I’ve never worn thermals before. I’ve been lucky enough that if it’s too cold outside I can opt to stay in. But on an arctic day in February I donned my thermals for the first time and pootled down to Moreton-in-Marsh to sit under a gazebo in the freezing temperatures. I was there to meet Chris Lang, writer and exec producer of ITV’s Unforgotten. In truth, of course, everyone freezing their bits off was there because of Lang. His crime drama, which returns soon for a third series has garnered critical praise and love from viewers.
When we first meet, Chris shows me the mock-up of the M1 the team has recreated on our location of a fire service training ground. Having been on the real thing half an hour before it played with my mind. The fact that it went up in two days and would be taken down in far less time at the end of filming today was even more impressive. If only real road works could be done that efficiently.
If you’ve seen the first two series, you’ll be aware that each series opens with the discovery of a body or bones from a long-unsolved disappearance. This time, DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and DI Sunil ‘Sunny’ Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) are called in when the body of a teenage girl who went missing at the turn of the millennium is found at a building site off the M1 motorway.
He may be responsible for every line of a dialogue, and an exec producer but Chris keeps himself out of the way on set. Sitting with me under our gazebo watching monitors as Nicola and Sanjeev stand in an icy forensic tent discussing the discovery of the bones he tells me tends not to get too involved once his job as writer is done. Of course, he’s incredibly modest and he’s very involved in the show. Earlier that morning, for example, there had been discussions on what kind of beard James Fleet should have or the right look and feel for the bones. As writer, the buck stops with him. Those working on the production want to know everything about the characters he’s created from the kind of house they would live and what kind of wallet they might carry.
Lang, who has five shows in production or ready to go this year, is quite rightly very proud of Unforgotten. In a time when crime dramas still reign his show stands out. The lead detectives he has created are two of the most realistic and down to earth people you’ll ever see in a drama. Inspired more by the recent wave of crime documentaries like 24 Hours in Police Custody than the TV cops that have come before. Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar portray real people who happen to be police officers. These aren’t the cliched coppers who ‘get results’ and throw everything off a perfectly tidy desk if things don’t go their way. The show isn’t about the loud moments that this genre has perhaps conditioned us to expect. It is the focus on the people involved in the crime and the delicate way it has to be handled and it’s that that critics and viewers have latched onto.
Back to Sanjeev and Nicola in that freezing forensic tent. Sanjeev tells me later that he was,”so cold I couldn’t actually feel my mouth as I formed the words.” The scene, which takes place early in the first episode, sees Cassie and Sunny huddled around the bones with a pathologist as they try and determine the age of their discovery. The script dictates the action is taking place in April and not the horrendous conditions this February day has landed cast and crew in. To keep the actors warm they have hot water bottles concealed under their clothes but the chill is so biting they offer little comfort. As part of that first episode, it slots in seamlessly but just be aware when you watch that scene that everyone on screen was in agony.
Lang is a TV lover with an opinion on everything. We talk briefly about how much we loved Breaking Bad and The Handmaid’s Tale and how we struggled with other shows. He began his career as an actor transitioning into writing in the eighties contributing to comedies like Hale and Pace and This Way Up before writing his own dramas beginning with ITV’s The Glass in 2001 through to 2007’s Torn, 2012’s A Mother’s Son and ITV’s recent hit Innocent. He also has a series for Netflix which he describes as“warm-hearted romantic comedy“. This foray into the streaming service is a new one. He’s created the show but has given the job of writing the show to a US writer. The show will then be translated into French and shown on Netflix in France as eight half-hours. This is on top of his other big ITV Dark Heart which began life on ITV Encore but has now been commissioned for a six-part run on ITV’s flagship channel this autumn. Unforgotten and Dark Heart happen to be shooting at the same time and he splits his time between both.
If for some reason the first two series of Unforgotten have you passed you by then let me fill you in. It’s crime drama about secrets from the past. It’s about people who have careers and families and their world being rocked by something they may have done years before. Last year’s series saw a man’s body discovered in a suitcase with the focus on seemingly unconnected people who turn out to be key in the man’s life. The series tackled the difficult of historical abuse and saw stunning performances from the likes of Mark Bonnar, Rosie Cavaliero, and Badria Timimi.
This third series has another impressive cast with Neil Morrissey, Alex Jennings, James Fleet who play a close-knit group of old school friends that have stood by one another through thick and thin. However, when the body of a teenage girl who went missing at the turn of the millennium is found at a building site off the M1 motorway, the four men are placed under the spotlight and their relationship is pushed to the limit. Although the show has always attracted the big names Chris Lang says he’s always amazed when they get the call that so and so has agreed to do it. He shouldn’t be. This year’s quartet of guest stars all credit the writing as the number one reason they were keen to join the show with Alex Jennings saying, “I was in absolute awe of Chris’s writing. You instantly get who these people are. It is nice to be part of something modern and I am very lucky to be able to do a bit of both. I would be quite happy to be dressed as the Duke of Windsor for the rest of my career, but it is enjoyable for me as an actor to do different styles. Unforgotten has a very naturalistic style and that is something I am very interested in exploring.”
When I meet Chris and the cast again it’s May and one of the hottest days of the year. I’m in an eerie building that has doubled as the police station for the past three series. It’s cold and uninviting and there’s a sense of unease about the place but upstairs the cast and crew are working on what Nicola Walker calls the “whiteboard scenes”. This is the final location of the shoot. It’s the most static cast and crew ever get after traipsing up and down the country to the various locations that the script demands. Both leads admit to nerves when it comes to topping the quality of the series each year and credit the show’s success to Chris Lang. Teasing a change for her character this year, Nicola Walker tells me, “I don’t know how he does it. It’s completely different this time, what he’s done with Cassie is different. He’s a very clever man”.
The clever thing about Unforgotten is that it tells four different stories in each episode. Each character has their own backstory and complex life going on within the show. Giving each character and each of his actors equal time is tricky but one that Lang has managed to juggle across the three series. In truth, each of these characters have stories interesting enough to carry their own series but it’s the fact that all of these stories are bumping and bleeding into one another is what makes the series so engaging. Neil Morrissey plays failing businessman Pete Carr. who has settled down with a family after years away in Hong Kong. On what attracted him to this third series, “For me, a project always comes down to the writing, to the script and this was a proper page-turner. I couldn’t wait to see where it was going. It felt like a very exciting novel when I read it and I immediately thought I want to be a part of this. It is such a brilliant show and Nicola (Walker) and Sanjeev (Bhaskar) are really great in it. I was keen to work with them both.” Neil also said he found it easy to relate to the long-lasting friendship of the four characters in this new run. “I have friends who have been around for almost 40 years from drama school which I started when I was 18. Whenever I go to see my best friend Richard who I met when we were teenagers at drama school, we turn back into our teenage selves. The sense of humour, the style of language, everything all goes back so easily. The friendships between the men in this series covers everything. The need to protect each other and the caring, fathering and mothering sides, to what goes on with these people and how they help each other out. It also shows how they get frustrated with each other and have arguments and misunderstand one another. It’s really good to have on screen and this series of Unforgotten questions how valuable these friendships are and if they are just protecting each other from dark secrets. It makes us question if any of us are actually aware of what our friends are capable of.”
Despite the dark undertones of Chris Lang’s scripts most of the cast admit they can leave the demons of their various characters behind at the end of the day. That doesn’t appear to be the case for James Fleet who is sporting an impressive beard for his role as Chris Lowe. “Chris is an adorable character and I liked him right away when I was reading the scripts. The journey he goes on is wonderful and I hope the audience will really be rooting for him to succeed. He is a very vulnerable man who gets a chance to repair his life and to be happy and they will just be thinking… please don’t ruin it! Hopefully, the audience is on his side, hoping it will all work out for him but at the same time in the back of their minds they will be questioning whether he is responsible for the death of this young girl.” Fleet is visibly nervous when he meets with me and the other journalists on that lovely hot day in May. He says he has found the mental health aspects of his character difficult and is looking forward to leaving some of the more difficult parts of him behind. ‘It is the first time I have played a character who suffers from mental health issues. Because of his problems, Chris is quite a manic person and so he doesn’t have any real responsibilities and is not accountable for much, which as an actor is enjoyable to play because it is very freeing. Although, it was also emotionally challenging at times as there is a lot of volatility in it. We look at mental illness and how people’s lives are affected by it. It is a huge issue that so many people struggle with, many without it ever being diagnosed, and it is quite healthy to be talking about it. Unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to mental health, which can cause people to feel like they have to keep quiet about it, which shouldn’t be the case.”
The biggest challenge for Alex Jennings was playing an ordinary person. Jennings is fresh off his roles in The Crown and A Very English Scandal and said he found it a refreshing change not playing a member of the Royal family or someone ‘posh’. “It is nice to be part of something modern and I am very lucky to be able to do a bit of both. I would be quite happy to be dressed as the Duke of Windsor for the rest of my career, but it is enjoyable for me as an actor to do different styles. Unforgotten has a very naturalistic style and that is something I am very interested in exploring. My character, Dr Tim Finch, is a successful GP in a country town. Heis happily married to his second wife and has two lovely daughters, Emma and Claire, from his first marriage. However, he is very much estranged from his first wife. “
The final member of the group is TV presenter James Hollis played by Kevin McNally. Aside from the great script McNally was attracted to the idea of playing a presenter and found himself rather engrossed in the role. “I was getting so full of myself pretending to present that I thought maybe I could do this. In America, the television presenters tend to be a little bit older whereas they tend to be slightly younger and edgier here, so I went for the style they have in America which tends to be quite patrician. They do like a silver-headed man in America. It is such fun!”
Three series in it Lang tells me his brain never stops whirring with new ideas for Unforgotten. The idea for this third series is one he’s had bubbling away for a while. It takes inspiration from the Milly Dowler case mixed with his own experience with his tight-knit group of friends who has known since he was eleven. “It’s loosely based on a weekend away I had with four mates and our wives that didn’t go entirely plan in 1999. I have to say no one was murdered! I also really wanted to explore social media and how it has impacted on the judicial system. This series I wanted to explore what happens when four people who know each other incredibly well, and thought they knew everything about their mates, start to question who their friends really are. Unforgotten is really about asking the question of how well can you truly know someone?”
So what can I say to tease the opening episode? Cassie is feeling isolated. The decisions she’s been forced to make over her career combined with the horrific things she has seen are starting to take their toll. Struggling to sleep and alone at home after her sons have fled the nest and father (Peter Egan) spending more time with a girlfriend she feels more distant when we meet her again. When the identity of the missing girl is revealed it has a shocking impact on her surviving family and that, at this stage, it is really difficult to imagine any of the four men have the capabilities to commit such an awful crime. That is because Lang has the knack of writing people you can sympathise with. People that feel genuine and real and that’s what makes the crime element so effective.
Unforgotten returns Sunday 15th July at 9.00pm on ITV.