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 »
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 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 »
Season two of Chris’s rom-com ‘The Hook Up Plan’ premiered on Netflix on Friday October 11Read 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 »
Alex Jennings has been nominated for a Bafta for his role as Dr Tim Finch in Unforgotten Season 3. One of his rivals for the 2019 Best Supporting Actor award is Ben Wishaw, nominated for his role in A Very British Scandal, in which Alex also starred. The full list of nominees can be seen here. The Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards ceremony will be held at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 12 MayRead More »
The New York Times lists the best television of 2018, with a glowing mention of Nicola Walker in Chris Lang’s Unforgotten:
‘Unforgotten’ (PBS) and ‘The Split’ (Sundance TV)
“Nicola Walker is everywhere in British TV (six-episode seasons help), and she’s always good. She was at the center of each of these series, as a quietly compassionate cold-case cop in the first and as a quietly angry divorce lawyer with her own marital and family issues in the second. “Unforgotten,” created by Chris Lang for ITV, is melancholic and deliberate while “The Split,” created by Abi Morgan for BBC, is biting and fast-paced. Both are intelligent and thoroughly imagined — they’re melodramas with no artificial aftertaste. (“Unforgotten” is streaming on PBS and Amazon; “The Split” is streaming on Sundance Now.)”
The full NYT list can be seen here
The Telegraph: From Derry Girls to Dynasties: the 10 best TV shows of 2018
The third run of writer Chris Lang’s superior police procedural gripped and moved in equal measure. When a long-missing girl’s skeleton was discovered under the central reservation of the M1, cold case detectives Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar doggedly traced her murder back to Millennium Eve. Former schoolmates Alex Jennings, Neil Morrissey, Kevin McNally and James Fleet became prime suspects. The killer’s eventual unmasking was one of the year’s most chilling scenes.
See the full list here
The Killing Times Top 20 Crime Dramas Of The Year
The third series of Unforgotten yet again lived up to its name. This most unflashy of police procedurals remained in the memory long after transmission, thanks to creator and writer Chris Lang’s engrossing slow-burn approach of four suspects connected by a collective past and a cold case murder. This time its historical snapshot was Millennium Eve and the death of teenager Hayley Reid.
The superlative pairing of Nicola Walker as DCI Cassie Stuart and Sanjeev Bhaskar as DI Sunny Khan – the most human cops on the box – shone as brightly as ever while their characters’ mettle was tested by four old schoolfriends in a script that transcended most whodunnits.
Not for these two the wise-cracking hyperbole of average cop shows, Unforgotten presents murder not as titillating red-top sensationalism, but in all its social impact, heartache and, yes, even banality. Granted, the couple did come up against their first serial killer, GP Tim Finch (a gripping, glacial turn by Alex Jennings), but who in the real world do we generally trust more than the those in the medical profession? Dr Harold Shipman and nurse Beverley Allitt found similar trust plus opportunity. Series four is on the way – and we can’t wait.
See the full list here.
The Custard TV
Unforgotten (July 2018, ITV) Chris Lang certainly had his work cut out for him after the show-stopping second series, but the acclaimed writer managed to deliver once more with the crime drama’s third series. This time around, DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and DI Sunil Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) are investigating the murder of Hayley Reid, a young girl whose remains are discovered off the M1 motorway. The narrative unfolds over the course of the six episodes, and there are some wonderful twists and turns along the way. As is the case with all of Lang’s work, nothing ever feels contrived or cliché, as his suspects spin a web of lies and deceit. The greatest thing about the third series is how the case impacts Cassie in a way that the previous investigations did not, and her personal struggles end up getting in the way of her work. This is what separates Unforgotten from all of the other crime dramas on television: Cassie and Sunny might be detectives, but Lang never loses sight of the fact that they are first and foremost human beings, which is the reason why we love them so much. Another incredibly strong series for Unforgotten, which only left us craving more.
See the full list here
Digital Spy’s 25 best TV shows of 2018
The best drama series on ITV right now, bar none, Unforgotten returned this year with its most gripping case yet – a six-parter featuring knockout performances from Nicola Walker, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Alex Jennings and the whole cast.
See the full list here.
WhatCulture: 10 Best British TV Shows Of 2018
The first series of Unforgotten, as well-received as it was, fell under the radar a bit. It was when the second arrived last year that viewers really had the opportunity to see what they were missing out on. With two spectacular series under its belt – and a Stateside airing on PBS – things could only get better for Unforgotten, which is exactly what happened when the third series premiered back in the summer of this year.
The greatest thing about Unforgotten is how Chris Lang uses his two main characters to explore incredibly relevant issues. In the third series, it’s social media – or more specifically trial-by-social-media – and the dangers that arise because of it that are at the forefront. Additionally, the narrative is exceptionally good (as always), as DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunil Khan investigate the murder of Hayley Reid, after her remains are discovered off the M1 motorway.
The fact that Unforgotten is rather formulaic actually benefits the series as opposed to hindering it. The unforgettable twists and turns were as spectacular this time around as they’ve ever been, and the fact that the case personally impacted our detectives aided in differentiating this series from its predecessors. Utterly sublime.
See the full list here.Read More »
‘a heady if dark brew of compelling police drama’
Mail on Sunday
‘Charlotte Riley is excellent…a promising addition to the tortured cop genre’
‘A quality thriller’
‘I was so gripped by it.’
‘Anyone who tuned in to last Thursday’s opening offering in this brilliant new crime drama will be back for more’.
‘Charlotte Riley is on top form’
‘Atmospheric and quietly riotous’
‘…an incredible series…a stellar cast’
Olivia Colman tops a list of the hottest stars on British television, Nicola Walker, the star of “Unforgotten” makes the top 10, and Chris Lang is among the television writers singled out for praise.
“Chris Lang has quietly become one of Britain’s most prolific television writers. A doyen of the slow-building murder mystery, his series Innocent (starring Lee Ingleby) and Unforgotten (with Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar) have crept into British living rooms and hooked in millions of viewers. The latter has just aired its series three finale, earning widespread praise, but Lang isn’t done yet – Dark Heart, a drama which piloted on ITV Encore in 2016, gets a full series starring Tom Riley this autumn.”
See the full list at the Radio TimesRead More »
I don’t think anyone saw that coming…the revelation was played brilliantly….there is nothing showy about Alex Jennings work in this episode but it is still a stunning turn. The charming psychopath with ice in his veins is nothing but compelling. We won’t forget Doctor Death in a hurry.
Simply unforgettable…the brilliant script and stunning cast line up kept fans on the edge of their seats for the last five weeks….this never to be forgotten drama.
Alex Jennings was outstanding….bleak and brilliant…credit goes to Chris Lang for avoiding cliché and providing depth.
A downbeat and quietly brilliant final episode….deeply satisfying and entirely believable. Sunday Telegraph
Chris Lang’s exemplary cold case drama
The Times (Saturday Review)
An intelligent and twisty ride….this thrilling episode does not disappoint
A gasp inducing finale that won’t be forgotten…supremely gripping.
The Daily Telegraph
Like a game of Cluedo scripted by Ingmar Bergman….the summer’s most essential small screen drama….a masterclass in dodging cliches’
***** Mail on Sunday
***** The Times
***** Daily Star
‘This subtly woven, quietly emotional, beautifully crafted opener….the most compelling drama of 2018?’
The Daily Telegraph.
‘How good is Unforgotten ….one of our most human and humane cop shows’.
‘So uncommonly good….Bronagh Waugh gave a searingly good performance’
‘The dialogue is sparing yet potent, every line earning its keep….compelling TV with no fat on the bone’.
‘Unforgotten has become the most watchable cop drama on TV….terrifically smart, very moving…no other drama series wears its humanity in such a subtle fashion’. Saturday Telegraph Review
‘The combination of creator Chris Lang’s writing and the beautifully low key performance by Walker and Bhaskar makes this an unalloyed joy to watch.’
The Mail on Sunday
‘..a cut above any other ITV crime drama…the success of Chris Lang’s series is down simply to the superior writing and convincing performances.’
‘As intelligently plotted and sensitively performed as ever.’
The Sunday Telegraph,
‘Chris Lang has struck gold again’.
The Saturday Mail
‘Unforgotten is once again superb….it’s beautifully crafted and performed, tight, gripping, but also moving and so very human..there is no better drama on television…’
‘A quality piece of TV in every sense…it’s riveting from the outset’
The Sunday Express
‘You must watch the new series of this compelling drama….it’s a brilliantly acted slow burn as the case unfolds over six gripping episodes’
‘Unforgotten is the quiet star of the television crime genre’
The Daily Telegraph *****
The Guardian *****
The Daily Mail *****
The Times ****
Mail On Sunday*****
Daily Express ****
Daily Star ****