TV Review: Unforgotten Series 1

“All these cases where people pretends to be one thing for half a century and then turn out to be something else”

The insanity that is the scheduling wars between the BBC and ITV often throws up random anomalies but rarely has the result been something as rewarding as a surfeit of Nicola Walker. Having recently made River for the BBC and Unforgotten for ITV, both police dramas were premiered in the same week and as six-part dramas, are reaching their climax at the same time too. And what has been particularly pleasing is the fact that both have proved to be highly watchable and interesting takes on the genre.

Chris Lang’s Unforgotten focused on a cold case from nearly 40 years ago as skeletal remains are found in the basement of a derelict house and in the cleverly constructed first episode, the four disparate characters that we have been following are eventually tied together as their phone numbers are found in the victim’s diary. Walker’s DCI Cassie Stuart and Sanjeev Bhaskar’s DS Sunny Khan soon identify him as a Jimmy Sullivan but the show focuses as much on the effect of long-buried secrets on the potential suspects as it does on the case itself.

And it does this magnificently. Trevor Eve’s business czar Sir Philip Cross may be consulting with the government now but it was gangland connections that got him where he is alongside Cherie Lunghi’s wife; Ruth Sheen’s Lizzie Wilton is a model of inter-racial integration now but there’s darkness hidden in her past (and under her rings, an inspired choice); Bernard Hill’s Father Robert should be happily married, to Hannah Gordon no less, but an error of judgement haunts him until today; and Tom Courtenay’s paralysed Eric Slater and dementia suffering wife Claire, a hauntingly fantastic Gemma Jones, share a troubled past that they can’t escape.

Lang’s writing really benefits from allowing itself to explore deeply into his characters and how their damaged psyches have affected their family lives in the intervening decades, even into the next generation, and there’s an impressively natural progression and integration of all four strands with the main crime. And though it may not be consistently foregrounded, there is no doubting the lasting emotional impact of Jimmy’s murder in the devastating portrayal of his grieving mother from Frances Tomelty, one of the most powerfully affecting performances I’ve seen on television all year. 

The way in which Walker’s Stuart instinctively taps into this grief as a quiet but forceful motivator for solving the crime is beautifully done as well, allowing this finest of actors ample opportunity to do what she does best, particularly in the final episode and its dogged pursuit of justice that might have appeared unnecessarily brutal in other hands. I was grateful for the uneventful personal lives of the police officers and I really loved the redemptive nature of the story at large too, the past may shape us but not always definitively. Some cracking TV, it’s almost a shame that a second series has been commissioned as this was a self-contained near-masterpiece.

Unforgotten will be released on DVD on 16th November

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