‘Writ­ing saved my life af­ter my wife’s sui­cide’

Chris Lang, cre­ator of hit TV drama ‘Un­for­got­ten’, tells Ben Lawrence how per­sonal tragedy shaped his work

The Daily Telegraph - - Health & Features -

Tele­vi­sion drama is dom­i­nated by crime – it al­ways has been and it al­ways will be, but writer Chris Lang is do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent. The 57-year-old has, since the late Nineties, been bring­ing his own dis­tinc­tive brand of smart, emo­tion­ally so­phis­ti­cated thrillers such as Torn and A Mother’s Son to TV au­di­ences. What may seem on the sur­face to be a stan­dard pro­ce­dural al­ways turns out to be a cor­us­cat­ing study of the hu­man con­di­tion: our frail­ties, our lies, our un­fail­ing ac­cu­racy in mak­ing the wrong de­ci­sions. Re­cently, Lang has hit the big time and this year he has pro­duced no less than five shows (three in the UK, two in France) in­clud­ing an­other se­ries of his most-lauded work, Un­for­got­ten, star­ring Ni­cola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar as a pair of de­cent, hard­work­ing de­tec­tives un­earthing dark deeds from the re­cent past.

Un­for­got­ten may be Lang’s big­gest suc­cess but it is also rep­re­sen­ta­tive of what has gone be­fore. He doesn’t do red her­rings or ab­surd plot con­trivances, never maps out weird twists just to prove how clever he is. Mr Mer­cu­rio, take note.

“I would never do a left turn that felt out of char­ac­ter be­cause I would feel I was cheat­ing the viewer and I would feel cheap­ened,” the writer tells me when we meet in the of­fices of ITV. He at­tributes much of the suc­cess of Un­for­got­ten (which will re­turn for a fourth se­ries) to the per­for­mances of his two leads whom he de­scribes as “amaz­ingly em­pa­thetic and en­gag­ing”.

“I didn’t want the au­di­ence to see the po­lice as ‘other’, I wanted them to see that the po­lice are like us be­cause that has been my ex­pe­ri­ence. I think 90 per cent of them are de­cent peo­ple. Ob­vi­ously there are some who have en­tered the force for un­healthy rea­sons and I may well touch on that in se­ries four.”

Lang dis­agrees with the idea that Un­for­got­ten is se­date. “It’s true that I am not an ac­tion guy – I don’t do car crashes or ex­plo­sions, but I think there is a place for more thought­ful de­tec­tive drama. I feel more com­fort­able with a group of char­ac­ters sit­ting in a room un­pick­ing how they feel about things. I of­ten look at how I have dealt with life’s vi­cis­si­tudes and then work it out through my char­ac­ters.”

In­deed Lang’s past has been marked by one par­tic­u­lar tragedy. Eleven years ago, his first wife, Ly­dia, com­mit­ted sui­cide leav­ing him wi­d­owed with three young chil­dren. He was in the mid­dle of a job, work­ing for an­other ITV drama, The Palace. He was of­fered a pay-off but de­cided to re­turn to work af­ter two or three weeks. “I would have gone crazy oth­er­wise. On a prac­ti­cal level, work­ing was one of the things that saved my life. But I was also over­whelmed by the kind­ness of my friends and fam­ily and I gained a view of the world that I had not seen be­fore.

“The af­ter­math of the tragedy was one of the most pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences I have ever had – beau­ti­ful things came out of it, a great sense of op­ti­mism be­cause I felt so loved.”

He says her death in­formed his writ­ing. “Hav­ing had a fairly gilded life and then the big­gest catas­tro­phe hap­pens – well, your life be­comes quite frag­ile and you sud­denly re­alise that there are many peo­ple deal­ing with the same thing ev­ery day and you start to un­der­stand peo­ple. I stopped be­ing so solip­sis­tic, I sup­pose, and started to see other peo­ple’s pain. For the last 10 or 11 years, I’ve been writ­ing about why peo­ple are dam­aged or weak or flawed and try­ing to have com­pas­sion for these things. Un­for­got­ten is say­ing that we have to be more com­pas­sion­ate be­cause we live in very an­gry and un­for­giv­ing times.”

Lang’s lat­est drama, Dark Heart (which re­turns at the end of the month fol­low­ing a pi­lot last year), also show­cases his abil­ity for emo­tional truth. It fea­tures a su­perb, sub­tle per­for­mance from Tom Ri­ley as DI Will Wagstaffe, still haunted by the death of his par­ents who were mur­dered when he was a teenager. No one was ever brought to book, and Wagstaffe’s pain man­i­fests it­self in a com­pul­sion to push be­yond the bound­aries of what is con­sid­ered ac­cept­able polic­ing in or­der to get re­sults, as if he is try­ing to com­pen­sate for some­thing un­re­solved. Like Un­for­got­ten, Dark Heart proves that Lang has a won­der­ful, Dick­en­sian eye for Lon­don – its ser­pen­tine sprawl and its mul­ti­tude of rich and var­ied char­ac­ters.

“I bloody love Lon­don,” he says. “I love the du­al­ity of it – you can see the poverty and the wealth, the an­cient and the new, the eter­nal strug­gle be­tween good and evil. You can see it on the streets, on the cob­bles and on the glass.”

Lang lives in the city he adores (with his sec­ond wife and his fam­ily), and hails from south of the river in Peck­ham, although he moved to a small mar­ket town in Sur­rey when he was a child. He re­turned to study at Rada and worked as an ac­tor for

‘We have to be kin­der. We are in very an­gry and un­for­giv­ing times’

sev­eral years with only modest suc­cess. He men­tions an early role in Alan Clarke’s Stars of the Roller State Disco, a 1984 Play for To­day set in a dystopian fu­ture where young­sters are forced to roller skate ad nau­seam un­til they find gain­ful em­ploy­ment, a sur­real foot­note in an oth­er­wise jour­ney­man ca­reer.

“I was a medi­ocre ac­tor,” he says. “The fact is that at Rada, af­ter my first two or three classes I started to look at class­mates like Janet Mcteer and I re­alised… F---, she is proper.”

In his early ca­reer, he also teamed up with Hugh Grant (they met while ap­pear­ing to­gether in reper­tory the­atre) to form a com­edy troupe, The Jock­eys of Nor­folk, who en­joyed great suc­cess at the Ed­in­burgh Fringe.

Grant, he says, “is nat­u­rally funny and left to be­come Hugh Grant”. Lang went off to be­come a com­edy sketch­writer (while still oc­ca­sion­ally act­ing), work­ing for Smith and Jones and one of Jonathan Ross’s chat shows from which he was even­tu­ally sacked.

“I was writ­ing s--- links and I just wasn’t funny enough,” he says.

He soon cut his teeth on lon­grun­ning shows such as The Bill. Lang, how­ever, has not dis­pensed with hu­mour al­to­gether. One of this year’s shows, Plan Coeur, is about an un­lucky-in-love fe­male singleton and he cur­rently has a se­ries in de­vel­op­ment that is au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal.

“It’s about what hap­pened af­ter my wife died, when you’re a wid­ower who has a lot of chil­dren and you fall in love with some­one.”

He is also hop­ing to write a big state-of-the-na­tion drama for the BBC, mind­ful that they can be “pros­e­lytis­ing and preachy when not done right”.

“Of­ten they are writ­ten by the­atre writ­ers who don’t get that nar­ra­tive is the most im­por­tant thing. You have to cre­ate a crack­ing story, hold up a mir­ror and say this is who we are.”

I worry that Lang is spread­ing him­self too thinly and he ad­mits to be­ing “com­pletely bloody knack­ered”. But he is also very happy.

“I am in a po­si­tion where I love my job and I feel priv­i­leged to do it. I’ve been talk­ing to univer­sity stu­dents re­cently and say­ing: ‘Look, you are 20 and I didn’t get to where I wanted to be un­til I was in my late 40s. I feel cre­atively sat­is­fied in a way that I have never felt be­fore – but it has taken me 30 years.”

Chris Lang is do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent when it comes to crime drama, with shows such as Dark Heart, top right,Un­for­got­ten, right, and Mother’s Son, be­low

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