20 November 2015

TV Review: Unforgotten - Series 1

On paper, ITV's new crime drama should be a total disappointment, writes Tom Newsom, yet it's surprisingly engrossing and gets better as it goes along.

A new ITV crime drama - no wait, come back!

On the face of it, Unforgotten doesn’t have a lot to offer viewers. Yet another drama where police detectives investigate old crimes (there’s literally a new one every week), only this time there’s no twist with the main characters, nor is it set in a particular, photogenic location. To make things worse, ITV were hailing it as the next Broadchurch, and then Nicola Walker, the main star, pops up in BBC One’s much more experimental drama River in the same week.

Every sign pointed to this being a disappointment - that is, except the cast list, packed full of fine actors, almost laughably so given their individual screen time in the first episode. The list goes on and on, but the ensemble cast includes Trevor Eve, Bernard Hill, Sir Tom Courtenay, Ruth Sheen, Gemma Jones, Cherie Lunghi, David Troughton, Hannah Gordon, Peter Egan... it’s an impressive roll call to fit into 45 minutes and lends the show some serious star quality. All this is fine, but often it’s no indicator as to whether the show is any good; even the best actors suffer with bad material.

So it’s a great relief that Unforgotten - forgettable title - is one of the best dramas ITV have put out this year. Sure, it isn’t original, not on the face of it, not as a genre. But its strength is in its writing: it manages to pull off having a ‘realistic’ tone but also with big themes, solid drama and twists, with relying on a flashy style or narrative tricks.
If the large cast list doesn’t give it away, the production is big. There’s a real drive to make this a diverse series that captures life in the country today - it’s great to watch a show that has a disabled character, black and Asian characters, gay characters, and all kinds of older people - from lotharios to liars to people with dementia. There’s even, by the end of it, a birth, a wedding and a funeral. It doesn’t feel like box-ticking, nor as if ITV is trying to appeal to all. It’s more like a state-of-the-nation drama.

Not necessarily just a state of the nation today, either. In the series, the police uncover a body from 1976 - so each of the main suspects is now in their 60s. Cleverly the series doesn’t dwell on the specifics, nor overly rely on flashbacks, leaving the events shrouded in mystery until the final episode (after all, the characters can’t remember everything from 40 years ago!). At first it can feel annoying, later you realise it’s the way to make you keep watching. That, and how it doesn’t need to - the drama here is watching to see how these suspects cope when their pasts are looked into, and secrets uncovered.

What secrets! What storylines! One of the strongest, I thought, is what Ruth Sheen’s character goes through. Once the police come sniffing round, it all comes out: she used to be a racist, she tells her - black - husband of twenty-odd years. She was egged on by her former boyfriend, she wasn’t really like that. We rarely see a story like that on TV, I think. Not just attacks by faceless youths but the insidious hints and rumours - with the focus solely on the characters in the modern day, the shoe is on the other foot once her community finds out. In the end, she’s merely looking for trust and love, rather than full forgiveness.

Obviously there’s a theme of history repeating itself, that the truth will out. It’s also incredibly easy to see this as a reaction to the modern day’s judging of the 1970s - with some people picking it as a decade where what passed for everyday life are now serious crimes  (as opposed to every other decade before then, and since). It doesn’t feel like a coincidence, but it’s not entirely unsubtle. Nonetheless the crimes that the suspects are guilty of are well chosen - the full gamut of hate crime to underage affairs. But there’s always an element of doubt, as in the real world. Every criminal has a defence.

It’s this realistic tone, combined with a steady, balanced plot, which makes this drama so engrossing and deep. It gets richer as it goes along, right up to the ending, which did not disappoint. The dramatic storyline and twists only go some of the way - it’s what sticks in the mind later. This is the sort of drama where the characters - especially the police detectives - stop for a few minutes and discuss the nature of guilt, innocence and historical crimes. And this is in ITV. My kind of show.

Thankfully they’ve announced a second series - and unlike Broadchurch, it might actually deliver. The only things that need to carry over is the format and the detectives. I’ve barely said a word about Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar - always likeable actors, both of them - and that’s probably because they’re not at the centre of this. I could barely tell you anything about their characters, nor do they go through much development by the end of it. Almost as if it’s real life. These are people you’d happily watch another series with, solving further long-buried crimes, which makes it good casting. That, and the top names, make this sound more like Midsomer Murders. But this has real teeth.

Oh and the theme's tune also pretty good.

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