Greg James on Dead Air

SOURCE: The Velvet Onion
Monday, 13th July sees the launch of the latest batch of BBC Comedy Feeds – taster pilots for potential new shows launched exclusively on BBC iPlayer.
Naturally, there’s a whole host of TVO talent involved on both sides of the camera, with the likes of Michael Smiley, Ellie White, Alice’s Wunderland producer Sam Bryant and House of Fools producer Lisa Clark involved in various productions across the set.
The biggest TVO conglomerate however, is in Dead Air – Tiger Aspect’s sitcom featuring Radio One DJ Greg James alongside TVO regulars Tom Davis and Nico Tatarowicz, and music by Waen Shepherd.
Intrigued by the project, TVO readily agreed to talk to one of the biggest names in broadcasting about his move into comedy. Here are the results.
© BBC / Ray Burmiston

Mick Jagger’s accent in Ned Kelly. David Bowie’s package in Labyrinth and Lily Allen’s ill-fated chat show – showbiz history is littered with moments a star tried to do something different, and faced derision evermore. Doing something different, when audiences know you as one thing, can be tricky, and only a select few make it out the other side in one piece. If there’s any justice in the world, Greg James will be one of them.

Best known for his work on Radio One since 2007 – he’s presented the Drive Time show since 2012, and recently took over the revamped Radio One Chart Show – James has fused his radio broadcasting with work presenting a string of BBC Three shows and last year’s Invictus Games closing ceremony. To the outside world, he’s following the path of a standard BBC radio presenter. You could almost smell a stint on The One Show lurking in his future.

Yet there’s a lot more to Greg James than first meets the eye, and this year has provided him with not one, but two opportunities to begin the second stage of his career. Following a guest appearance in BBC Three’s sublime Murder in Successville alongside Tom DavisColin Hoult and Cariad Lloyd earlier this year, James is about to unleash his debut as a writer: the sitcom pilot Dead Air, which launches as part of this Summer’s latest batch of Comedy Feeds, and reunites him with Davis and fellow Murder in Successville alumni Nico Tatarowicz and Waen Shepherd, the latter of whom scored both productions.

“For me, it’s not a shock,” Greg tells TVO as we catch up to talk about his first steps into alternative comedy. “The shock for me would be to not try it out. I’ve always been acting. I did a drama degree. I did the National Youth Theatre, and all that stuff. But I understand it will be to a lot of other people. It’s very difficult to not be put in a box, but I’m going to try my best.”

Dead Air is certainly an impressive starting point. The 17-minute taster features James, perhaps understandably as a cool, late-night DJ called Jake Cross, working for a commercial radio-station with a loyal fan-base and real credibility. But when the brash, loud-mouthed breakfast DJ dies on air, there’s an opportunity for Jake to take over his show, and he must battle the moral dilemma that potential fame and fortune in return for doing fart jokes, prank calls and silly voices first thing in the morning offers. Does he make the move and lose his credibility, but get to hang out in exclusive nightclubs and savour the massive boost to his public image?

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

“Obviously, the inspiration for it,” Greg explains, “comes from everything that I’ve experienced and been part of for the last eight years on Radio One. I heard an interview with Ricky Gervais, and he said you’ve got to write about what you know. I realised about two years ago that this industry is funny. The people in it are funny, the conversations are funny. The real jumping off point was when the breakfast show gig at Radio One did come up. I’d just been given the Drive Time show, and was incredibly happy, because things had gone better than I ever thought they would do. Everyone else was going: ‘Oh my god, you should do the breakfast show!’, and that made me go: Should I? Do I want it? I thought that dilemma, and that peer pressure was an amazing basis for a show, so I elaborated on it and took it to really strange places.”

It would, perhaps, have been easy for Dead Air to be a cheap bit of filler, but Greg’s passion for the project and determination to take it seriously has led to the assembly of an impressive team making his idea come to life. The production is being made by Psychobitches producer Ben Cavey’s new company Cave Bear Productions, produced by Arnold Widdowson (Crackanory, Grandma’s House) and directed by Simon Gibney (Horrible Histories, Watson & Oliver). On co-writing duties are Mark Chappell and Shaun Pye, who previously collaborated on Daniel Radcliffe and John Hamm vehicle A Young Doctor’s Notebook and before that, cult favourite The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret starring Sharon Horgan and David Cross. Even for a broadcaster as established as James, it could be very easy to be overwhelmed by the interest in his concept from the get-go.

“It was a really brilliant, collaborative effort, and I was quite sad when it ended.”

“I was quite daunted to begin with,” he reveals. “I’d known their work, and they came highly recommended. I went to see [Chappell & Pye], fully expecting them to think I was just a radio knob who didn’t know what he was doing. It was really lovely, actually. They were very supportive of the idea, and realised quite quickly that I wasn’t just doing this for a laugh, and I wanted to take it very seriously. They were very generous letting me take the reins, offering support and helping me shape it into a story. That was what I didn’t have enough experience doing and needed help with. I could write jokes, and come up with character ideas, but actually coming up with a beginning, middle and end is, I suppose, what I was struggling with.”

“I found the whole thing absolutely the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done,” he continues, full of genuine enthusiasm. “It was a pinch yourself moment when we sat in a room at the BBC for nights on end. One of us would stay at the computer, and the others would just walk around and say ideas and lines, and all the rest of it. It was a really brilliant, collaborative effort, and I was quite sad when it ended.”

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

It may come as a surprise to many, but James is a self-confessed comedy nerd, even down to choosing to base the writing sessions in the ‘Basil Fawlty Room’ at the BBC, due Fawlty Towers kick-starting his fascination with comedy at an early age.

“My first ever real obsession,” he explains, “to the point where I would get my mum to go and buy me the script book was Fawlty Towers, and it made me realise how incredible a story you have to create. As a kid, I just thought: Who is that funny tall man running around? I like this, and I like how he hits that man over the head with a spoon. As I grew up and read about John Cleese, and learnt about Monty Python and Michael Palin and all that, I realised I love the way they’d write things and the characters they created.”

“I love creating stuff that wasn’t there before. That’s what really drives me to carry on.”

Indeed, it was Palin who inspired Greg to take the plunge into making Dead Air a reality. “Really, Cleese and Palin are my real heroes,” he gushes, with the sense he could talk about Python for hours on end, “particularly Michael Palin, because what I learnt a few years ago after reading and then, nerdily re-reading his diaries – which I can’t really say much on Radio One because it’s not relevant to that audience – is that you don’t have to just stay doing one thing. I think he was a real idol of mine, because I saw him as the guy who did Around the World in 80 Days, but as I got older I realised he was also in Monty Python, he was a writer, an actor, a director, he’s also a playwright… he’s everything! Reading about people like him made me go: Okay, I’ve done one thing, but I don’t just want to be the Radio One guy forever.”

“To a certain extent,” he adds, “I’ve always loved performing. Radio One is an amazingly creative place, because they let you do stuff. I know I wouldn’t have wanted to do it as long as I have if I’d been on a station where it’s all about reading the travel news then playing the hits. For want to a better phrase, I’ve always liked arsing around. It really started out of student radio, where I’d get some mates in and we’d just do stuff. It was a dream of mine to be on Radio One, but now it’s happened, I feel it’s a good time to explore some of my other passions as well. I’m an absolute nerd on everything I’m passionate about, whether its comedy, or cricket, or the radio. Those are my passions and they’re the things that keep me going. But I love creating stuff that wasn’t there before. That’s what really drives me to carry on.”

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

Back to Dead Air, then, and another stand-out point is the impressive cast. Alongside James and Tom Davis as his disgusting agent Perry, are an impressive team: from The Thick of It’s Olivia Poulet as his neurotic producer to Ashes to Ashes star Montserrat Lombard as the widow of the late breakfast show host. Also along for the ride are Richard David-Caine (Skins) as Jake’s idiotic best friend; Nico Tartarowicz as an over-enthusiastic fan; and stand-up veteran Jared Christmas as a rival DJ from another station. Understandably, Greg is full of praise for the team.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have been surrounded by those people,” he affirms. “It was really helpful for me, because I needed people with experience around me. I had confidence I could do it, but I couldn’t possibly have been there worrying about the other cast members as well. I had to leave the writing at the door, and go and try and be this person. I got on really well with [Tom] on Murder in Successville, so to have him there as my co-star was great. And Jared is someone I’d watched doing stand-up over the last couple of years, and always thought he’d be great as a big brash Aussie, even though he’s from New Zealand. Then to get a touch of class with people like Olivia and Montserrat. When we got a yes from them, I thought: this is getting real now. I’m very happy, because they’re a talented bunch.”

“One of my favourite characters in the whole thing,” he continues, “who we’ll definitely revisit if he wants to do it, is Nico. He completely got it. He absolutely nailed that character, and if the full series comes about he’s the first name on the call sheet for me. The most amazing thing about the day we filmed with Nico was that we did it outside the BBC, and when we finished and walked through the main exit, there was a guy who was the spitting image of Nico, actually waiting for me outside the BBC. It was art imitating life with the most ridiculous thing ever.”

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

It’s also safe to say, TVO asserts, that following Murder in Successville earlier this year, Dead Air continues the rise of James and Davis, one of TV’s great power-couples, to which Greg is reduced to giggles.

“We get on very well,” he states when he calms down a bit. “We met when we did the taster tape for Murder in Successville, which was just as I was starting to write Dead Air. I always had the idea for Perry [Jake’s agent] to be an absolute shitbag. He’d be really nasty and gross, but the audience would love him and want to see more of him.” He stops and laughs again. “I think Tom is one of those people in real life. He looks very frightening. He’s very imposing, and quite scary when you first meet him, but then you realise he’s actually very soft, and very warm. And he’s a brilliant performer, which goes without saying. I had him in mind as we were writing. I really wanted him to say those lines. And genuinely, one of my favourite things I’ve ever done was doing Murder in Successville with him.”

“I was just sort of fascinated she was sat in a warehouse in Middlesex… …touching me up and talking about my cock like it was a Toblerone.”

For the uninitiated, Murder in Successville saw Tom Davis play a gruff, useless detective partnered with a different celebrity ‘rookie’ each week, as the two investigated a murder in the fictional titular town. The culprit was inevitably one of the various showbiz inhabitants they’d meet along the way, played by a variety of comedy legends – with Tony WayHarry PeacockTom MeetenGemma Whelan and many more popping up throughout the run. In Greg’s episode, he would meet three potential suspects: local priest Gary Barlow (Colin Hoult), casino owner Justin Bieber (Cariad Lloyd) and strip-club baroness Mary Berry (Frances Barber): and the result is an experience Greg will never forget.

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

“It was the most enjoyable thing I’ve done in front of a camera really, until Dead Air¸because that’s my baby. I had no script, so I felt very liberated. I’d done [improv] at university, putting on sketches and shows and all that, so it was just amazing to go in and be the bumbling sidekick. They genuinely don’t let you know anything about it.”

It must be weird, TVO opines, to see familiar faces like Frances Barber never dropping character with you.

“That was the weirdest one,” Greg agrees. “All I knew was I was at the door of Mary Berry’s strip club. I walked in, and looked at this lady, and in my head I’m going: ‘I quite recognise… on my god, it’s Frances Barber.’ So for the first take, I was just sort of fascinated that Frances Barber was sat in a warehouse in Middlesex, dressed as Mary Berry and smoking, touching me up, talking about my cock like it was a Toblerone. I had to get over that quite quickly.”

“It was quite a brave thing for the BBC to commission,” he continues, “because it’s not an instant get. You have to invest in it. I imagine for every person who gets it and loves it, there’s a person who goes: What the hell is this? I think you have to really invest in it, and then you get a lot out of it.”

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

Such is the case with Dead Air. There will be those who dismiss it as the whims of a celebrity DJ, just as there will always be people who can’t see past Bowie’s tights in Labyrinth to find the delightful adventure all around them. As an iPlayer Comedy Feeds pilot, those who watch will have to make the effort to do so – there’s no accidentally stumbling upon it, unknowing, and realising its hilarious. People will have to leave their prejudices at the door when they hit ‘play’.

TVO urges you to do so. With the help of an impressive team of creative talents, Greg James has made a confident and assured debut, and hopefully we’ll be seeing more of Jake, Perry and the rest of the team again very soon. He’s got lots of ideas for the show, and says the book of them is being added to every time he walks into his day job. Perhaps the final word should rest with Greg, and the way he explained his pet project to the cast when he approached them: “This is not a whim. I’m very serious about it. We’d love you to come in and give it a go.”

Dead Air is available to view on iPlayer from Monday 13th July.

Fergus Craig goes Hoff the Record

SOURCE: The Velvet Onion
This week sees the launch of Hoff the Record – the brand new partially improvised mockumentary about David Hasselhoff, in which the 80s legend stars alongside TVO regular Fergus Craig.
With numerous other familiar faces appearing across the run, and this being Fergus’ most high profile role in quite some time, we were keen to sit down with the man himself to learn a bit more about working with The Hoff, and his past, present and imminent future.

“He doesn’t look like anyone else in the room.”

Fergus Craig knocks it out of the park when his co-star in Dave’s new sitcom Hoff The Record is naturally, the topic of discussion.

“We’re all pale, podgy English people,” he adds, with humility, “and he looks like 1980s California. He doesn’t really look real. You can see why he was – and is – a superstar. You know, he might not be to everyone’s taste, or the coolest guy, or whatever, but he’s got that star quality to him.”

In terms of casting dynamics, it’s fair to say TVO really didn’t see this one coming.  Hoff the Record brings cult legend David Hasselhoff – seemingly immortalised thanks to his roles in Knight Rider and Baywatch – to a whole new audience as he stars in his own mockumentary sitcom, together with British comedian Fergus Craig – known for his roles in Star Stories, Sorry I’ve Got No Head and Colin & Fergus – as his useless sidekick.

Fergus Craig and David Hasselhoff standing on a hill in front of a large house.
© UK TV / Me & You Productions / Ollie Upton

Craig plays The Hoff’s dodgy British manager, Max Coleman, capitalising on his cult status in the UK to try and make some money off his back. In real life, Hasselhoff has had notable success in the UK over the last decade, including a top three hit in 2006, and a brief period as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent a few years later. In this fictionalised and exaggerated version of his life, however, the career has dried up, and he’s found himself completely unemployable in the States, whilst almost everyone here in the UK treats him like dirt. To his enormous credit, The Hoff has no qualms about making a fool of himself on screen.

“I think he really relishes it,” suggests Fergus of this persona assassination. “Max probably says the harshest things, and so far, so good.” He laughs, and adds: “He’s not got upset with me yet!”

Craig has form for poking fun out of celebrity egos – in Star Stories he got to play exaggerated versions of celebs as diverse as Sam Neil, Nigel Martin Smith, Gareth Gates and John Prescott, and join in the ribbing of Tom Cruise, Simon Cowell and Take That amongst others. Yet saying mean things in front of the man you’re saying them about, even if they’re in the room and in on the joke, must nonetheless, feel a little weird.

David Hasselhoff wearing a Devil outfit.
© UK TV / Me & You Productions / Ollie Upton

“He seems alright with it,” Fergus says measuredly. “You do remember that you’re talking about a real guy’s life, to some extent, but he does see the humour in it, and brings a lot of that into it as well. He tells lots of stories about all the crazy things that have happened to him. When we’re going through the plot, he’s always saying: ‘You wouldn’t believe how much of this shit has actually happened to me.’”

“We are living in the era of the Gervais. But [David] doesn’t come from that.”

It is perhaps understandable that, when news of Hoff the Record‘s production was announced, parallels were immediately drawn to the work of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, particularly so soon after Life’s Too Short, in which Warwick Davis played a fictionalised version of himself in increasingly awkward situations. Fergus’ former comedy partner Colin Hoult even made recurring appearances in that series. But where the parallel ends is perhaps in intent, and genuine delivery: Hoff the Record doesn’t go for the cringe factor that Gervais & Merchant thrive on. The laughs are rarely at the expense of its star, even when they’re ripping his ego to shreds. Whereas Life’s Too Short perhaps made Warwick too unsympathetic a character, this time around, it’s clear we’re on the Hoff’s side while he is surrounded by idiots.

“Every now and then in rehearsals,” Fergus reveals, “it’s mentioned that we don’t want to go too Extras. That’s a reference sometimes. It’s not a criticism of what they did, at all, but we just don’t want to do what they’ve already done. And David’s from a different place. Maybe if he was a British guy, he would have naturally slipped into that Gervais thing like most comedy has in the last ten years, especially in improv. We are living in the era of the Gervais. But he doesn’t come from that. He doesn’t naturally go towards that awkward style.”

The cast of Hoff the Record.
© UK TV / Me & You Productions / Ollie Upton

And whilst the show had its critics before a single frame had been filmed, TVO is keen to stress that the results are impressive, and above all else, very, very funny, which Craig puts down to the genuine drive behind the series from every level.

“Originally I thought: ‘Oh, they’re making a sitcom with David Hasselhoff are they?’”, he explains. “‘Okay. Erm. Let’s go along and see what that’s about.’ And they showed me a taster, which was really mental, but funny. When we got in there, the audition was just improvising. There was no script. We just came up with ideas for characters, and you realised very quickly that they wanted to make something good, and get good people involved. I realised it was going to be interesting, and if we had a really good cast, improvising around a great script, there’d be something really funny at the end of it.”

Initially auditioning for the role of The Hoff’s long-lost German son Dieter, Fergus wound up playing his agent, Max, and the result is a dream pairing. Useless at his job, Max wangles The Hoff an over-enthusiastic cab driver, and an inexperienced PA, but forgets vital details that lead to career faux pas. In the first episode, he’s signed David’s life story away to a young, pretentious film director (Craig Roberts, who Fergus says is “Amazing: He’s got that stillness of a frustrating good actor.”). In the second, he’s signed Hasselhoff up to promote a Knight Rider themed fragrance for men, which leads to the poor man being described as a leather sofa by advertising ninny Dylan Turnbull (a stonking cameo from Toast of London‘s Tim Downie).

Tim Downie holding a camera phone.
© UK TV / Me & You Productions / Ollie Upton

Roberts and Downie are just two of the impressive names making guest appearances in the show, which also includes Steve OramSimon GreenallAnna Crilly and even Christopher Biggins – one of the UK’s very own self-depreciating Hoff-like cult figures we can’t help but adore. For Fergus, getting to work with some of comedy’s finest talents was one of the perks of the job.

“I’d never worked with Tim Downie,” he tells TVO, “and he’s a right laugh. Really fun. I’ve worked with Anna loads. It’s always really good to work with her. Simon Greenall’s in Episode Five, and he’s amazing. He’s just proper hilarious, though I think a lot of what he improvised was unusable for being so non-PC. But he’s amazing in it. Steve Oram’s in it, too. I wasn’t in his scenes, but he’s in there, and is always great.”

Another perk was the scope for improvisation, as the scripts were shaped by the cast’s suggestions.

The cast of Hoff The Record.
© UK TV / Me & You Productions / Ollie Upton

“We’re actually rehearsing the second series now,” Fergus explains. “The writers and producers come up with plots, then they write a very, very vague script in which this happens, this happens and that happens, without any dialogue in it. We workshop the scenes, improvise them, film it, and then they use the footage to gradually work up genuine scripts. On the day we’ll have that script, a lot of which comes from what we worked on, but even on the day we can suggest things to add in or change around, or the director will leave the camera running to capture fresh ideas. It’s all very improvised.”

“Chances are if you made your show in the 90s, you were probably on BBC2 or Channel 4, and if you made two series, you’d get a really nice house in Notting Hill. It’s not really like that anymore.”

And it works, with the second series commissioned before the first has aired, and early reviews being extremely positive – with good reason. Released the same week as Dave’s first original scripted sitcom, Undercover, the show marks a key moment in the channel’s history, and a sign that they mean business as producers of new, innovative comedy. Given the vast number of aborted pilots and shows that never-were in recent years, another name making a serious commitment to comedy on television right now can only be a good thing, though Fergus is understandably hesitant to suggest this will bring about a resurgence in alternative comedy.

“There’s always been pilots for shows that didn’t go,” he states, when the subject of his role in recent BBC One pilot Monks – which failed to leave a lasting impression – is breached. “It’s always a struggle to get shows made, but in a way, that’s kind of the way it should be. A lot of people talk about the good old days, and it’s true that in the 90s for example, there was a real consistent stream of good output. But now, there’s more channels, and there are more slots and more opportunities than ever before. It’s just that there’s also a lot of people trying to make shows to fill them. If you do get something made, it’s even harder to find an audience for it. Chances are if you made your show in the 90s, you were probably on BBC2 or Channel 4, and if you made two series, you’d get a really nice house in Notting Hill. It’s not really like that anymore.”

“But,” he adds with stark honesty, “that’s fair enough.”

Portrait of Fergus Craig, Colin Hoult and David McNeill.
© Avalon

One major benefit of today’s changing world is that a show no longer has to find its audience straight away to be loved, even if the discovery of its perfect crowd may come too late to see more episodes commissioned. Thanks to repeats and the ever present internet, there are still new audiences discovering Craig’s early work with Colin Hoult as duo Colin & Fergus, many years after their radio shows first aired, their attempts at getting a BBC Three show stalled, and they went their separate ways. TVO itself, still tries to do its bit in keeping the flame alive, but as so many comics have found, growing older takes its toll on chances to be creative.

“A few years ago,” Fergus reveals, “When we were all doing Edinburgh, and doing sketch nights in London, we all saw each other a lot. So it did feel like a gang, all part of the same generation. There are still some people I see quite regularly, but you get older. You don’t see each other as much, and some of the people I used to do shitty little gigs with are now superstars. A few of us were going to put on a sketch night, but you soon realise people are so busy. Their priorities are different.”

“You can’t be precious about any individual ideas or gags. You have got to have the confidence that you can come up with another great one tomorrow for yourself.”

He laughs, and deadpans: “You start focusing on the things that pay.”

Recently, that’s been a shift behind the scenes – with Craig filling in gaps between his work on screen with writing gigs on sketch shows such as Cardinal Burns and Anna & Katy. For a natural performer, who trained at Manchester University’s prestigious drama school and has appeared in the West End as well as sold out runs at Edinburgh Fringe, it could be hard relinquishing material for others to ‘claim’ as their own. Craig, however, found the experience surprisingly enjoyable, particularly due to his admiration for the performers in question.

“I loved them both so much as acts,” he states. “You could see what they would do well. You see Anna and Katy, or Seb and Dustin [Cardinal Burns] bring those jokes to life, and just to feel that you were involved in those great shows in a small way is really quite good. Besides, there was a lot of collaboration, and you can’t be precious about any individual ideas or gags. You have got to have the confidence that you can come up with another great one tomorrow for yourself.”

Fergus Craig in character.
© BBC

It isn’t as if Fergus has been short of those, either. In the last year or two, he’s appeared in a string of viral videos for BBC Comedy’s Feed My Funny strand, and his own hilarious Tour Guide videos, whilst his ‘Tips For Actors’ Twitter page led to him writing a whole book of them.

“One night,” he explains when asked how the book came to light, “I thought of an idea of giving some bad acting advice in YouTube videos. At the time I didn’t know how to make a YouTube video, so I thought I’d set up a Twitter account. And quite quickly it got quite a lot of followers. I guess actors find it funny, and they retweet it, and a lot of actors have quite a lot of followers. It just grew quickly, and I found there was more material than I thought there would be, so I thought: ‘Hang on, there’s a book here.’ Amazingly, my agent managed to get me an actual book deal with a proper publisher.”

Tips for Actors, released last year, has become a cult favourite, and Craig cites it as one of the most satisfying parts of his career. “I just sat there for three months,” he enthuses, “writing a book. They didn’t really give me any notes, which on the one hand was frightening, but on the other hand gave me absolute freedom. I’d like to do another, but something different, so it’s not 10,000 jokes about the same thing.”

There are lots of ideas for the new book, which TVO won’t go into so as to give Fergus time to develop them, but as he glides off to return to rehearsals for more Hoff the Record, it becomes clear that, whatever he does next will be given the same passion and drive he has demonstrated time and time again. Now that’s something The Hoff would be proud of.

Hoff The Record starts Thursday 18th June at 9pm on Dave. Series One is available to pre-order now from The Velvet Onion Amazon Store.

Dave Lambert goes Under Cover

SOURCE: The Velvet Onion
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 cast of Under Cover in a bar.
© Baby Cow / UK TV / Topher McGrillis

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.

Director Dave Lambert poses with a gun.
© Baby Cow / UK TV / Topher McGrillis

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

Close up of Daniel Rigby.
© Baby Cow / UK TV / Topher McGrillis

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.”

Sarah Alexander and Daniel Rigby sit either side of a table in a large warehouse.
© Baby Cow / UK TV / Topher McGrillis

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.”

“That man is incredible. He really prepares and arrives on set with a delivery of a line that I never saw coming.”

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.”

Portrait of Sarah Alexander.
© Baby Cow / UK TV / Topher McGrillis

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.”

Director Dave Lambert smiles on the set.
© Baby Cow / UK TV / Topher McGrillis

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.”

“I would love to return to do more. There is so much left to do and see.”

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!

Undercover airs at 9pm on Tuesday 16th June 2015, exclusively on Dave. The show is also repeated in a double bill with ‘Hoff the Record’ on Thursday evening at 9:40pm. Thanks to Dave Lambert for talking to us, and UKTV for their behind the scenes imagery!