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7 April 2016updated 03 Aug 2021 10:27am

Peter Moffat’s gripping new drama tackles the question of undercover policing

Undercover is a pleasingly intriguing addition to the BBC's line-up. Plus: Workers or Shirkers? reviewed.

By Rachel Cooke

I seemed not to have much of an appetite for the excessively trailed Undercover (Sundays, 9pm), in which Adrian Lester plays an ex-cop, and Sophie Okonedo the barrister to whom he has been married for 20 years. But then I discovered that it’s by Peter Moffat (Silk, Criminal Justice), at which point I thought I’d give it a whirl after all. I relish Moffat’s writing, or I do when lawyers are involved. He makes them seem so sexy and witty and vital, a bit like journalists used to be before the internet and Evgeny Lebedev.

Anyway, it’s good (so far). Moffat obviously read about the undercover Metropolitan Police officers who deceived the women on whom they were spying into relationships, and felt, as we all did, appalled. Unlike the rest of us, he has imagined more fully the emotional consequences of such lies, not only for the women but, in this case, for the copper, too – a man who’s in so deep, it’s his phoney life that’s real to him now (he met Maya when she was just an activist, but their marriage has long outlived his police career). What to do when you’ve promised to take your wife and children to Cornwall just as your father – of whose existence they are unaware – is dying? Moffat had Nick (Lester) go away nevertheless, a decision both utterly ruthless and utterly convincing, psychologically. The compartmentaliser won’t, can’t make exceptions. The sealed box is everything, even if he ends up living inside one himself.

“I could just tell her,” he said, when a former colleague threatened to reveal the truth to Maya (Okonedo). But he won’t, of course. Some lies are surmountable; this one – I’m not who you think I am – truly isn’t. For the time being, then, he’s going to have to feed his ex-pals the information they require; assuming that Maya, soon to be the next director of public prosecutions, does indeed decide to investigate further a death in which they, and perhaps Nick, were involved (which she will). All this is pleasingly intriguing. What worries me is how Maya’s client Rudy (Dennis Haysbert), on death row in Louisiana, fits in. The police investigations wall on which his image appears alongside that of Michael Antwi, her dead activist friend, and dozens of others, is now so covered in drawing pins and string, it’s starting to look a bit Seventies macramé, not to mention loopy.

This – the macramé, I mean – seems all of a piece with the weird retro vibe at the BBC just now. On BBC4, for instance, James May has a new show (James May: the Reassembler) in which he puts something (say, an old lawnmower) back together while we look on, trying to remember the name of the bloke who used to present a show from inside a shed (it was Jack Hargreaves, if you’re stuck). Then again, perhaps there’s nothing new in heaven or earth, or even on television. In Workers or Shirkers? (7 April, 8pm) Ian Hislop unpicked the lately refreshed notion of the deserving poor, with help from White Dee – “I’ll be single mother,” he joked, pouring the tea – and Iain Duncan Smith, who had the temerity to fight hot tears as he spoke of a struggling 19-year-old he’d once met. Listening to both, Hislop looked on smilingly, never uttering a word of judgement, and somehow never needing to.

The documentary traced the conviction that some people deserve their lot back to Edwin Chadwick and his workhouses, and forward to George Osborne and his speech about the feelings of shift workers who rise early only to see their neighbours’ curtains drawn. Not, of course, that Labour types have much right to be pious about this stuff, for all that some of them were just that in Hislop’s film. What short memories they keep, and how prone they are to sanctimony. Take Margaret Bondfield, the shop girl who became our first female cabinet minister. Having voted in Ramsay MacDonald’s 1931 cabinet in favour of welfare cuts, poor Maggie has since been written out of Labour history. When Hislop touted her sweet bun face around Wallsend, which she once represented in parliament, not a soul recognised her. In the end, he left her photo at a charity shop, a monument to a different kind of moral judgement, but a judgement all the same.

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war