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Under the covers

In the new series of Stingers we will see a lot more of the larrikin in Peter Phelps's undercover role

Peter Phelps rarely get bad reviews and there's a simple reason for that—he's good at what he does. But the responses that mean more to him than any television or film critique are the ones that come from real people. In his role as the maverick undercover cop Peter Church on Nine's Stingers, which returns for its fourth season on Nine next Tuesday, it's been the praise from working detectives that's convinced him he's nailed the part.

"They universally like it," Phelps says. "And that's a better critique than any other TV writer, getting raps from the people in that vocation."

Phelps' character carries most of the intricate plots each week on the Melbourne-based show, where a team of undercover investigators put themselves in the firing line. He's the bad boy, the one who bends the rules.

In this crack team is boss and career cop Ellen "Mac" Mackenzie (Anita Hegh), the wide-eyed humanitarian Angie Piper (Kate Kendall), tech-head Oscar Stone (Ian Stenlake) and Church's equivalent, the wild child Danni Mayo (Roxane Wilson).

One of the main reasons for the support by the people who really work in undercover policing is Guy Wilding, a former Sydney cop who has used many of his personal experiences to come up with the idea for the show.

"A lot of my character is based on him and he still consults for the show," Phelps says.

"One of the best parts of doing it is that you get to look at their world and it's a scary one. You get a real sense of danger, of not knowing what's around the corner. We pretend and then go home."

Kate Kendall agrees acting out this dangerous world is a great attraction.

"It's the best part about it. The deception. It's like: 'What am I doing this week?' Whether you will be asked to play a sex worker or a drug addict. But there's no danger for us. For real undercover cops, the stakes are huge, one mistake and they're dead."

While the first series concentrated on busts, shoot-outs and other good-cop action, the following two series have explored the characters, their backgrounds and what makes them tick.

Ian Stenlake's character, Oscar Stone who spends most time in the surveillance van , was shot in the chest at last season's climax. This series looks at how he copes.

"He goes a bit loopy for a while, suffering from post-traumatic stress and the big question is whether he will return to the fold," Stenlake says.

While Stone gets dark and distant, Church was reunited with his estranged father in the last series and now lightens up a bit.

"He's the traditional Aussie guy in many ways, he's a bachelor—not that that's a flaw—and he probably needs a housemaid and he's politically incorrect," Phelps says.

"This series you'll see a lot more larrikin in Church, he has a bit more fun. After all, he's a virile young man."

It's a well-known fact cops often marry or have affairs with their own—spending long hours together and seeing harrowing events they understand each other. While Church may be swinging his love around, his boss, the career-conscious Mac, finally meets someone—another cop.

"She is such a career-oriented person that I'm surprised she has sex at all," says Anita Hegh of her character Mac.

"But her family history is starting to emerge and in this series viewers will learn she's not in control."

On the other hand, Roxane Wilson's character Danni Mayo is the female Church. The feisty blonde's a risk taker and impulsive. She came into the series last year as a wild rookie but has now been accepted into the fold.

"I like her, she's got a good sense of humour. The writers like putting her down on paper because she has such a distinctive voice. This year, she's a lot more confident, more relaxed and valued," says Wilson.

Stingers—with its grittiness, high-calibre acting and the fact that it's shot on film—attracts some heavy-hitting guest stars, including Simon Lyndon (My Brother Jack, Chopper).

It's quality has also kept Phelps with the show for more than three years.

"The only reason I would stay in a long-running gig every week is for the chance to do some juicy acting," he says. "There's also the fact that two million people a week watch it."

Stingers, Tuesday, Nine, 9.30pm

By Kylie Keogh
August 09, 2001
The Daily Telegraph