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 »
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 »
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 »
Ahead of his new drama ‘Dark Heart’, the acclaimed writer explains his commitment to diversity, the terror of launching a drama, and why he gave up on acting
(Ed Power for The Independent)
When the #MeToo scandal erupted last year, Chris Lang was naturally shocked and angered. But while relieved to have never witnessed such misconduct during his time working in British television, the blockbuster dramatist also had to accept that in less lurid ways, the industry here has ill-served women and minorities.
“Like everyone, I read those stories with horror and a degree of bafflement, because I’ve never encountered anything like it,” says the 57 year-old. What he had noticed, though, is the subtler ways in which women are undermined in the industry.
“First in terms of how they are portrayed in front of the camera,” he says. “But in addition, the opportunities they are given behind the camera. It’s just got to change.”
Lang has quietly done his bit. Unforgotten, his engrossing cold case procedural, which returned for a triumphant third series in July, featured unglamorous middle-aged leads – one a white woman, one a British-Asian man – even as it took care not to pat itself on the back for doing so.
And though his new ITV drama Dark Heart stars the more conventionally moody Tom Riley as a gumshoe detective, the writer has been at pains to portray London in all its vast, bustling diversity.
Lang insists that the casting of each of his shows is 25 per cent black, Asian and “minority ethnic” – BAME in industry parlance. It’s something on which he will not compromise.
“I do that on everything,” Lang says. “I will not let it not happen. We’ve got to start doing the same [behind the camera]. Making sure our crews and our writing teams are fully inclusive. We are slow to the table on that one. It’s got to change.”
Audiences don’t flock to his work, though, because it is a feel-good celebration of multiculturalism. They do so because of his remarkable facility for grounding the crime genre in the real world – making both heroes and villains plausible and vulnerable.
Unforgotten’s lead detectives, played by Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar, are so everyday you can imagine meeting them at the school gates. Lang’s killers, meanwhile, tend to be ordinary people who have committed monstrous acts rather than the traditional thriller bogeymen.
But he also appreciates that the worst thing you can do in popular entertainment is continue giving viewers precisely what they expect. Which is why Dark Heart is about as far from Unforgotten as possible whilst still cleaving to the circadian tempos of the classic British crime drama.
Where the earlier series was plain-spun and unflinching, Dark Heart is heightened and noir-ish. If Unforgotten is drama without any makeup, Dark Heart arrives caked in eye-shadow and lip-gloss.
Riley stars as Detective Inspector Will Wagstaffe, a loner cop whose haunted disposition is a consequence of the mysterious deaths of his parents when he was 16. When not sulking around London’s more baroque corners, he’s busy investigating a sequence of brutal vigilante killings of suspected paedophiles.
Along with all that, he has an up-and-down relationship with his girlfriend Sylvie (Miranda Raison) and a strained friendship with sister Juliette (Charlotte Riley, last seen in Mike Bartlett’s Press).
This is, in other words, a pulp caper with its hands wedged deep in its trench-coat pockets. It’s moody and visceral, indebted to the ubiquitous Scandi noir but equally to David Fincher’s feverishly, ghastly Se7en.
“Dark Heart is as different as you can imagine from something like Unforgotten,” says Lang. “Tonally different, stylistically different… it just has a very different feel.”
He’s grateful ITV gave him the opportunity to branch out (or at least circle back – Dark Heart having started as a two-hour movie aired in 2016 on the now defunct ITV Encore). He’s just as aware that Unforgotten fans might not be exactly thrilled to see him try something so radically disparate.
“It’s kind of terrifying. But listen, it’s terrifying for everyone launching any drama at the moment. A couple of shows have landed recently. A lot have not. There are a lot of shows out there. Hopefully yours punches through. It’s tricky.”
All of his work is personal to one degree or another. But for all its superficial pulpiness, Dark Heart – adapted from Adam Creed’s Will Wagstaffe novels – feels especially close to home. Having lost his parents, Wagstaffe has had to overcome terrible tragedy (the tagline is, “Some wounds never heal”).
Much the same could be said of Lang, whose first wife, Lydia, died by suicide in 2007. He had three young children to raise and a precarious career as an up-and-coming writer for television (at the time he was working on The Palace, a quickly forgotten alternative history about the royal family).
That journey from his original calling as an actor to screenwriter was a multi-year project. When he was 24, Lang travelled to Edinburgh with his best mate to perform a spiffy new comedy routine they’d written together. The piece – a Python-esque sketch entitled The Ealing Nativity – went down a storm. So much so that were invited to reprise it on the Russell Harty show on BBC1.
As they warmed up in the dressing room, an assistant popped her head around the corner and explained they’d be doing their bit live, to eight million people. Lang’s partner-in-chuckles – an unheard of young pratfaller named Hugh Grant – was a nervy sort, not entirely confident in his talents. Lang, by contrast, took the challenge in his stride.
“I thought I was hilarious and among the finest actors to ever leave Rada,” he recalls. “When you’re young, you need to be insanely confident. I look back at some of the things I did then, and just cannot believe them.”
Yet Lang, for all his youthful self-assurance, was never truly obsessed with burning up the stage or screen. Under the brash exterior, part of him knew that, compared to many of his Rada classmates (including Janet McTeer), he was crushingly mediocre. “Acting wasn’t in me,” he says. “I didn’t have the skills. I did it because it was fun. But it was never the thing that drove me.”
Writing for the screen was where his heart lay. So as his old mucker Hugh went off to charm Hollywood, Lang knuckled down and transformed himself from callow ticklers of ribs to the architect of some of British television’s most compelling and provocative thrillers.
The 120-minute Dark Heart pilot went down well two years ago (though because of ITV Encore’s honking obscurity the audience was negligible). There was also positive feedback from international buyers – crucial as British broadcasters attempt to grow their global profile.
Nonetheless, when he went back to chop the feature into two 60 minute episodes and to then expand Dark Heart into a full, six-parter, Lang made several revisions. A more mainstream audience would be watching on ITV; the new edit had to reflect that.
“Now it’s less violent… less explicit. I had been happy putting out the original on an obscure channel – happy to do something quite esoteric. For a mainstream show, you want the audience to engage and keep coming back. There were certain things I wanted to pull back on. Violence was one of those.”
Not that the all-improved Dark Heart is exactly a frolic through the gladioli. Episode one opens with a man strapped to a bed force-fed liquor through a funnel. Thereafter it ramps up the gruesome factor with a certain enthusiasm.
As already pointed out, it’s worlds removed from Unforgotten, or his previous offering Innocent. There, the bloodshed was largely off-screen. Dark Heart is far more visceral, and it’s not unimaginable that it might cause an outcry among unsuspecting viewers. It’s the opposite of a cuddly watch.
The week of our interview, there were rumours that Netflix might swoop for series two of recent smash Bodyguard. If so, that would follow on from the streaming behemoth snatching Peter Morgan’s The Crown from the BBC.
Lang, who is somewhat improbably working on a French-language romantic comedy for Netflix, doesn’t believe the big streaming players represent an existential threat to indigenous drama. There is enough of an appetite for riveting stories to keep everyone busy.
“I watched The Crown and loved it. That has a budget of what…£10m an episode? But I would have just as happily watched Happy Valley, which costs say… £1m an episode. I wouldn’t say either is better or worse. The issue with huge budgets is that they can be spent not entirely wisely. A limited budget forces you to make canny creative decisions. Having too much money can be as big a problem as too little.”
Above all, he’s glad drama has regained its place at the heart of British television. A decade ago, all the chatter was that reality TV was steamrolling everything else. Today X Factor, Big Brother et al are seemingly in a death spiral, while Unforgotten and Bodyguard have become national talking points.
Not that Lang is sniffy about his viewing habits. Last night, he curled up to The Great British Bake Off with his family (he has remarried and now has five kids). He was as riveted as the rest of us by each triumphant sponge and tragic tartlet.
“Bake Off is drama masquerading as a cookery show,” he says. “A lot of those shows have built-in drama – and the editing is so clever.
“Ten or 15 years ago,” he continues, “those shows were doing very well and people were predicting the end of drama. It’s expensive – reality costs a tenth of what drama costs. But people like stories – they are an important part of our life. Drama offers a shape that the real world often doesn’t. And we need that.”Read More »
(by Morgan Jeffrey for Digital Spy)
First launched with a feature-length pilot two years ago, ITV’s Dark Heart is finally returning for a full series, with Tom Riley reprising his role of DI Will Wagstaffe.
So why the long wait? And with the original pilot being recut into the first two episodes of the new series, will we notice the leap from episode two to the newly-shot episode three and beyond?
“I was first asked to adapt the first novel in the Wagstaffe series [by author Adam Creed] eight years ago,” Dark Heart writer Chris Lang, best known for scripting ITV’s other crime hit Unforgotten, tells Digital Spy.
“It was by the BBC. I wrote a script which – for any number of the reasons scripts don’t fly – did not land at the Beeb. Then someone who I worked with at the BBC moved to ITV, and a few years later, they picked it up and said, ‘We always liked the script. It should have gone.”
“They were looking for projects for their new channel – or new-ish channel – Encore at that point, which could be a little more edgy, a little darker, a little more provocative. And this seemed to fit the bill.”
The two-hour Dark Heart pilot aired on November 9, 2016, but the closure of ITV Encore led to a hiatus before a full series could go into production for ITV. “There was a contractual obligation to allow them to be able to show it for 18 months, I think,” Lang says. ”
We would’ve gone to a series quicker if there hadn’t been a tie-in with Encore for a year or so. But that gave us time to start getting our ducks in a row.” (read the full interview at Digital Spy)Read More »
Television drama is dominated by crime – it always has been and it always will be, but writer Chris Lang is doing something different. The 57-year-old has, since the late Nineties, been bringing his own distinctive brand of smart, emotionally sophisticated thrillers such as Torn and A Mother’s Son to TV audiences. What may seem on the surface to be a standard procedural always turns out to be a coruscating study of the human condition: our frailties, our lies, our unfailing accuracy in making the wrong decisions.
Recently, Lang has hit the big time and this year he has produced no less than five shows (three in the UK, two in France) including another series of his most-lauded work, Unforgotten, starring Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar as a pair of decent, hard-working detectives unearthing dark deeds from the recent past.
Unforgotten may be Lang’s biggest success but it is also representative of what has gone before. He doesn’t do red herrings or absurd plot contrivances, never maps out weird twists just to prove how clever he is. Mr Mercurio, take note.
“I would never do a left turn that felt out of character because I would feel I was cheating the viewer and I would feel cheapened,” the writer tells me when we meet in the offices of ITV. He attributes much of the success of Unforgotten (which will return for a fourth series) to the performances of his two leads whom he describes as “amazingly empathetic and engaging”.
Tom Riley and Charlotte Riley star in Dark Heart
Tom Riley and Charlotte Riley star in Dark Heart CREDIT: ITV
“I didn’t want the audience to see the police as ‘other’, I wanted them to see that the police are like us because that has been my experience. I think 90 per cent of them are decent people. Obviously there are some who have entered the force for unhealthy reasons and I may well touch on that in series four.”
Lang disagrees with the idea that Unforgotten is sedate. “It’s true that I am not an action guy – I don’t do car crashes or explosions, but I think there is a place for more thoughtful detective drama. I feel more comfortable with a group of characters sitting in a room unpicking how they feel about things. I often look at how I have dealt with life’s vicissitudes and then work it out through my characters.”
Indeed Lang’s past has been marked by one particular tragedy. Eleven years ago, his first wife, Lydia, committed suicide leaving him widowed with three young children. He was in the middle of a job, working for another ITV drama, The Palace. He was offered a pay-off but decided to return to work after two or three weeks. “I would have gone crazy otherwise. On a practical level, working was one of the things that saved my life. But I was also overwhelmed by the kindness of my friends and family and I gained a view of the world that I had not seen before.
“The aftermath of the tragedy was one of the most positive experiences I have ever had – beautiful things came out of it, a great sense of optimism because I felt so loved.”
Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar star in Unforgotten
Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar star in Unforgotten CREDIT: ITV
He says her death informed his writing. “Having had a fairly gilded life and then the biggest catastrophe happens – well, your life becomes quite fragile and you suddenly realise that there are many people dealing with the same thing every day and you start to understand people. I stopped being so solipsistic, I suppose, and started to see other people’s pain. For the last 10 or 11 years, I’ve been writing about why people are damaged or weak or flawed and trying to have compassion for these things. Unforgotten is saying that we have to be more compassionate because we live in very angry and unforgiving times.”
Lang’s latest drama, Dark Heart (which returns at the end of the month following a pilot in 2016), also showcases his ability for emotional truth. It features a superb, subtle performance from Tom Riley as DI Will Wagstaffe, still haunted by the death of his parents who were murdered when he was a teenager. No one was ever brought to book, and Wagstaffe’s pain manifests itself in a compulsion to push beyond the boundaries of what is considered acceptable policing in order to get results, as if he is trying to compensate for something unresolved. Like Unforgotten, Dark Heart proves that Lang has a wonderful, Dickensian eye for London – its serpentine sprawl and its multitude of rich and varied characters.
“I bloody love London,” he says. “I love the duality of it – you can see the poverty and the wealth, the ancient and the new, the eternal struggle between good and evil. You can see it on the streets, on the cobbles and on the glass.”
Bodyguard star Anjli Mohindra also appears in Dark Heart
Bodyguard star Anjli Mohindra also appears in Dark Heart CREDIT: ITV
Lang lives in the city he adores (with his second wife and his family), and hails from south of the river in Peckham, although he moved to a small market town in Surrey when he was a child. He returned to study at Rada and worked as an actor for several years with only modest success. He mentions an early role in Alan Clarke’s Stars of the Roller State Disco, a 1984 Play for Today set in a dystopian future where youngsters are forced to roller skate ad nauseam until they find gainful employment, a surreal footnote in an otherwise journeyman career.
“I was a mediocre actor,” he says. “The fact is that at Rada, after my first two or three classes I started to look at classmates like Janet McTeer and I realised… F—, she is proper.”
In his early career, he also teamed up with Hugh Grant (they met while appearing together in repertory theatre) to form a comedy troupe, The Jockeys of Norfolk, who enjoyed great success at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Grant, he says, “is naturally funny and left to become Hugh Grant”. Lang went off to become a comedy sketchwriter (while still occasionally acting), working for Smith and Jones and one of Jonathan Ross’s chat shows from which he was eventually sacked. “I was writing s— links and I just wasn’t funny enough,” he says.
He soon cut his teeth on long-running shows such as The Bill. Lang, however, has not dispensed with humour altogether. One of this year’s shows, Plan Cœur, is about an unlucky-in-love female singleton and he currently has a series in development that is autobiographical.
“It’s about what happened after my wife died, when you’re a widower who has a lot of children and you fall in love with someone.”
He is also hoping to write a big state-of-the-nation drama for the BBC, mindful that they can be “proselytising and preachy when not done right”.
“Often they are written by theatre writers who don’t get that narrative is the most important thing. You have to create a cracking story, hold up a mirror and say this is who we are.”
I worry that Lang is spreading himself too thinly and he admits to being “completely bloody knackered”. But he is also very happy.
“I am in a position where I love my job and I feel privileged to do it. I’ve been talking to university students recently and saying: ‘Look, you are 20 and I didn’t get to where I wanted to be until I was in my late 40s. I feel creatively satisfied in a way that I have never felt before – but it has taken me 30 years.”Read More »
A dead body – check; an engaging cast of characters – check; and a mystery to solve – check. So press “play” and we are box set ready to go. But what happens if by episode three the tension has fallen away and all the untied plot strands dangle annoyingly? According to one leading British writer, this is now the fate of too many television dramas as the demand for fresh entertainment cranks up.
Chris Lang, the creator of ITV’s returning “cold case” detective series Unforgotten, has questioned a commissioning culture that can oblige writers to deliver at breakneck speed to feed the beast of box-set production.
In an interview with the Observer, Lang said: “You can definitely spot the shows where the writers clearly didn’t quite know where it was going to end. It happens particularly in longer shows, with six episodes or more. You can see when they had no idea, and then they often leave it hanging, hoping to get a second series.”
Lang, who also scripted Sirens, Torn, Undeniable and A Mother’s Son, is one of the British writers who have benefited from the great boom in television drama over the last five years. He acknowledges the best shows have high standards, but argues no drama series should go into production before the creative team has thought their story through.
“Having it sorted in advance is incredibly important,” he said. “We are all enjoying this golden age of television drama but you would not believe how many shows start preproduction with only two or three scripts ready. The writers are still writing as they start filming. To me that is an absolutely insane way to work.”
British production companies have realised that hit dramas are vital to their survival. Broadcast magazine’s latest annual survey of independent programme makers found that revenues at the top five companies making drama (Carnival, the maker of Downton Abbey and Whitechapel; Left Bank, the maker of The Crown; Kudos, which makes Humans; Bentley, Midsomer Murders; and Neal Street, Call the Midwife) are all up more than 30% on last year. Meanwhile, subscription broadcasters such as Sky, Netflix and Amazon are investing heavily in drama, alongside the traditional terrestrial channels.
As the golden age of the box set enters its second phase, there are murmurings from writers’ rooms in Britain and America. If audiences want hit series that will truly entertain them, there must be enough time to create them. Although Lang has co-written a new show, Innocent, with thriller novelist MJ Arlidge, he usually writes alone. He admires the distinctive tone of Sally Wainwright, creator of Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax, and of the Catastrophe co-writer Sharon Horgan. He also enjoys US shows such as The Affair, which stars British actors Ruth Wilson and Dominic West, and Divorce, which is also by Horgan and stars Sarah Jessica Parker.
“It is the little flourishes in these scripts that make them feel real and truthful,” Lang said. “And sadly these are the first casualties when time is short and the plot has to take precedence.”
Lang said his work is usually complete before production. “Why would you not do it like that? You have got 60 or 70 people waiting for you, not including the actors, and they need to set up a shooting schedule. If you have it all done they can schedule it in blocks, which means you can save money and then spend it in the right way, making the show look fantastic.”
His new series of Unforgotten starts on Thursday (9pm, ITV) with the discovery of a body in a sealed suitcase in London’s river Lea. The detective duo played by Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar then have to trace back the story, drawing in four apparently unconnected suspects. “If you are half-good at your job, you should have a vision and absolutely know where it is ending,” said Lang.
Neal Street’s Dame Pippa Harris agreed that producers prefer a finished script so that budgets can be spent wisely. “When we made Penny Dreadful for Sky, it was a huge advantage that John Logan had written the entire first series before we began,” she said. “But ultimately it depends on the writer, and some people produce their best work under the pressure of production. I remember that when we greenlit Paul Abbott’s State of Play at the BBC, he had only written the opening episodes and had no clear outline for where it was going. Likewise, Jez Butterworth, who I’ve been working with recently on Britannia for Sky, has relished the freedom of altering storylines and character arcs in later episodes.”
The first great golden age of television was in the 1950s and 60s, when limited channel choices meant that a few shows achieved cultural dominance. Writers tended to stick to the same shows and with the same on-screen talent. Now, with hundreds of scripted television shows on air in a year, it is impossible for quality to be widespread. Writers are more often freelancers, who must keep several plates spinning.
Notwithstanding his reservations, Lang, who writes at least 10 drafts of each of his scripts, emphasises that he is “rejoicing with my fellow writers at how ascendant television is. I can’t remember a time when there was so much good stuff on.”Read More »
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British crime series from Inspector Morse to Midsomer Murders have long dominated linear television schedules in the UK and show no sign of slowing down. The man responsible for many of the latest gruesome hits is Chris Lang, creator of ITV’s Unforgotten and Innocent.
(by Peter White for Deadline, July 31)
Lang tells Deadline why this new generation of police dramas is resonating with audiences and why he is interrupting this murder spree to focus on a number of more lighthearted, romantic comedy projects.
Unforgotten is currently in its third season and the Mainstreet Pictures-produced series is averaging 6M viewers a night, despite fierce competition from Aidan Turner’s sythe-wielding drama Poldark. The show follows two London detectives, played by The Split’s Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar (Goodness Gracious Me) as they work together to solve cold case murders and disappearances. The first series explored the case of the death of a 16-year old schoolboy, the second investigated the murder of a political consultant and the current season looks at the killing of a schoolgirl who disappeared on New Year’s Eve.
The show has managed to retain its audience – helped by streaming catch-up figures – in its latest incarnation despite moving to a Sunday night slot. Lang said, “I wasn’t entirely convinced by the scheduling of the show but it won the slot and beat Poldark eventually. People love the cast and the actors that we’ve attracted are the actors people want to watch. It’s not easy to lead an audience through a procedural whilst retaining humanity and warmth and wit and they both do it effortlessly.”
He said that crime procedurals are just good devices to tell broad stories. “Shows like mine and other cop shows are sold as genre shows but really it’s just a hanger on which to tell human interest stories. They happen to provide a good structure with a beginning, middle and end with a resolution as well as more complexity but really you’re looking at how people live their lives. People will always be fascinated by that and the police element is just a wrapper.”
Lang is currently considering whether he wants to bring the pair back for a fourth series. “ITV has asked for more and the truth is I don’t know. If I can get the team together, I have ideas, that’s never an issue, but it’s whether we can pull the same team together. There are very few shows on telly, if any, where you have the same director [Andy Wilson] for 18 hours and the same production team and editors. We all know what we’re working towards and to do another one, we’ve got to make it even better, which is quite a big ask.”Read More »
CHRIS LANG is one of our best and more prolific television writers. It’s no shock to his fans that his current hit, Unforgotten, has beaten Poldark, the BBC’s period drama juggernaut in the latest TV ratings. (from The Express)
But this writer doesn’t tread water, acknowledging, “I am a bit of an obsessive”.
He also has a new ITV drama, Dark Heart, going out in the autumn, and the fashionable and money-bags streaming channel Netflix has come looking for content.
He obliged them with an idea, which he has worked on with another writer. We should see that next year.
Lang, a Londoner, also knows his way around a police station having learned his trade by writing for the one-time procedural staple The Bill.
But Unforgotten, starring Sanjeev Bhaskar and Nicola Walker, is nothing like that, with a much more elaborate story which occasionally can challenge the viewer.
Lang, 56, has created two detectives in Cassie (Walker) and Sunny (Bhaskar) who are complex, believable and well-rounded. They also happen to be two fine actors.
The secondary characters seem realistic, too, not least Cassie’s father, played by the excellent Peter Egan. His story with his daughter develops more as this series evolves.
We meet in the cavernous stately home near Slough whose interiors double as a police station in Unforgotten.
Lang, as ever, is thoughtful, friendly and always interested in how his dramas are being received.
In a world which laps up crime action in every way, there are very few critical voices of this drama, which has kept the same crew and director from the outset, maintaining a consistent tone and style.
Lang is also one of the best creators of a red herring around. In this series again, they dart and dance around the script.
In front of a group of journalists, he is unapologetic about making this series’ focal point social media and the impact the press can have on crime and investigations.
“Yes, it’s true,” he begins, “I do always have a theme underlying the piece. In terms of characters I wanted to explore the relationships of the four people who have the spotlight thrown on them.
“They are four people who have known each other since school (played by Alex Jennings, Neil Morrissey, Kevin McNally and James Fleet). I have a similar dynamic in my life, four friends I have known for 45 years.
“We’ve been through a lot together. But this set-up feeds directly into the central idea of Unforgotten, ‘How well can you actually know someone?’.
“On a macro level I wanted to explore social media and how it has impacted on the judicial system, and how it has also impacted on our society.”
He explains further: “It was a general sense that I think we all had, that we have observed over the last five to 10 years, that media has impacted on the national psyche.
“On there, you get the collective anger of our nation. Social media is often a cause for great good, but also seems to be a platform where people quite often express huge rage.
“I don’t know if this anger always existed, and we now have a public platform for it, or not. It has certainly amplified everything.”
He cites an example that morning on Twitter when he simply expressed sympathy for people caught up in the Hawaiian volcano. “Came the reply, ‘If they live near a volcano, so be it!’. Then people call him an ‘****hole’, then he’s coming back again, and on it goes.
“But I also wanted to explore how the public gaze on an investigation can affect it, and how we are all able to comment on it in what I think is a quite unhelpful way.” (read the full interview at The Express)Read More »