Stingers: articles

Phelps soothes his sting

PETER PHELPS shows me his new tattoo. Three letters, "Aja", are raw and blue over his heart.

"I got it done on Father's Day," he says. Aja Blue is his five-month-old daughter, his first child—at age 42.

"Phelpsy" is shovelling in food during the lunch hour of a location shoot for Stingers, Channel 9's quietly successful undercover cop drama, which this week celebrates its 150th episode.

The AFI and Logie award winner has spent the morning exuding soft-spoken menace, undercover at a bar as scruffy types made criminal plans.

But Phelpsy's gritty, angsty days are in the past—in life and in Stingers. Over its five-year, seven-season life the show has warmed, and its star seems to have found contentment.

"There wasn't much chance to see the human side of our characters early on," he says. "It's more layered now, you see the human side—how they tick. We're doing more than just catching the crims every week."

Phelps says his private life "probably mirrors that a bit"—he's much happier than he used to be.

"With my new daughter, and my partner (restaurateur Donna Fowkes) things are really good, I'm a much more at-home kind of person now," he says.

"Donna also visits (the set of Stingers), and there's lots of play time with Aja—she's at a great stage where mum and dad are the universe."

Phelps is the original doting dad. He has even bought one of the new video phones.

"It's great just to check up, Donna holds it over the cot," he says. "I don't think she really knows it's me but you pretend though. You wave a lot."

This contact is important to Phelps because heading the Stingers cast is a demanding job.

An entire one-hour episode is shot every week—Monday to Wednesday they are on location, followed by two days in the studio. Days start early and finish late.

Phelps has been with the show since it began, absent in only one episode (for paternity leave when Aja was born).

He sees his character Peter Church as the moral core of the show, and has enjoyed developing that as the show has changed.

"It's harder, I have to say more words," he jokes. "But there's still action—I love having a good screen fight, it's like a well-choreographed dance."

Stingers producer John Wild says the show's change in tone was necessary.

"In the early days we suffered because we strictly honoured undercover cop protocol," he says. "Core characters couldn't talk to each other, their wives or family, for fear of breaching confidentiality.

"The characters were becoming inaccessible. So we have incrementally changed the show every season. We've breached undercover protocol over the years and made our characters a bit more human.

"I think we've got a very good balance now. We've got good crime stories, but the characters are engaging and accessible."

Wild is a TV veteran with the name and the gravelly voice of a TV crim. He's produced Stingers since its debut and has guided the show to fairly steady million-plus audience figures.

He has recently brought in a younger audience with the new young cast members Jacinta Stapleton, Katrina Milosevic and Daniel Frederiksen.

But one of the best casting decisions was bringing Gary Sweet into the show last year, as the taciturn and tortured Luke Harris.

"I've known Gary for 20 years, I worked with him on The Sullivans," Wild says. "He was out in the cold for a while, but we've given him a character that was quite different to the romantic leads he's played before.

"It was risky on both sides, and I think he's taken up the challenge and done some of his best work."

Wild is more than happy with the quality of Stingers, though it's tough competing with slick American imports when you're producing 40 episodes per year on a fraction of the money.

The jump this year to 40 episodes rather than 20 was aimed at making the show more of a household name, Wild says.

"But in this industry you're only as good as your previous month," he says. "We're very proud of reaching the 150 show mark, it gives the actors such a lift and makes them confident and ambitious for the show to go on."

Ratings success is more important than ever in the age of reality TV, when shows feature unpaid actors who build their own set. Dramas have to work harder than ever to justify their cost.

The Stingers set—which had to be completely rebuilt to stand the keen gaze of higher definition digital cameras—fills a warehouse with cells, offices, even a hospital room. Out the back the regular cast have their own caravans—a nice Hollywood touch born out of the lack of a dressing room.

Outside his caravan Phelps has set up a little gym, where he works out between scenes and thinks about future plans.

One day he wants to open a restaurant with his wife. He's also reforming a production company with a friend, with the aim of making a film together—the writing is under way.

But for now he's enjoying the success of Stingers.

By Nick Miller
September 15, 2003
The West Australian