When I visited the set of ITV’s beloved crime drama Unforgotten cast and crew were coping the best they possibly could with The Beast from the East. I’ve never been so cold, out in the elements with only my layers of clothing and a gazebo to shelter me from the blistering weather. Under a similar tent, but not so well sheltered from the cold were the stars of the show Sanjeev Bhaskar and Nicola Walker. It may have been one of the coldest winters on record but Chris Lang’s script for this third series dictated that the scene they were shooting on this day was taking place in April. The pair masterfully tackled their scene, examining the bones of a young girl whilst fighting against the elements.
The next time I meet Sanjeev it’s one of the hottest days of the year but we’re still slightly cold as the building, which has doubled as the police station for the last three series is rather ominous and eerie. In the interview below we chat about returning for a third series, but most importantly his character’s backpack which has almost become a character all of its own.
What can you tell me about the backpack/rucksack? It has taken on a life of its own.
It really has! Before we started shooting the first series they said we’ve got some briefcases for you and I said, well what about a rucksack or backpack or something? They said why? I just thought it was practical, It’s not like you’d have a bag with POLICE written on it. It struck me as something really practical that you could latex gloves, swabs an extra jumper.
It’s quite big, isn’t it?
(Laughs) It’s not that big! It’s not like I’m hitchhiking across Europe!
It always seems quite full. Has he got his lunch in there as well?
Well, when the series went out, I’d go on social media and people would be asking me, what’s with the bag? And then that became what’s in the backpack? So I said to costume and props just fill with it stuff. Don’t tell me what it is because it’s got to look like it’s got stuff in it, then I’d post pictures of the contents on twitter. The series has just been shown in America and so now I’m getting tweets from Texas saying, what’s with the backpack!?
He never fully wears it over his shoulder though.
No! Because that would look ridiculous! (Laughs)
Does he have to use to defend himself this series?
No. But again it’s much easier to use that as some sort of bag come Nunchucks. I guess you could throw a briefcase at someone but this gives me much more flexibility. I can see it having its own series! It’s weird how it became a thing I didn’t expect it to at all I just thought it was a practical decision.
Has anyone in the police said anything to you about the backpack?
No. I think they get it. They understand!
The themes in Unforgotten can be quite dark. Are you able to leave those on set or do you find yourself taking them home?
It’s an interesting question. I remember talking to the wife of a lecturer I knew at university. His wife worked in social care dealing with children who had been abused. I remember thinking, how do you come home after a day like that? I think the same about Macmillan Nurses. What they do is amazing and you have to be a special type of person to do that. Of the many gifts that working on a show like this has given me, the best thing it has given me is a friendship with Nicola Walker. So many of our scenes are together and no matter what the scene is or how dark it might be, once the camera stops we can have a laugh and see the ridiculous in ourselves. That for me has been a saving grace.
As actors how do you feel you compliment one another?
She’s brilliant and I’m not that good so between us we kind of such balance each other out. I hadn’t met Nicola before although we had a couple of people in common and we’d lived in the same area for a week! I remember when we did the readthrough saying hello and feeling really comfortable. When we shot the very first scene in the first series we turned round to each other at the end and said I feel like I’ve known you for years. We never really looked back after that. It’s weird to be on set without her.
The series always attracts impressive casts. How have you got on this time?
I had met Neil Morrissey before – he was a guest on the Kumars so it was weird and lovely to see him and talk about that. I had worked with James Fleet once before and had met Kevin McNally at the Attenborough Centre when we were doing an evening celebrating Richard. I was interviewing him on stage and as soon we saw each other again on set, we reminisced about that.
I hadn’t met Alex Jennings, but I had watched The Crown so I wanted to ask so many questions about that. He is a wonderful actor, as they all are, and they are all really different energies, which is fun. Bronagh Waugh who plays Jessica is fantastic too – she was nominated for an Olivier Award. So those moments of intensity are offset by being surrounded by positive, creative
and empathetic people on set which is great for the soul.
Are you a binge-watcher?
I’ve become one but in a way, I think it’s a real shame. One of the things I miss is that when I was a kid it was a communal experience. The family sat down together and then everyone would talk about it the next day at school and that’s kind of gone because we’re all watching different things on different sized screens. I do find social media really interesting. I don’t tend to read it as the show’s going out but it shows you that people get really really invested and it’s great being able to interact with them.
What do you think draws people to the series?
Aside from the great writing and the great casts we get, I think it’s the fact that Chris Lang packs so much in. Each character or suspect has their own story going on and each one of those is strong enough to be a series of their own. In the first series, we had Ruth Sheen playing a character who was a racist in her past but had completely turned her life around but when the investigation started her past was bought up and it changed the way everyone saw her. That’s a series right there! In this new series, the four characters we look at and the lives they have are really interesting and could easily carry their own series. I think it’s the fact that we’re telling a lot of interesting stories in a bigger story is really interesting.
Unforgotten returns Sunday 15th July at 9.00pm on ITV.