INTERVIEW: Dave Lambert | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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A fan of police crime dramas but also love to laugh? Then Undercover might just be the new series you’ve been waiting for. Shot on location in Newcastle, the new TV show from Baby Cow Productions is starting on alternative comedy channel Dave in June, with a special preview screening and Q&A taking place at the Toon’s own Tyneside Cinema next week.

Starring BAFTA Award-winner Daniel Rigby (Eric and Ernie), Sarah Alexander (Green Wing), Brett Goldstein (Derek), Ryan Sampson (Plebs) and Yasmine Akram (Stella), Undercover tells the story of Rigby’s traffic policeman Chris. Neurotic and over analytical, Chris also happens to be an undercover policeman embedded into vicious Armenian crime family The Sarkissians; his jobs mainly involve not getting himself killed and trying to blend into the macho world. It’s an easy life, really. Each week, Chris has to deal with another crisis in his job, leading to some amazing hijinks.

The series is directed by Dave Lambert, who has previously worked on such iconic shows as I’m Alan Partridge and The Mighty Boosh. Ahead of a preview screening at the Tyneside Cinema next week, I caught up with Dave to ask him more about the project and filming in Newcastle.

Where did the idea for Undercover come from?

The idea came from a conversation between writers Sacha Alexander and Andy Milligan about five and a half years ago – the starting point was how men deal with the issues of being sensitive while trying to be strong. Once they started to develop the idea their tag line became “Imagine Woody Allen trapped in The Sopranos.” Henry Normal at Baby Cow Productions suggested drawing inspiration from Sacha’s Armenian heritage (his family aren’t gangsters though) and put Chris within the Sarkissian family.

What attracted you to the project?

Primarily the scripts. I read them in one sitting and adored them. The characters flew off the page and the gags came thick and fast. I started drawing all over the script during that first read as I could see lots of the shots and set ups straight away.

How did you assemble such a well-known cast for the roles?

We went through a casting process. When you start production the script is full of clues, some obvious descriptions and some hidden in dialogue. Actors come in and read for the parts. We were lucky as the scripts attracted some big names. Sarah knocked it out the park in her first read, she totally inhabited the character of Zoe. Ryan Sampson was just hilarious in his read, he had to be Stepan. Every day Daniel Rigby was just amazing on set, he finds new ways of doing the same line again and again – he’s a joy to work with.

When you were filming Undercover, what was your vision? How did you want the show to look on screen?

To sum it up in a few words, Undercover is a gangster film with jokes. It’s also got a police procedural element but I always wanted it to be visually reminiscent of gangster films I love: Goodfellas, Casino, Donnie Brasco. When discussing the Sarkissian’s environment with the DOP Si Bell and the designer Jim Holloway I kept using the phrase “faded glory.” Nothing should look new in their world, all a bit worn and textured.

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“The characters flew off the page and the gags came thick and fast”

Previously, you’ve worked on both Alan Partridge and The Mighty Boosh; how does Undercover compare to those shows in a comedic sense? Is it surreal or more grounded in everyday humour?

I think for comedy to work it has to have a footing in reality in some way to allow the audience in. Alan Partridge could exist in real life and anybody can tell you if a TV/radio presenter who reminds them of Partridge or has said something Partridgesque. The Boosh at its heart is a double act, two friends put into surreal situations. Undercover is set very much in the real world and the comedy comes from a Woody Allen type character – Chris (Daniel Rigby) thrust into this family of tough Armenian gangsters. There are definitely surreal moments, I think it’s always great to surprise an audience with a different type of joke or story beat as often as you can. It keeps the narrative fresh.

Why did you decide to film the series in Newcastle?

Our brilliant producer Margery Bone is originally from Newcastle and has great links to the crews up there and great knowledge of the city. We knew we could get really interesting locations that haven’t been filmed to death and also I just fell in love with the city. The contrast between the old and the new and the area around the quayside and Sandhill just gave us some great visuals.

What was the experience of filming in Newcastle like? Would you film in the north east again if you had the chance?

I would come back in a heartbeat. The city gave us so much and everyone was incredibly welcoming. The local crew were brilliant and I just can’t see the show being shot anywhere else.

Undercover will be having a special preview screening and Q&A session at the Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle on Tuesday 19th May.

Undercover starts on Dave from Tuesday 16th June at 9pm, repeated Thursday 18th June at 10pm. 

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