Stingers: articles

The secret life of a stinger

A TIRED but happy Peter Phelps has just come off the Melbourne set of Stingers, Channel 9's new undercover police drama. The network is so excited by what it has seen that it has rushed the 22-episode series to air—even though only three episodes have been completed.

The cast and crew are on a tight filming schedule, turning out an episode every six days.

"No one's allowed to get sick, otherwise we're going to have to go to air live, like ER," jokes Phelps.

"Channel 9 really like it. They know what they've got and as soon as they saw everything come together, they whacked it on quick."

As with the work of real undercover cops, filming on Stingers can be an intense and exhausting experience, both physically and mentally.

Phelps says he has just spent the day "dancing with the old Romanian Gypsies, in a Reservoir Dogs sense," in scenes involving a bloody stand-off.

"There's lots of action," Phelps says. Stingers is different from Phelps's previous television work, including his early days on Sons and Daughters, regular roles on The Flying Doctors and Fire and as a lifesaver on America's Baywatch. More recently, Phelps has impressed with his roles as Abo Henry in the chilling Blue Murder, the lead in The Les Darcy Story and as escaped convict Mick Webb in the telemovie One Way Ticket, but he says Stingers presents fresh challenges. "It is quite different, the fact that I'm going into acting within the acting," he says. "As undercover cops, each week we go into certain disguises. We're not getting into fancy wigs and stuff but into the guise of other people. It's new for me in that respect. "I've done quite a bit of the darker side, the criminal sides and the police, and all that sort of scenario, but not quite as in-depth and long as this will be. "It is a great role because you can adjust things each week. It keeps you interested—it's not like playing the same cop each week." Phelps's character, Peter Church, is an operative planted so deep that he can move about easily within criminal circles—but if the truth were discovered, his life could end in an instant. "Peter Church is very much a loner and is very loyal to the family of undercover cops that he's with," Phelps says. "He loves it maybe a bit too much, the rough stuff and the criminal element, but he hasn't stepped over the line—yet."

Phelps's comments suggest it won't be a smooth path for Church. "There's a lot of temptation and that will come up in later episodes, the moral dilemma that they go through every day," he says. Other than Phelps, the cast is mostly made up of television newcomers with a background in stage work. The notable exception is Jessica Napier, who recently finished filming the latest series of the ABC drama Wildside as refuge worker Gerri, and was also in the short-lived soap Echo Point. Napier plays Kaye, a cheeky young officer who is recruited straight from the police academy. Despite a seemingly fragile exterior and lack of experience, she's "on for anything". Phelps says he was inspired to return to the gruelling schedule of an ongoing series by the substance of the role.

He was also encouraged by the fact that the producers, Beyond Simpson Le Mesurier, have helped set a new standard in Australian crime dramas with their other series Halifax f.p. and Good Guys Bad Guys. "I have had reservations over the past 10 years about doing a series because I've just wanted to concentrate mostly on film work and one-off things on TV," Phelps says. "You're going into Simpson Le Mesurier knowing that it's going to be a good team and they do quality stuff, so it's a bonus to have that going in."

Phelps says Stingers will have its own, distinctive look and feel. "It's got more naturalistic kind of camera movements. We're using a lot of steady-cam, which is great for actors because you don't have to use many marks on the floor. You're allowed to perform in more of a stage sense, and the camera follows us in many scenes. It loosens us up and I think we're given a lot more freedom. "We have a say in the writing as well… we know the characters now and we're given quite a bit of freedom to bring our own stuff into it. It's definitely adventuresome."

So far as the settings go, Phelps says Stingers will be "very urban, gritty Melbourne, with lots of barren landscapes as well as industrial sites".

The cast of Stingers had about a month of rehearsals and workshops to help shape their characters before filming began in Melbourne last month.

Because the actors couldn't observe actual undercover agents working in the field without giving them away, the producers called on the services of Guy Wilding, a former undercover operative who left law enforcement in January this year after 20 years' service in most Australian States. "You don't know who you are talking to in a pub—they could be UC (undercover)," Phelps says. "It's part of the job. It's very hard to research—you've got to get ex-UCs." "Guy was extremely helpful, just with things like jargon and the lingo that they use, the dark side of his job, the personal situations that you get into, relationships and so-on. It's unlike any other job I've heard of." That level of secrecy even affects the way Phelps discusses his role. "I've got to be careful because whenever I talk about them, I've just got to honor these guys that are out there doing it," he says. "They have to lead a life that's quite secret from their families and friends, whatever. "They've do it for their own safety, basically, as well as getting the job done." Many of the storylines will be drawn from real-life incidents, including some of consultant Guy Wilding's own adventures. "There's a couple that I heard him talking about that have made their way, in some form or another, into an episode here and there," Phelps says. "I asked Guy why they do it, and he said 'For me, and I think most other undercover guys, it's adrenaline and ego'. "I said 'That's just why actors do it', so we're quite similar."

Stingers premieres on Channel 9 at 8.30pm on Tuesday.

By Patrick McDonald
September 22, 1998