BACK ON THE CASE

A hit Bri­tish crime drama re­turns to ask some tough ques­tions about jus­tice

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Un­for­got­ten, Todd Samp­son’s Life On the Line,

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

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