A conflicted relationship with the police helped the writer to create the detective drama
When times are tough, we turn to detective fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story was published during the long depression of 1873-96. Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled ’tec sprang from the 1930s slump. In 2020, as the pandemic ravaged us all, detective fiction offered resolution and even a sense of justice being done.
As 2021 gets under way, television is proving the point. Death in Paradise, McDonald & Dodds and the mighty Unforgotten are hauling in ratings and critical plaudits, all offering detectives who are, for want of a better word, ordinary. Wildly different though they are, these are not shows in which the divorced alcoholic cop returns to a lonely TV dinner and stares blankly into space for hours on end. These are shows where comprehensibly irascible people track down killers and problems are solved. They are stories of a society that works.
“I think these shows have an innate sense of decency and optimism that underpins them all,” Unforgotten’s creator Chris Lang explains. “It’s compassion and a belief that people are essentially good. If I had to define the essential DNA of Unforgotten, it’s that good people can do bad things.”
For those who haven’t tried it, Unforgotten is a cold case show in which Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar are detectives who solve decades-old crimes, bringing justice to those long dead and punishing those who thought they’d escaped. Its guiding principle — and that of the real-life police units that inspired it — is remarkable: that a wrong committed is still wrong, even if it took place 30 years earlier. Families deserve comfort, killers deserve justice.
Lang, 59, whose long career writing TV drama began on The Bill after a brief career as an actor, was inspired by the 2012 arrest of the TV presenter Stuart Hall for child sex offences.
“I remember seeing him with his lawyer outside Preston crown court, suddenly changing his plea to guilty, and I was thinking about the adjustments taking place that very second with his wife, his son and daughter, his colleagues and of course the British public and our relationship with him,” he says. “That’s why in Unforgotten we see the antagonists at the outset, living normal lives, but having done something extraordinary underneath it.”
In the past eight years, he argues, we’ve seen polarisation in all aspects of life, whereas reality is nuanced, complicated and messy. His show, he says, is about how the more certain we become, the more dangerous things get. In season four, for instance — spoiler alert if you haven’t watched the first two episodes — Lang’s cops’ focus turns inwards after the decapitated corpse of a Millwall fan is discovered in a freezer after a house clearance. The suspects were police officers at the time, now living complicated but largely successful lives. Walker’s character, Cassie, is on their trail, although, forced back to work to retain her generous police pension, ambivalent about her career.
“I’m constantly confused by my conflicted relationship with the police,” Lang admits. “I’ve had many police officers as advisers, and I’ve always found them extremely delightful. I remember reading about the London Bridge attacks where an off-duty copper managed to fend off a terrorist and was seriously wounded. I was very moved by the privilege of having people like that looking out for us. Yet we also know the negative side of the police: the endemic racism, an inability to admit their mistakes, corruption, all sorts of problems. It’s both a love letter and a j’accuse to the police.”
This new uncertainty, I say, is curious in a writer whose deft plotting has made him one of the UK’s most successful TV exports. While we are gorging on Scandi noir or Call My Agent!, European viewers can’t get enough of Lang’s shows — his work is constantly remade; his 2012 drama A Mother’s Son is being filmed in Finland, the fourth country to adapt it.
“I like writing stories that provoke fundamental debate that transcends cultures,” he says. “The litmus test is: does it make my friends disagree? In A Mother’s Son, the question is: if you suspected your son had killed someone, would you hand them over to the police? I was going to a party with about 20 friends, threw the question out there and they all started arguing. I thought, ‘OK, yes, that’s a good pitch.’”
Unforgotten is Lang’s most successful show to date, although for many years he may have looked like the slowest starter of a surprisingly successful group. At school in Reigate he sat next to Keir Starmer in German O-level lessons and played drums in a band with Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook and Paul “Beautiful South” Heaton. He left Rada for rep at the Nottingham Playhouse, where he started writing sketches with a fellow trainee called Hugh Grant.
Chris Lang’s career highlights include ‘dreadful’ writing with Hugh Grant, right
Chris Lang’s career highlights include ‘dreadful’ writing with Hugh Grant, right
“The first day I met him, I was struck by how unbelievably funny he was,” he recalls. “We had the odd line in Coriolanus, but we mainly brought furniture on. By chance we ended up writing a short sketch and putting a little show together for Nottingham Playhouse. It was about Robin Hood giving an interview; Hugh came on dressed as Robin in a very fetching Lincoln green doublet and hose, and the zinger line was, ‘When did you first realise you were merry?’” He permits himself a quiet grin. “Still gets a laugh. We did sketches for a few years, a bit Not the Nine O’Clock News-y. And we did a TV show that was dreadful . . . Then — for some reason — he decided being a global movie star was a better career move. But the Hugh Grant you see in Paddington, that’s his natural home.”
Lang wrote sketches for Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones, got fired by Jonathan Ross and joined The Bill’s writing team “because they were looking for writers, and they might give me a job”. He gradually built his career, but was knocked off course by his first wife’s suicide 15 years ago.
“Suicide is such a brutal, brutal grief and loss to suffer.” He pauses. You don’t have to respond, I say. He shakes his head. “I don’t think I would have been as optimistic as I am now if it hadn’t happened, because there is nothing more guaranteed to allow you to see the good in humanity than when you suffer deep pain and tragedy yourself. I was just enveloped by love, care, compassion, as were my children. Coming out of this just extraordinarily awful thing, there was all this beauty and love. I don’t think I’d have had the faith in society that allowed me to write Unforgotten before.”
With Unforgotten, he feels he has fused all he has learnt about work and life, but, he stresses, that doesn’t give him answers. “I’m still trying to understand human nature and its complexity, increasingly so in a binary world. Unforgotten is political with a small ‘p’, and I would like to explore that more. As I’ve got older, I’ve become more politically aware. I’d like to articulate some of the wrong turns I think our country has taken.”Read More »
Chris Lang explains how his female lead broke the mould
Who needs maverick detectives, with their vintage cars, flowing coats and unorthodox methods? The best sleuth on our screens right now is the decent, dedicated and quietly diligent DCI Cassie Stuart, who returns tomorrow in ITV crime drama Unforgotten.
Brilliantly played by Nicola Walker, Cassie might not be a mercurial rule-breaker with a drink problem (like Robbie Coltrane in Cracker), a torrid love-life (like Tom Burke in Strike) or a penchant for violence (like Idris Elba in Luther) but she gets the job done. She’s methodical, by-the-book and utterly believable as she brings killers to justice. She’s precisely the sort of reassuringly British, level-headed model of professionalism we need right now. Her defiance of genre tropes is, in itself, quietly subversive.
Indeed, Cassie was created as a conscious antidote to TV’s obsession with tortured heroes on the trail of ghoulish serial killers. “I’d written a lot of police procedurals,” explains Unforgotten creator Chris Lang, who started out writing for The Bill. “There was always pressure from broadcasters to find something unique and different about each copper. They wanted a quirk or eccentricity – “Give her a Bentley!’ – which I found slightly superficial. So I tried to strip all that away and see if I could get away with it.”
Not for Cassie the signature vehicle or garments of The Bridge’s Saga Norén (Sofia Helin), with her classic Porsche and military greatcoat. Even dear old Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn) has her floppy hat and Land Rover. No, the Cassie character dresses down and drives an anonymous saloon car. That’s because she was inspired not by her fictional forebears but by her real-world equivalents.
Lang’s experience of police officers, who he’d used as advisers and research tools throughout his career, was a world away from the flawed geniuses of clichéd crime fiction. “They’re just ordinary people doing an extraordinary job,” he says. “Detectives tend to be just like you and I. Their job is the most unusual thing about them.”
Lang wrote the part with Walker in mind, having worked with her twice before. “The seeds were sown when she played a copper in [his 2012 miniseries] A Mother’s Son,” he recalls. “One scene in a mortuary blew me away. A young girl had been killed and Nicola was this extraordinary blend of tender and steely.”
That mix is what informs Walker’s portrayal of Cassie. As a widow and mother of two layabout student sons, she displays the patience of a saint at home – albeit one prone to the odd burst of sweary sarcasm. At work, though, she’s a woman on a mission.
There’s a scene in Monday’s episode when she bites her lip as her cantankerous father Martin (Peter Egan), who has early onset dementia, callously belittles her. Walker’s subtle reaction is a masterclass in simmering restraint. This contrasts starkly with a spiky argument with her ineffectual boss, then warm familiarity with her best friend DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar). It’s a nuanced, emotionally intelligent performance.
Each six-part series begins with the discovery of a long-hidden body. The duo doggedly uncover what happened, narrowing down their investigation to a seemingly unconnected guest cast of suspects. (The first three series are available on streaming services.)
Now comes the fourth chapter, which opens with the discovery of a headless, handless, deep-frozen corpse in a London scrapyard. Cassie and Sunny set about identifying him and unravelling his tragic story.Read More »
Elsa, on the verge of turning thirty and stuck in an uninspiring job, finds herself still hung up on her ex-boyfriend more than two years after they borke up. She is obsessed by his new girlfriend – who has quickly become his fiancée. Hoping to help her break out of her rut and boost her flagging confidence, her friends decide to hire Jules, a high-class male escort to take her on a few dates. But their plan works a little too well… when Jules, falls for Elsa, and she for him…
- Zita Hanrot
- Guillaume Labbe
- Ludivine De Chastenet
- Sabrina Ouazani
- Josephine Drai
- Tom Dingler
- Syrus Shahidi
- Marc Ruchmann
The detective duo Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar return to crack the case of a dead Millwall supporter.
ITV; early spring (see full list)
TV still has crime on its mind, kicking off the year with a three-part, true-crime series, The Pembrokeshire Murders. Later there’s another outing to The Bay, plus Nicola Walker and her weary despair in a fourth series of cold-case drama, Unforgotten. Anna Friel is still losing it in a third series of the ludicrously plotted, yet oddly compulsive, Marcella, now with added Belfast. (see full list)
Early 2021 on ITV Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar will reprise their respective roles as DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunny Khan in Unforgotten season four, after filming resumed in September 2020 following delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic and national lockdown. (see full list)
Unforgotten series 4
Cold case crime drama Unforgotten is back for a fourth series in 2021, with both leads Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar eager to get back into character as DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunny Khan and help create another unmissable six-part series.
Chris Lang is back on writing duties too and is made up to get another run of the popular show. ‘I am so delighted to have been asked to make a fourth series of Unforgotten,’ he said. ‘The reaction to series three was better than I could ever have expected and I can’t wait to discover what lies ahead for Cassie and Sunny and to create a whole new cast of characters for them to grapple with.’ (see full list)
There will also be plenty of returning favourites – including the likes of Line of Duty, The Crown, Succession, Sex Education, Unforgotten and The Handmaid’s Tale – but here we’ve concentrated on new arrivals to anticipate. Prime your remote controls and cross your fingers… (see full list)
ITV’s Innocent was a four-part series about a miscarriage of justice that aired in May 2018. Its conclusion certainly didn’t call for a continuation so news of a second series renewal was a bit of a head-scratcher until it was revealed that creator Chris Lang (Unforgotten) was writing a whole new case and a whole new set of characters for the second run, now due to arrive this year.
Cassie and Sunny (played by Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar) return for a fourth series of ITV’s excellent cold case crime drama Unforgotten. What makes Chris Lang’s detective series stand out is its empathy—for its characters, for the victims, and often, for the killers themselves. The new series will take another decades-old case as its starting point, and no doubt tell another engrossing, affecting story led by excellent performances from a cast including Susan Lynch and Sheila Hancock.
Read More »
The discovery of a dismembered body in a scrap metal yard, believed to have been stored in a domestic freezer for decades…
A unique tattoo on the corpse leads to the discovery of a 1990 crime involving four people now spread around the country. Ram Sidhu and his wife Anna live in London, with Liz Baildon and her fiancée Janet in Cambridge, Fiona Grayson and her partner Geoff in the Peak District, and Dean Barton and his wife Marnie living in Rochester.
The investigation threatens to shatter their reputations, family relationships and lives.
- Nicola Walker
- Sanjeev Bhaskar
- Susan Lynch
- Liz White
- Phaldut Sharma
- Andy Nyman
- Sheila Hancock
- Alastair Mackenzie
- Alastair Mackenzie
- Jordan Long
- Georgia Mackenzie
- Ronny Jhutti
- Indira Joshi
- Daniel Flynn
- Colin R. Campbell
Written and created by Chris Lang
Produced by Guy de Glanville
Directed by Andy Wilson
Executive produced by Chris Lang, Laura Mackie, Sally Haynes
Praise for Unforgotten Season 4
‘In its hinterlands, its human understandings, it is as blisteringly good television as you’re likely to get.’
‘An icy delight. One of the best and most elegant (cop drams) with its subtle script, understated acting, and, of course, Nicola Walker.’
Sunday Times, Camilla Long
‘The best crime show on TV.’
‘The sweetest professional relationship ever to grace TV.’
‘As ever with this enthralling series, you’re sure to be left counting the hours until the next instalment.’
‘Unforgotten packs more tasty goodness into a small space than any of its rivals’
‘Writer Chris Lang is a master of these brilliant drama-Jenga puzzles’
‘It’s one of the classiest cop shows on the box.
‘Unforgotten is easily five-star. It’s one of the classiest cop shows on the box’
‘Expertly crafted police drama that has given the cold-case format a new lease of life.’
Mail on Sunday
‘Its slow-build storylines and top-notch performances marking it out as one of the best crime dramas.’
Read More »
from The Guardian
It took months to find ways to shoot productions safely. The plot twist? There will be a shortage of new shows – then a glut
Fresh drama gleams out from the 2021 TV schedules, and viewers, particularly those with access to streaming services, will not go short. But the truth is there will be fewer new shows overall this year: the introduction of Covid safety protocols in 2020 first halted and then slowed down the production of high-end drama.
And while film crews went back to the studios and out on location, many of these dramas will only be ready to air this autumn, when audiences can look forward to something of a bonanza after a drier summer.
“Drama will be thin on the ground at first, then there will be a massive glut, I suspect, as next year was due to be busy anyway,” said executive producer Petra Fried of Clerkenwell Films, which has three shows in development that are due to shoot in the next few months, including Cheaters, a short-form romantic comedy series.
A much-anticipated follow-up to the dramatisation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, a serialisation of her first book, Conversations with Friends, is one of those still en route to screens, but slightly delayed.
Similarly, the makers of Channel 4 drama Murder in the Car Park, Indefinite Films, have complained that the pandemic “made the process weeks longer than it could have been. We had to adapt but it was painful. The delays made it very complicated”.
Many writers and producers say they spent lockdown developing scripts at an intense rate not possible before. As a result, lots of dramas are queuing up to be made, in addition to those already in production when the virus struck.
For Chris Lang, creator of the popular ITV crime series Unforgotten, the past year has been both busy and nerve-wracking. He managed to get both the fourth season – and the second season of another show, Innocent – out filming. “Delays were not as bad as people feared in the end,” he said. “Pre-production and finding a crew was harder though, especially now it feels like everyone is back up and running.”
Lang and his team filmed Unforgotten and Innocent, which he writes with Matthew Arlidge, in September, as something of a leap of faith. “You had to make a commitment weeks in advance because you have to line up your crew and cast. So we were in the vanguard really.
A film set is one of the safest places to be. We all wear masks, rooms are sprayed and we’re tested all the time
Chris Lang, creator of Unforgotten
“We had already started Unforgotten before lockdown, so we restarted, and we were out in Ireland with Innocent. Line of Duty was also filming up in Northern Ireland, and we both felt we were doing it first. Ireland allowed filming to continue because they put it in a category with building construction.”
Lang had to rewrite, at speed, scenes that had initially involved a large cast. “There were other ways of doing it, I realised, and necessity is the mother of invention. So quite often, the compromises I made ended up working better.
“We had filmed 11 weeks of Unforgotten with Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar before we had to stop – and then we did four-and-half weeks in September, but I’d be surprised if you could tell the difference,” said Lang.
While some drama series were able to return to filming with the backing of a big broadcast or streaming network, small independent companies found themselves more exposed. “Everyone in drama now has an insurance story to tell. But in truth, a film set is one of the safest places to be. We all wear masks, rooms are sprayed and we are tested all the time,” said Lang.
Crews, Lang also found, adapted fast to new working rules: “There were a few slow days but after that it was fine. So there should be a lot around by the autumn. I don’t know of anything major that had been ‘green-lit’ that has been cancelled. They were just delayed.”
Petra Fried also feels that social distancing restrictions on set have served to focus the mind. “When we got started again, everyone was incredibly focused and glad to be working again. We found it actually made it more efficient,” she said. “It was just that we had to pause if someone tested positive, and we had three or four instances of that. Day to day. it was OK, although the stop-start nature made things more expensive.”
The biggest challenge now, said Fried, has been finding available film crew for the summer ahead. “Everything is going to be shooting in 2021. There’s lots of good stuff, developed with writers over a whole year, and now ready to go.”Read More »
Season Two of “Innocent” began filming in September 2020 at locations in the Lake District and Ireland, with a premiere date yet to be confirmed, but likely to be sometime in 2021.
The new series of Innocent will features new characters, new story and an “extremely twisty plot”, focussing on the plight of a schoolteacher played by Katherine Kelly.
When the finale of ITV thriller Innocent aired in May 2018, it seemed a second series was highly unlikely.
But May 2019, Chris Lang confirmed that the ITV drama had officially been re-commissioned, adding: “And now if you’ll excuse me, Matt Arlidge and I need to get writing!”
Delighted to tell you that #Innocent is returning. New characters, new story, should shoot early next year. And now if you’ll excuse me, @mjarlidge and I need to get writing! #Innocent2 pic.twitter.com/nLbsTHrSD2
— Chris Lang (@ChrisLangWriter) May 2, 2019
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Television drama writer and producer Chris Lang shares the out-takes and bits of writing he keeps in his bottom drawer with host Laura Shavin
Check out the Offcuts website here.Read More »
BAFTA nominated actors Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar reprise their roles as DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunny Khan as production begins on the highly-anticipated fourth series of critically acclaimed drama, Unforgotten.
Produced by independent production company Mainstreet Pictures in partnership with Masterpiece, and devised and written by acclaimed screenwriter Chris Lang (Innocent, Dark Heart), the new six-part series charts a fresh investigation into another emotionally-charged cold case murder.
The fourth series opens with the discovery of a dismembered body in a scrap metal yard, which the team believe has been stored in a domestic freezer for thirty years. A unique Millwall Football Club tattoo leads to the victim being identified as Matthew Walsh, a young man in his mid-twenties who went missing in March 1990.
The team quickly track the purchase of the freezer to Robert Fogerty, but they are disappointed to learn he’s recently died a lonely, broken man. On looking further into his past, they discover a drink driving conviction on the same night their victim, Matthew Walsh, went missing, and intriguingly there were four passengers in the car with him at the time.
The main cast will be joined by Sheila Hancock (New Tricks, Delicious), Susan Lynch (Killing Eve, Apple Tree Yard), Phaldut Sharma (Hanna, EastEnders), Liz White (Life On Mars, Ackley Bridge), Andy Nyman (Wanderlust, Peaky Blinders), Clare Calbraith (Baptiste, Little Boy Blue) and Lucy Speed (Marcella, National Treasure), along with returning actors Peter Egan (Downton Abbey, Hold The Sunset), Alastair Mackenzie (Deep Water, Cold Feet), Carolina Main (Blood, Grantchester), Lewis Reeves (Uncle, Inspector George Gently) and Jordan Long (Prime Suspect 1973, SS-GB).Read More »
The New York times has included “Unforgotten” as one of the best dramas of the decade. The full list can be seen here.
“Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar play detectives whose particular attributes — modesty, compassion, extreme tenaciousness — make them both excellent cold-case investigators and perfect, if often testy, partners in this poignant and beautifully modulated crime drama.”Read More »
2020 is shaping up to be a year jam-packed with terrific telly. There are some much-missed returning shows, from Doctor Who to Last Tango in Halifax, plus some cracking running series …
Plus, those TV bigwigs have been cooking up a host of exciting new series and one-offs for us to enjoy. There’s an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestseller Normal People, David Tennant’s new Channel 4 series Deadwater Fell, and Keeley Hawes’ return to the force in ITV factual drama Honour.
Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar are set to reunite for series four of ITV’s cold crime drama Unforgotten as DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunny Khan unearth long-buried secrets in pursuit of justice.
See the full list at the Radio Times websiteRead More »
When writer Chris Lang created the MASTERPIECE Mystery! series Unforgotten, he looked to capture the very ordinary extraordinariness of a modern police force. With a new season on the way, Lang explains what viewers should watch out for as Cassie and Sunny unearth another unidentified body beneath a London roadway construction site.Read More »