The director of five consecutive seasons of ITV crime drama Unforgotten, Andy Wilson, reflects on the longevity of the acclaimed series.
“I see Unforgotten’s seasons as a cumulative portrait of contemporary British culture and politics via the stories of the guest stars as suspects.
“Nearly eight years ago I was lucky enough be sent the first three episodes of a new police drama called Unforgotten as an open directing assignment.
On first reading I was struck by the originality of tone and the careful avoidance of cliche in Chris Lang’s writing. His returning police characters , Cassie Stuart and Sunny Khan were realistic; they were neither physically nor mentally disabled, alcoholic, or corrupt but seemed to inhabit the same world as you or I. They worked hard, loved their families, and were dedicated to the pursuit of justice.
The cold case murder scenario Chris had imagined was genuinely gripping; a body exhumed in the basement of a building site pointed to a set of four potential suspects all with an historical connection to the victim. This was where the format became truly different and exciting. The suspects were drawn by Chris as completely believable and admirable human beings with issues, families, careers, and pasts. Each one was a character deserving of a series all of their own, in short, they were the antithesis of the usual villains and suspects in a police drama. There was little or no reason to suspect any of them as wrong doers, but slowly and carefully as he progressed the narrative, Chris revealed the hidden secrets of their past lives sowing seeds of doubt in the viewer about each one’s potential guilt or innocence until the perpetrator was finally uncovered by the dogged investigative work of the police.
If TV is all about format, this was one I’d not seen before, a crime drama where you empathised with and invested in the suspects as much as the police investigators. I thought it really had legs. Luckily, I got the job and ended up (for various budgetary reasons) directing all six episodes of the first season of the show.
Luckier still, I have now directed every episode of five six-part seasons of Unforgotten, thirty hours of drama in all, and count my involvement with the show as the happiest and most creative experience of my professional life.
I am often asked how I maintain my creative interest season after season. The simple answer is that I regard the long form narrative arc of the show as a single story that I want to finish telling, as does Chris Lang. Even now that we have introduced a new lead character after Nicola Walker’s exit from the cast, the story continues to expand and develop.
In the current season, Nicola’s character is still very much present in the bruised emotional states of Sunny and his team following the loss of their beloved boss.
The incoming DCI played by Sinead Keenan is forced to operate under the shadow of her predecessor. Tensions obviously run high. Sunny has problems letting go of his unrequited feelings for his boss which impacts his new relationship. The team worries for their futures.
Because I know and love these characters and have directed every beat of their journeys through the story so far, it is fascinating for me to guide the actors’ performances through these new situations, finding new facets to their roles.
I see Unforgotten’s seasons as a cumulative portrait of contemporary British culture and politics via the stories of the guest stars as suspects. I approach each suspect’s story as a unique entity with its own style, and schedule each suspect into a block of shooting, so that for three weeks it feels we are constructing that character’s own film.
The genius of the format is that we can fully explore the nuance of each suspect’s character in around an hour of screen time in each story , which has resulted in a clutch of awards for superlative performances from Tom Courtenay, Alex Jennings and Mark Bonnar.
We have featured suspects from manifold walks of British life and geographical locations. Our roll call has included twenty fascinating character studies including Tory Lord, reformed skinhead, priest, sex worker, country doctor, corrupt financier, heroin addict, internet influencer, tv presenter, immigrant schoolteacher and nurse. Through the lens of their narratives, we have been able to speak about a dizzying range of contemporary topics from police and political corruption to child abuse, racism, drug abuse and mental health. No other returning drama covers this kind of ground and still carries its audience in increasing numbers. Our characters give us voice.
Unforgotten has carved itself a unique niche in this regard, while other returning dramas and soaps are generally about the same central characters and their weekly story, Unforgotten offers its audience a huge menu of characters and dramatic situations and attracts top talent into its casts to play them. In that regard we have moved the status of the medium of long format TV storytelling forward. And that has been entirely satisfying.”
Andy Wilson is director and executive producer on Unforgotten. He is represented by Charlotte Kelly at Casarotto Ramsay & Associates
Unforgotten, February 27 at 9pm, ITV1. Unforgotten will be available as a complete series on ITVX after the first episode has aired on ITV1.
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