Gone but Unforgotten
As cold-case drama Unforgotten returns for a fifth season, writer Chris Lang and stars Sanjeev Bhaskar and Sinéad Keenan reveal how the acclaimed series picks up following the departure of one of the show’s stars.
“So how do I follow that?” asks Chris Lang, the creator of ITV’s acclaimed cold-case cop show Unforgotten.
It’s a perfectly fair question. At the end of season four, Lang did the unthinkable: he killed off one of Unforgotten’s two beloved central characters, dispatching DCI Cassie Stuart (played by the magnificent Nicola Walker) out of the blue in a car crash. The death of Cassie caused much very understandable wailing and gnashing of teeth across the nation.
As the fifth season of Unforgotten arrives tonight on ITV, the big question is, having disposed of one of the most compelling and popular characters on TV, what on earth does Lang do now?
His answer is to incorporate the universal sense of grief about the loss of Cassie into the narrative. That way, she is gone but unforgotten.
Lang reflects the overwhelming sense of bereavement through the prism of her devastated professional partner and close friend, DI Sunil ‘Sunny’ Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar). As well as feeling utterly bereft, Sunny also has to cope with a tricky new boss, DCI Jessica ‘Jessie’ James (played by new co-star Sinéad Keenan).
The writer, who has penned every episode of the drama about a police unit that investigates cases unsolved for decades, confesses that the issue of what to do next “was the question that exercised me as I absorbed the extraordinary audience reaction to the end of season four.”
“Perhaps the reaction shouldn’t have been a surprise,” he ads. “I’ve been heartbroken enough myself when a favourite TV character has died. We take these people into our homes and into our hearts, and when they leave us, it is genuinely sad.”
But then, he continues: “It struck me: that’s what I start with. We allow our characters – Sunny and the team – to go on exactly the same journey as the audience, as they deal with the loss of a person they adored, while also trying to process the brutal inevitability of someone else stepping into those much-loved shoes.”
The idea of making Cassie’s exit an integral part of the story works very well dramatically, and Bhaskar says the absence of his close friend Walker on set assisted his performance as Sunny. “I was shocked four times by Nicola’s departure,” he explains. “I was shocked when Nicola first told me what was going to happen to her character. Then I read it in the script, and then we filmed it, and then I saw it, and each time it was shocking. But dramatically, that’s where they wanted to take the character of Sunny and use that from a storytelling point of view.
“It was weird because not having Nicola there felt really odd. She is such a good and close friend, I felt slightly lost in the way that Sunny does. But the fact that it was about Cassie/Nicola made it easier to get to those places.”
The sense of mourning that pervades Cassie’s old team casts a powerful shadow over the new season of Unforgotten, which is once again produced by Mainstream Pictures for ITV.
“Grief does affect people in deep and profound ways,” says Bhaskar, previously best known for comedy series such as Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at Number 42. “One of the ways it affects people is you feel lost because it’s such a mixture of different emotions. There’s loss, there’s regret, there’s having to reassess what your life is. And for Sunny, all those existential things are sitting behind everything he does.”
“It struck me that, outside of his daughters, Cassie was the most consistent and positive relationship Sunny had had. And suddenly to not have that… Cassie was so much more than a colleague. She was a friend, she was a confidante. And Sunny is finding it difficult to recalibrate his life.”
Keenan was also well aware of Cassie’s absence and acknowledges it was daunting to step into the role of Sunny’s new partner. In fact, the actor admits that at first she rejected the part of Jess, as she was too fearful of trying – and failing – to follow in Walker’s footsteps. “I said: ‘No, no. Thanks very much, no. Who’s going to be the idiot to follow Nicola?’ What I was mainly nervous about was following Nicola, because who wants to do that? She’s so brilliant.”
Fortunately, Keenan was eventually persuaded to take the part. “You almost have to forget about Nicola to do the role. I’m a different person. I’m a different actor. It’s a different character. If I thought about it too much, well, I wouldn’t have done it.”
It helps that Jess is not in the least bit similar to Cassie; it is very far from a like-for-like replacement. “I absolutely understand why people would say that Nicola is being replaced,” says Bhaskar. “But for me, a replacement is Roger Moore taking over from Sean Connery as James Bond. This is a different character. It’s not the same show anymore. Rather than re-treading the same ground, it’s new territory with new dynamics and new relationships.”
Sitting next to his co-star in a Central London hotel after filming has wrapped, Bhaskar adds: “The easiest thing – and the worst thing – would have been to bring in a character who was exactly like Cassie and have the same relationship and dynamics. That wouldn’t have been interesting to an audience or to us. However, to bring in a character who’s different is really intriguing. And to bring in someone who’s as good as Sinéad is glorious. Just don’t tell her I said that!”
This season of the detective drama, which has won both a Bafta and a Broadcasting Press Guild Award, opens with the discovery of human remains in a house being refurbished in Hammersmith, West London. Nobody has a clue how long the body has been lying there. So far, so Unforgotten.
In contrast to Cassie, Jess clashes with Sunny from the very outset. Unbeknown to him, she has been blindsided by an unforeseen issue, and it takes the pair several episodes to try to put their differences aside and focus on the case.
“In order for them to do their job, they need to be able to lay their cards on the table,” says Keenan (Little Boy Blue). “Eventually, Jess says, ‘Yes, I have been difficult, but this is why.’ Then they have, for want of a better phrase, a heart to heart.”
Bhaskar chips in: “They reach a point where they have to say, ‘Solving crime and finding justice for victims is the reason we came into this job. But we can’t do that if we’re constantly at loggerheads.’ They have to find a way through, whether that is sitting at opposite ends of the room from each other or doing everything on the phone.”
When the fourth season went out two years ago, it attracted an eye-watering 7.5 million viewers per episode. The critics were unstinting in their praise, too.
So what makes Unforgotten, which is distributed by BBC Studios, stand out in a very crowded market? According to Bhaskar: “There are a lot of cop shows out there, and a lot of really good ones. But I think this is unusual. Unlike a lot of cop shows, Unforgotten is not heightened. It’s rooted in reality. I can’t think of anything quite like it on telly at all. It is unique.”
Clearly, the show could run and run. “I know Chris has a plotline for another season,” Keenan reveals. “This is where the grown-ups go and make their decisions, and we just wait and see.”
Where could the next series of Unforgotten be heading, then? “Sunny goes into space,” Bhaskar deadpans. “That’s all I’m saying.”