Redirecting the future

Redirecting the future

March 6, 2023

The Director’s Chair

Unforgotten director Andy Wilson charts the journey to finding the right character and actor to replace Nicola Walker’s departing DCI Cassie Stuart in ITV’s acclaimed cold-case drama.

At the end of season four of Unforgotten, Nicola Walker’s character, DCI Cassie Stuart, was tragically killed in a random car accident. None of us expected the outpouring of tangible grief on social media, in front-page newspaper articles or the outraged phone calls from friends and family left speechless with rage at what they felt amounted to the homicide of a beloved friend.

Most astonishing was the fact that the grief was directed at the fictional character of DCI Cassie Stuart, as opposed to regret that the fabulous Nicola would no longer be gracing our screens in the role.

From the moment Nicola announced her intention to leave the show (as she felt she had gone as far as possible with the character), we were wondering how we might handle the transition to season five without her.

Series creator Chris Lang had solid ideas for the subject matter of a new season, but given the extraordinary public reactions to Cassie’s death, would it even work for our audience if we replaced her? Should her colleague, DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) take over the unit, or should we promote another member of the existing team to be his partner?

In the end, Chris solved all these arguments by producing a slam-dunk first episode for the new season, introducing DCI Jess James. Within 10 pages, I knew he had achieved the impossible. With a cunning sleight of hand, he launched the new character into our world with a dilemma so personal and disarming that it prevented me from feeling anything other than genuine sympathy for her predicament when she joined the Bishop Street unit for her first day of work. By the end of my first read of the script, I was gripped and fascinated by the plot and the gallery of suspects, but with the added bonus of a beautifully drawn new character I cared for as much as Cassie. All we had to do now was find the actor brave enough to step into the awfully big shoes Nicola had left behind.

Director Andy Wilson talks to Unforgotten newcomer Sinéad Keenan on set

The casting process started with a very comprehensive longlist compiled by Laura Mackie and Sally Haines, our executive producers from Mainstreet Pictures, producer Guy de Glanville, our brilliant casting director Victor Jenkins, Chris and me. There were simultaneous discussions about how to bed in the new character, perhaps by giving the show a new stylistic spin with camerawork and design, or by using different music. Eventually, the longlist came down to a broadcaster-approved shortlist of three brilliant actors. Each of these could have aced the part, but Sinéad Keenan became the unanimous choice. Her energy felt entirely new, we elected to let her use her natural Irish accent, and we all felt we had made the right choice.

Understandably, Sinéad was terrified when she landed the role, but a delightful and laughter-filled first meeting with Sanjeev over a liquid lunch led us all to believe it would work and that this new team could have very entertaining chemistry.

While costume and make-up perfected a look for DCI James, I set about finding the location for where she lived. We settled on a tiny terrace in west London with a very large, modern kitchen extension. I knew we would schedule all Sinéad’s domestic scenes first, as I had decided that. If we got her home life right straight off the bat, it would be easier for her to construct the public persona of the police DCI with the rest of the cast later. We would shoot out the home location in strict story order across six episodes for the first two weeks of the schedule. There would be no other police scenes or interactions with suspects, just Sinéad and her family to cement the character’s back story.

Luckily, Sinéad loved the house and genuinely connected with the actors playing her husband, mother and children. When day one of the shoot came around, our first slate was a big close-up of Jess receiving some devastating news from her husband (I often shoot the close-up in emotional scenes first before pulling back to wider shots for the raw spontaneity of the first take). It was a difficult and important, dramatic moment and the very first time the audience would see the character in the series.

Keenan leads the season five cast alongside existing star Sanjeev Bhaskar

Sinéad was apprehensive and thought that maybe we should first shoot a later scene that was less emotional, to ease her into the role, but I insisted, and she completely nailed it with a brilliant and deeply moving performance. After we had completed that first scene, the crew were visibly impressed, smiling in approval. The first day’s rushes were sent out and the next day we received an executive sigh of relief in congratulatory emails. Unforgotten was now on track with a new adventure.

We shot scenes with Sanjeev and the rest of the team immediately afterwards. Apart from the read-through, this was the first time the actors had been together. First up on the schedule was the discovery of the remains of the season’s murder victim in a chimney flue in a derelict house in Hammersmith, west London, which involved a scratchy and bad-tempered encounter between our established police team and their new boss.

Sinéad swept in and controlled the scene with a steely professionalism and word-perfect delivery, giving little warmth to Sunny and the team. Sanjeev was visibly shocked at the difference between playing these scenes with Nicola, where the keynote was always deep trust and camaraderie. He had to play catch-up to Sinéad’s whip-fast energy and domineering tone. It worked beautifully to set up the professional conflict between the two characters, which provides the dynamic of the whole season. On completion, Sanjeev came over to me and said: “Blimey she’s good. I’m going to have to pull my socks up!” Never has a truer word been spoken in jest. Sanjeev’s performance in the new season – which debuted on ITV1 on February 27 and is available as a boxset on ITVX – is without doubt his best to date.

At the end of the three-month shoot, on completing Sinéad’s last scene in the schedule, I had to make the customary little speech in front of the crew to thank her for her work. It consisted of two words: “Boots filled!”

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