BACK ON THE CASE
A hit British crime drama returns to ask some tough questions about justice
This week sees the return of the critically acclaimed drama series Unforgotten, starring Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar. Seemingly a tad old fashioned when it debuted in 2015, this slow-burn crime show became a sleeper hit. Walker’s DCI Cassie Stuart and Bhaskar’s DS Sunny Khan teamed up to solve the historical murder of a child, and distinguished guest star Tom Courtenay, picked up a best supporting actor BAFTA for his role in the first six episodes. And wonderfully persuasive he was too.
The second season from creator and writer Chris Lang also brings us another disturbing cold case, which, like the first season, asks tough questions about the way justice works, or doesn’t, and how disturbing undulations from past events resonate across the years. Once again, it’s a many-layered, densely plotted story based on real events.
In Britain, the avuncular broadcaster Stuart Hall was charged with multiple sexual offences over a 20-year period. Although he initially denied any wrongdoing, he pleaded guilty in 2013 to having indecently assaulted 13 girls aged between nine and 17, between 1967 and 1986. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison, increased to 30 months on appeal, before two extra convictions brought another 30 months in prison. He was released in December 2015.
“I was watching the Stuart Hall story play out,” Lang says. “He moved from vehement denial, insisting on never having done anything wrong. And then he did the volte-face, entering a guilty plea at the last minute. I was wondering what must that be like for his colleagues, his friends, his family, having to make a complete reappraisal of the man they thought they knew. That was the germ of my story.”
As Walker suggests in an interview on the show’s website, essentially Unforgotten poses the question: “How do you live when you have done something in your past that you have to completely bury? How do you present this alternative face and personality that you then believe is real?” You might rewrite your history when something appalling has happened, but how do you live with yourself and the thought of someday being discovered?
The new series starts with the discovery by workmen dredging a London river of an old sealed suitcase containing the remains of a man’s body. The two detectives are faced with a seemingly impossible investigation. They are two of the most credible, plausible and all-toohuman cops working TV’s crowded crime scene and once again the grisly discovery is the beginning of a journey into the interconnected lives of those closest to the murder victim, all of them professional, caring people.
Lang’s take on the police procedural is to present in sharply observed detail seemingly random characters and events and then tie them plausibly — he’s a cunning master of parallel plotting — into a powerful, confronting and surprising conclusion. For him, though, plot is not merely a sequence of events but the fateful workings of probability, and his interest is at the psychological level when the action and progress of his narrative is driven by the characters and not events. It’s compelling stuff.
As Raymond Chandler once suggested, to avoid that annoying sense of contrivance that bedevils so much highly plotted thriller writing: “The solution, once revealed, must seem to have been inevitable.” And Lang gets us there based on human motives rather than the significance of seemingly unimportant clues distorted by false emphasis.
Stuart and Khan soon crack the mystery of their soggy corpse’s identity through his watch and a pager, aided by some confronting forensics work done by a cheery pathologist, as the other plot lines assert themselves with increasing clarity. The body is revealed as middle-aged David Walker who disappeared in 1990, leaving behind a wife and a young son, who is now in his early 30s and rather troubled. Also in the mix is a gay Brighton lawyer (Mark Bonnar), who is being blackmailed as he and his partner attempt to adopt a little girl. For chemotherapy nurse Marion (Rosie Cavaliero) the case opens old wounds. There’s an ambitious Muslim head teacher (Badria Timimi) and her accountant husband (Adeel Akhtar) tied in to the emerging puzzle. And there’s also the victim’s former wife, who turns out to be a hard-bitten Oxford-based cop (Lorraine Ashbourne).
We have no idea how these people are connected but we know they must be — and at the end of the first episode it’s all put in a storytelling context when DCI Stuart says, with Sherlock Holmes-like anticipation, “And so it begins.” The mercurial Todd Sampson, still wearing those now famous T-shirts with the teasing slogans, also returns this week with another of his potentially lethal documentary series. He’s still challenging himself to the extreme, mentally and physically. This time he’s about proving the laws of physics, the way “they bind us together, tether us to the Earth, and stop a speeding bul- let”, by again putting his life on the line in the interests of inquiry with the help of some raffish and somewhat eccentric experts.
He’s been doing it for some years now, taking vacation leave from the advertising world to present his Redesign My Brain series for the ABC, where he challenged himself in hazardous ways to improve his, and our, mental capacities. Then last year there was BodyHack for Network Ten, in which he pushed himself even further in the most hazardous and exhausting ways to improve his cognition, sensory perception and awareness, and creativity. It was addictive TV and Ten executives must be lamenting his return to the ABC, leaving them with their fatuous, poorly realised reality shows.
Show by show, we’ve been asking just what else this modest if engagingly talkative man can do to endanger his life, whether he has a death wish, and what his wife thinks of his altruistic heroics. Director Jeff Siberry, who has overseen many of his previous “adventure science” exercises — including a blindfold rock climb in Utah, a highwire walk atop a Sydney skyscraper, and that extraordinary cage fight in New Mexico — has had his share of misgivings. So far no major mishaps, he says: “But it is fair to say I was beginning to wonder how long this luck would hold.”
And it’s all you can think about in the first episode of this new series in which Sampson puts his faith in scientific absolutes to the test as he explores the physics of heat transfer, putting his body through an inferno with only a dousing of water. He’s carried on a sled through intense flames from a diesel/petrol mix at up to 900C on what he calls “the hellfire express”, a massive medieval-style track construction that looks like a torture device from the Inquisition.
With the help of physicist Jessica Bloom, the idea is to demonstrate water’s unique ability to absorb heat. Even a thin layer can save his skin from being burned in the flames. But it’s a matter of time. After one second in the heat Sampson’s protective water coating will start to vaporise. And if he inhales the flames, he is at risk of suffocating. It was filmed away from the public on Sydney’s Cockatoo Island, with a team of firefighters and paramedics on standby. Siberry and his resourceful director of photography, Tony Ralph, provide not so much a science lesson but something out of a high-concept action movie.
Sampson is his usual affable self, with those familiar moments of lacerating self-doubt, but Bloom is a revelation as a presenter, not only an astrophysics PhD student at Sydney University, studying galaxy mergers and their impact on galaxy evolution, but a circus performer — a contortionist, acrobat and fire spinner.
It’s a striking example of the constructed documentary, and Sampson and his collaborators have developed an imaginative way of presenting shows that are pleasing to watch, but also produce knowledge in the most entertaining ways. The message in what they do is cleverly contained within the storytelling, the investigative and revelatory dynamics at work, a brilliant example of TV as social worker bent on improving us at the same time as the already formidably improved Sampson continues to develop himself into a kind of intellectual superman. 8pm, ABC. Wednesday, 8.30pm, BBC First. Tuesday,
Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar in Unforgotten, above; Todd Sampson’s Life on the Line, left