Legal dramas are invariably bedevilled by overacting and wild scenarios which bear little comparison with what really goes on in the criminal justice system. These misgivings aside, I was attracted by the presence of two talented black actors, Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester in the lead roles as Maya and Nick.
Episode 1 begins with a flourish. A juggernaut bears down on Maya’s car as she struggles to answer a crucial phone call. She is racing to Louisiana where her client Rudy Jones is waiting to be executed.
The discussion that follows between the pair reminded me of the perspective presented by Bryan Stevenson in his brilliant indictment of the US legal system, Just Mercy. The tearful conversation ends with Rudy urging his lawyer to “go big”. Maya promises him that she will and she is soon presented with a career choice that should allow her to do precisely that.
It was her work as a radical lawyer in Britain that led to Maya’s 20-year involvement with Rudy. She is urged to take up his case by the fiery Black Nationalist Michael Antwi. Maya first encounters Antwi in the mid-1990s when the latter is at a public meeting highlighting the injustice faced by Rudy.
Nick is in the audience and quickly impresses Antwi and his associates with a furious denunciation of a black police officer at a community meeting. Maya and Nick begin a lasting and seemingly loving relationship. As the series title and an earlier scene indicate however, Nick has a more sinister reason for ingratiating himself with the anti-racist activists. As we return to today, the events of the 1990s come back to present him with a compromising dilemma.
Undercover was created and written by Peter Moffatt whose previous work includes Silk. One of the series consultants is Clive Stafford Smith, the founding director of human rights advocacy group Reprieve who has a practice in both the UK and US. I was reassured by this and have been impressed by the series so far. It is good to see such a dramatisation on mainstream TV.
On the very day that I watched episode 2, Lord Justice Pitchford was presiding over a hearing of the Undercover Policing Inquiry. Home secretary Theresa May was forced to announce the inquiry following a number of damning revelations about the surveillance of justice groups, political and environmental campaigns over a 40-year period.
Undercover dramatises real events. Officers in groups such as the Special Demonstration Squad really did steal dead children’s identities, lie to their families and sleep with female activists. Whether Maya can really “go big” remains to be seen.