It’s a very welcome return to ITV for Chris Lang’s Unforgotten, easily one of the best ever ITV dramas. A new series not disrupted by the pandemic is a rare treat in 2021. Even better is that it remains so good; clever, thoughtful, well-written and with a tremendous cast of excellent British actors in each series.
The case this time centres around a young man’s body discovered in a scrapyard. He’s been transported there in a very suspicious-looking locked freezer. Identification is an immediate concern because the poor lad’s head and hands have been removed post mortem which reminds me of the Russians in The Wire or a calling card of Italian mobsters in The Sopranos or Goodfellas. Just who did he get into trouble with? The Marathon chocolate bar wrapper in his pocket speaks to the date he was murdered, and the unusual Millwall Football Club tattoo narrows down the search quickly. His name was Matt Walsh, an apprentice electrician who was reported missing in 1990 at age 24.
In classic Unforgotten style, we spend this opener travelling around the country learning a little bit about the lives of the apparently nice and normal people who will likely become key figures as the investigation ramps up.
First, there’s the Sikh family from Southall, London. They have two sons; one who wears a turban and seems to live at home with his parents, above a tailors shop filled with beautiful saris. His brother Ram Sidhu (Phaldut Sharma) doesn’t wear a traditional outfit.. He’s expecting a baby with wife Anna. She’s 46 years old so the unpleasant but correct technical term is a geriatric pregnancy. There’s some concern about the heathy of the baby at their first scan.
Then we have Liz (Susan Lynch) and her elderly mother (Sheila Hancock) in Cambridge. It’s a very prickly relationship; her mother is lonely, sad and frustrated, lashing out at Liz at every opportunity. Her mother’s care assistant Eugenia is about to leave too, having had quite enough of her job. Liz has a fiancee Janet and is looking forward to married life despite Janet describing her Mum as an “evil old woman”.
At a massive Mansion in Rochester, Kent we meet Dean (Andy Nyman) and his wife and sons. He’s a gilet-wearing businessman organising a charity auction and dancing with his disabled son Jack in the kitchen. A man called Felix calls his office looking for help with a “shipment”. This blast-from-the-past sounds very ominous. It seems Dean was involved in criminal acts in a former life. My first guess is drug smuggling. Straight away Dean turns Felix down, but then pauses and asks for more details.
It’s always lovely to see Buxton in the Peak District on TV and this picturesque town is home to Fiona, Geoff and their children. She is a family therapist, busy setting up her own clinic. We see her explaining, rather heavy-handedly, to a client about the importance of honesty among families, so she’s definitely harbouring a dark secret.
DCI Cassie Stuart (the effortlessly brilliant Nicola Walker) is still dealing with the effects of her breakdown at the end of the last series. She put her job in jeopardy when she left a confidential witness file in a cafe and that same witness was then stabbed to death. As I wrote at the time “Cassie is done. As with everything in this world, her breakdown was totally unspectacular and quietly normal.” We pick up after she’s been signed off sick for a year, finding out that she isn’t eligible for medical retirement even though she’s just 3 months short of her 30-year service. It’s unpleasant to see her struggle against bureaucracy, losing the fight for the full pension she is owed. She has no choice but to get back to work; she needs all the money to pay for her Dad’s care. He’s been diagnosed with dementia and this huge, terrifying responsibility is looming large in her future. Her relationship with him has always been fairly fraught, but this disease has made him nasty and quite unsympathetic.
It’s desperately sad to see her go back to work even though everyone involved knows her mental health will suffer for it. Yet it’s great to watch her and DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) working together again. They are one of the greatest detective partnerships of all time, with such a natural and believable relationship. They show how real police work is in fact quiet, methodical and even boring at times. They show how important teamwork is, and how by working together, with no flashy Sherlock Holmes moments, real police get the job done.
Meanwhile, the police have tracked down the owner of the freezer; a man called Robert Fogarty, who has recently died. It seems he drank himself to death at an early age with no friends or family to check up on him. There’s a file discovered on Robert as he was pulled over for drunk driving on the night in 1990 close to where the victim Matt was last seen. The officer who arrested him has (fortunately for us) never forgotten the event. He says Robert cried like a baby at the side of the road because he was a newly qualified police officer and he’d wrecked his whole career before it even started with one reckless act. There were four other people in the car with him, all newly qualified coppers. So, now we know how all the strangers scattered around the country are connected. But how exactly are they involved in Matthew’s death?
Unforgotten is such a good looking series, with beautiful credits and an ethereal theme tune. Unlike hyper-stylish dramas, it is naturalistic and realistic. There are no spooky noir shadows, high-speed Fast and Furious chases, or wildly unlikely all-guns-blazing denouements (I’m looking at you Line of Duty). Everyone we meet – police, suspects, murderers or grieving families – are all real people doing their best in tragic situations. Even the terrifying murderer unmasked at the end of Series 3 was at first glance just a normal man. This normality and realness is what really resonates, and what makes you care about Cassi, Sunny and the victims. This is fiction, but always respectful to reality.
Contributed by Sarah Kennedy
Unforgotten Continues Mondays at 9.00pm on ITV.