions. I’d like to have a pretty serious dig and see what I can come up with.

With Sophie and Adrian, you have an example of a fantastic, diverse lead cast, something unusual on British TV. What are your thoughts on the ongoing debate about diversity?

I think it’s a bit shameful. I think there’s a desperate paucity of black lead characters in mainstream television drama. I don’t understand the reason for it. I can’t bear it that television has been so slow in growing up about it. I don’t get it, I don’t understand it and I dislike it. That sounds quite serious and angry, but I am a bit angry actually. I don’t want to call [Undercover] a worthy enterprise, but I feel cross enough to think when I started this I thought, "Sophie is the lead character, Adrian is her partner. They’re definitely a black family." And crucially, and unlike Luther — which by the way I think is fantastic — lots of their friends are black, as is sometimes the way.

Where do you think the fault lies — the people at the top making the decisions or a skewed idea of what audiences want to see?

I think it’s a combination of things. You and I, for example, might describe ourselves as living in a tolerant society in Britain in terms of ethnic issues and diversity. Look up the word tolerant and it’s "enduring pain," which isn’t so great. I actually think we’re a little complacent about where we think we’re at. I kind of feel we’ve got a zone of comfort where we feel that we’re living and coexisting very happily and all that, but my experience talking to my black friends is that that isn’t true.