When a skeleton is dug up from the cellar of a derelict building in Willesden, the first question asked is how old it is; but DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) is the sort who would be determined to solve the case whatever its age. And yes, this is Nicola Walker in a leading role, which is most welcome – she’s one of the best, and most-loved, character actors on the box. If you like Walker, and many do, you’re in luck because over the next month or so she’s going to be on your screens a lot (look out for BBC1’s River next week). But back to Unforgotten, ITV’s big new six-part crime drama.
Cassie is a surprisingly cheerful type for someone who lives with her elderly dad (Peter Egan), and works with gloomy DS Sunil ‘Sunny’ Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar), who is bringing up two children on his own.
It’s her dad who questions the wisdom of investigating what may be a decades-old crime, but as Cassie points out, there’s no statute of limitations on murder, and the victim will have been the son of someone who may still be alive. Is a crime less serious because time has passed?
As the skeleton is being disinterred, we meet elderly wheelchair-bound Eric Slater (Tom Courtenay) in Ely, who is resisting being put into sheltered housing; youth charity worker Lizzie Wilton (Ruth Sheen) in White City; dodgy vicar Bob (Bernard Hill) in Southend and Sir Phillip Cross, an Alan Sugar-type businessman pushing for ennoblement through a dodgy scheme with the government (Trevor Eve, basically doing the same character he played in The Interceptor).
Clearly all will be linked to the dead body, but how could such a disparate group be connected? We’re betting on an Inspector Calls-type series of revelations, in which not one, but all will turn out to be implicated in the 39-year-old case.
As the backgrounds to each character unfold, we find that Eric’s two sons are arguing about his care; that Lizzie is perhaps a bit too close to her young charges; that Sir Philip has a strained relationship with his daughter (Zoe Telford); and that manipulative Bob is interfering with the forthcoming wedding of his daughter (Claire Goose), neglecting his wife (Hannah Gordon), and abusing Church funds in a Father Ted-style ‘just resting in my account’ fiddle.
Investigation of the skeleton suggests death by blunt force trauma to the head, and car keys found on the corpse lead to a 1966 car registration. The car is found an unrestored wreck in a barn, but the boot contains a BOAC bag, and in that is a faded 1976 diary with the name James Niall Sullivan. Is this the dead man, and will further investigation prove worthwhile?
You can hardly fault the casting of Unforgotten; Nicola Walker, though often seemingly taking roles for which Olivia Colman was unavailable, is an Olivier Award winner, and has appeared in two of Unforgottenwriter Chris Lang’s previous hits, A Mother’s Son and Torn.
The supporting cast is equally stellar, with every face or name familiar from previous successes. Perhaps that is part of the problem with Unforgotten; it seems too much like a ‘greatest hits’ compilation from sundry detective series, going back almost as far as its own central murder mystery.
At the moment, there’s enough novelty in the character of Cassie to sustain interest. This may wane if we are subjected in future episodes to The One Unsolved Case That Haunts Her And Makes Her Determined To Seek Justice For All; Her Essential Character Flaw; or The Doomed Relationship With a Married Man That Can Never Again Be. Not to mention the Terrible History of Child Abuse Covered Up By The Authorities.
Let’s hope that Unforgotten avoids sinking under the weight of the crimes of the past.