Onion Talking: Dave Lambert goes Under Cover
This week sees the launch of Undercover – the new sitcom starring Daniel Rigby and Sarah Alexander. In it, Rigby plays hapless detective Chris Anderson, who goes undercover within the Sarkissian crime syndicate in an attempt to nail the head honcho Ara, and Alexander is his uncompromising boss, Zoe Keller.
One of a string of new, original comedy commissions by freeview channel Dave, the show is directed by none other than Boosh veteran and Common Ground director Dave Lambert.
In the middle of his hectic schedule, we caught up with Lambo to ask him a few undercover questions of our own.
Every now and then on wonderfully named freeview channel Dave, they’ll replay an episode of Mock the Week, which will make a big joke out of the fact that their last joke was going to feel so out of date for the people watching on Dave all those years later. Because, in fairness, that’s exactly what Dave has been known for in recent years: wall to wall Top Gear by day, wall to wall Mock The Week/Russell Howard’s Good News/Red Dwarf by night.
However, that last show brought about a sea of change in the channel’s fortunes. When BBC Two passed on making more Red Dwarf in 2009, ten years after the last series aired, Dave – who were already having lots of success with their repeats of the Crimson Short One’s adventures – stumped up the cash. The result was a record breaking audience. Another full series followed suit in 2012, with two more filming back to back at the end of this year. Suddenly, Dave found they could have just as much success making their own shows as they could repeating the same old shows for all eternity, if not more so.
The upshot of that has been felt across the last few years with a string of occasional commissions, including the sublime Crackanory, but this week sees the channel stick two new flagpoles in the ground and hope the wind doesn’t knock them over. There’s mockumentary Hoff the Record, in which David Hasselhoff rips his persona to shreds in the name of comedy, and then there’s Undercover – which, if you don’t count the hilarious pilot to their aborted Zimbani in 2010, is the channel’s first actual original sitcom about a policeman in deep surveillance as he tries to take down an Armenian crime syndicate from the inside.
At the helm is Dave Lambert: a director who cut his teeth making behind the scenes features for The Mighty Boosh and Gavin & Stacey before taking on Alan Partridge in Welcome to the Places of My Life, and helming Sky Atlantic’s brilliant series of shorts, Common Ground. With Undercover, he shares the channel’s sitcom virginity, in spite of a long legacy of great comedic output.
“I knew I always wanted to be a director,” he tells TVO as we grab a moment of his time after a preview of the first two episodes. “But I was never sure of the route to get there. There are so many ways you can do it. My personal ethos was to learn as much as possible from everyone involved in the production of a tv show, and then I would understand where everyone is coming from when I was directing.”
Judging by the evidence of Undercover‘s opening installments, he learnt a lot. The show is visually impressive, with Lambert working with Director of Photography Si Bell, and production designer Jim Holloyway to create a look that is playful with the format of ‘cop-shows’ and has a truly cinematic feel. This contrasts nicely with the Zucker-esque broad gags whilst supporting the considered, often gritty plots. “The jokes were there when I came on board,” Lambert explains. “I had to work out how to accommodate them and the reality of the plots. I always thought it had to look authentic to the genre to succeed and to play the whole thing as straight as possible, as that’s when the silly moments really sing.”
“I always wanted it to have a cinematic feel,” he continues, “and the faded colour scheme was really important to make it feel real. We watched a lot of clips of Scorsese films. Jim has worked on so many comedies over the years, and is fantastic. We found an empty rundown restaurant in the heart of Newcastle that he converted into Vartan’s, the Sarkissian restaurant that acts as a front for their operation. It looks stunning and just has such great texture to it. Totally authentic.”
Indeed, the viewer is thrust straight into the dangerous situations that Chris Anderson, our titular undercover cop in disguise as Christapour Gergorian, is placed in. The screen is filled with close-ups and tight angles, the cameras handheld to give a natural unsteadiness that puts audiences right in the thick of it.
“I always felt we needed to do that from the off,” Lambert confirms. “To see the world through Chris’ eyes. The viewers need to feel they are in his shoes, scared when he’s scared, or laughing when he does something ridiculous or idiotic. The one line pitch for the show was: Imagine Woody Allen in The Sopranos. He’s a guy who is terrified of being killed, whilst trying to have sex.”
Put like that, the comedy angle becomes a lot clearer. Because let’s face it: an undercover cop investigating Armenian gangsters is not your typical basis for a comedy. “Anything different or out of the ordinary is always good in my book,” Lambert enthuses when this suggestion is put to him. “I was sent the scripts and I just loved them. I read them all in one sitting, and instantly knew I had to do the job. I really liked the idea of making a cop-show, gangster film and comedy hybrid but within a culture that isn’t really represented on TV.”
Undercover was a long time coming. A pilot was shot two years ago, with another director, though parts of it survive in the opening episode. However, there was still a lot of scope for Lambo to add his own touches across the production, right down to finer details: indeed, the first joke to truly hit its target comes not from the script, but when the director has fun playing with the format. As Chris walks down the street, the generic cop-show music soars: he steps into a cafe, the door bleeps open, and the music cuts out. Simple, but effective.
“With that moment,” Lambert explains, “it wasn’t in the script, but I wanted the audience to have a moment up front where we show them what you would expect to hear in the genre, straight to the normality. The audience gets the tone early on, and we had more beats like that written in, or added while shooting. It’s my job to serve the script and bring anything else I can to the table to enhance that blueprint. We found over the course of shooting the series that new things come up. You tweak lines here and there, question whether characters would do what they are doing. The scripts were really solid from the off, so nothing major, but things do develop and change when you have all this great talent on set.”
Naturally, that paves the way for improvisation in the right situations. “Dan Rigby is great at coming up with extra Chris-isms that he would throw in on the day,” says Lambert, filled with enthusiasm for his star. “That man is incredible,” he continues. “He really prepares and arrives on set with a delivery of a line that I never saw coming. If there’s time on the day and the atmosphere is right then it’s always great to have a play with the scene and have a fun run take. It’s really based on the schedule for me, and getting through the day with all the material you need.”
When Lambert came on board Undercover, Rigby had already been cast as Chris, but he stresses he honestly cannot see anyone else playing the part. However, it took a while for them to find the right person to play his boss, Zoe, until Green Wing veteran Sarah Alexander came along. “We saw a lot of people,” Lambert reveals. “They’d come in and do great things, but it wasn’t until Sarah came in that we saw the complete character. Her first read was incredible, and there was instant chemistry with Daniel. I just knew we had found our Zoe.”
The duo are ably supported by some great talent filling out the cast, with the opening episodes including the likes of Being Human‘s Michael Socha, Sherlock‘s Yasmine Akram, Up The Women‘s Ryan Sampson and a preview for Episode Three revealing Comic Strip veteran Keith Allan crops up as a hardcase ex-con. Natuarlly, Lambert is full of admiration for his cast.
“Everyone you mentioned,” he insists, “makes directing this show a joy. Mark Heap also appears later in the series and is hilarious. It was a great highlight to direct him, as I’ve been a fan for many years. Ivan Kaye, who plays Ara’s right hand man Garabad is fantatic, both visually and comically. he is such a scary and commanding presence on screen, but plays the comic moments so brilliantly.”
The cast helped Lambert acclimatise to his first long-form narrative: five weeks of filming with them allowing the building of a shorthand and complete investment in the work. In retrospect, whilst the end result is a different form, this is no different to Lambert’s previous work filming behind the scenes on all three series of The Mighty Boosh. The director insists he simply wanted to tell stories, and that they ended up being documentaries at first owes more to circumstance than any original intent: the first series of Boosh shared a producer, Alison MacPhail, with Baby Cow’s Cruise of the Gods, which he had previously worked on, and therefore he was a logical choice for the job, as we’ve previously discussed.
“I knew they were great,” he states when it is noted he was there to chart the rise of the Boosh from television newbies to international superstars. “But I didn’t ever imagine I’d be filming them performing live at the Roxy in LA, with Robin Williams in the audience!”
His work on the Boosh then led to work with one of big bosses of Baby Cow: Steve Coogan. After editing Mid Morning Matters, Lambert was asked to direct and produce the one-off special Welcome to the Places in My Life, and he is filled with praise for the megastar turned studio head honcho. “Steve is great to work with,” he tells TVO, “as he has an attention to detail that is second to none. I’ve learnt so much from him and Henry Normal [the other half of Baby Cow’s top tier], and the environment they foster is very creative. There’s no change whether you are on set together or having a meeting in the office.”
Up next for Lambert is editing a Channel 4 Comedy Blap he’s directed entitled High and Dry starring Mark Wootten (La La Land), Harry Peacock, Jessie Cave and Asim Chauhdry, which he says was great to shoot. This week also sees the launch of a series of iPlayer shorts he’s directed to tie in with Ramadan featuring five up and coming Muslim comedic talents. But of course, Undercover is still on the agenda, and should Dave the channel want Dave the director to return for a second run, there’s still lots of scope for fresh ideas to add to the mix.
“As much as we hit the ground running on the very first day of the shoot,” he insists, “by the end we really felt we nailed the DNA of the show. When it airs, I think viewers will enjoy the journey over the six episodes. There’s a real build, twists and turns, surprises and lots of laughs. I would love to return to do more, as I think we’re only at the start of Chris and Zoe’s story, and there is so much left to do and see. Andrew Milligan (co-writer/co-creator) and I speak at least twice a week at the moment about possible scenarios, scenes and even shots if we get a second series.”
Here is, of course, hoping. Undercover is broad and wears its influences on its sleeve, but it’s also great fun, is stylishly shot and edited, and demonstrates that there is far more to Dave the channel than repeats of old panel shows. As their first true original sitcom, they couldn’t have been bolder, and alongside Hoff the Record, TVO hopes they demonstrate a channel willing to buck the trend and find an audience willing to take them to heart. And if, for any reason, these six episodes are all we’re gonna get, Lambert has made a show to be proud of.
“By the time you get to Episode Five,” he enthuses when pushed for a favourite moment, “everything I mentioned is in place, but you’re so invested in the characters and know their world, I think it just flies and sets up a thrilling finale that…”
He pauses, and thinks for a moment. “I have to stop myself now as I’m getting excited and might reveal something big!” Guess we’ll just have to stay tuned, then!
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