Tuesday 19 April 2016

Why Undercover feels like one of the most important TV dramas for a long time

We are only three episodes into Peter Moffat’s drama, Undercover, on BBC1, and already it feels like one of the most important television events for years.

Why do I say that?

Well, for starters, the two lead actors – Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester - are both Black. They are playing a professional couple with a family. They have Black friends. They have a history of Black activism – especially Okonedo’s character, Maya, who is a lawyer working in both England and the US. Many of the supporting characters are Black.

We get to see a Black family doing ordinary things – eating pasta, driving to Cornwall, coping with the everyday problems of a special needs teenager. We see Okonedo and Lester in bed together, talking and having the sort of married-for-a-long-time sex that is as likely to end in hysterical laughter as grand passion.

Secondly, in the first few minutes of the programme, we are hit with the full horror of the system of capital punishment in the US – something that affects the Black population out of all proportion. We are told things I was aware of via Reprieve or the New Jim Crow – e.g. that you can’t serve on a jury for a capital case if you don’t support the death sentence, or that there are jails where the entire population is Black. But we see details that could never have imagined - such as the radio station that follows executions blow by blow, plays Arthur Brown’s ‘Fire’ with triumphalist glee and then does a countdown to the moment of the lethal injection is given.

But it is very easy for us in Britain to point at America and tell ourselves that all these problems are ‘over there.’ That we, here, have nothing to worry about. Undercover does not let us off the hook so easily. In the core of the story, back in London, we are forced to confront
  • The consequences of police brutality and institutionalised racism in the UK
  • The lengths the establishment are prepared to go to cover it up
  • The cynical use of undercover policemen to build relationships with those under surveillance
Moffat has the compassion, too, to look at the question of the undercover policeman from both sides, to imagine the price paid by someone who gives up their own life to live that of their ‘legend.’

It is a shame that Undercover does not also showcase the work of a Black writer and director. But that doesn’t, I hope, detract from what Peter Moffat and James Hawes have achieved. There are little moments that demonstrate that Moffat has been listening with sensitivity. Moments like the conversation between Maya and the man she is defending on Death Row, dismissed by the Radio DJ as ‘a talk about hair products’ but which is really about Maya’s daughter and how she connects with her Black identity. Then there is throwaway line on the daughter’s arrival, as a new student, at her Oxford college. She is approached by an older Black student who has been assigned to be her ‘college mum.’ “It’s usually a mum and a dad,” she says, “but I hope you don’t mind having a single parent.” No need to spell out why they couldn’t find her a ‘college dad.’

Undercover is blowing me away, and I can’t wait to find where it takes us next. I just hope that, for once, this will prove to be a door opening to a new kind of normal, and not just a tick in a box marked ‘diversity’ that can then be safely forgotten about for another ten years.

Edit after watching final episode:
Wow! Yes I know there were some plot holes, but not nearly as many as you would think from reading Twitter. (Weren't people paying attention?) But there was a moment towards the end of the episode when I screamed so loudly that my son came running to see if I was all right. That was the level of my emotional investment in the story. Or more particularly, in the family at the heart of the story, so brilliantly created by Adrian Lester and Sophie Okonedo. Do I want to see a second series? Hell, yes!

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