Narrative structure in Unforgotten and Innocent

Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar lead Unforgotten

Like many other appreciative TV viewers I have just watched the second crime serial/long form narrative of Innocent on ITV in the UK. A few months earlier I completed the fourth serial of Unforgotten, also on ITV in the UK, which saw the final appearance of DCI Cassie Stewart played by Nicola Walker. The major figure behind both ‘franchises’ appears to be the writer Chris Lang, who perhaps deserves the US title of showrunner. As far as I can see he seems to be directly involved as a writer for Unforgotten produced by Mainstreet Pictures and as ‘Executive Producer’ and co-writer of Innocent for TXTV which he co-founded with Matthew Arlidge, also a writer on Innocent, and Jeremy Gwilt. These three and Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes of Mainstreet are highly experienced figures in TV drama, mainly for ITV. However, my interest here is not so much in the companies but in the possible innovations in these two franchises.

Crime shows, along with with medical dramas – ‘cops and docs’ – are at the centre of TV drama. My interest is primarily in crime fiction across literature, film and television. I’m interested in what might be a shift in approaches to crime fiction narratives. In TV, the UK tradition has been to focus on either the ‘police procedural’ or the amateur/private detective investigation. ITV tends to call both forms ‘mystery drama’. Some of the most successful series have been based on lead characters from literary crime fiction, others are original. As someone who has decided for various reasons to avoid US TV crime dramas (and mainstream Hollywood films), my main focus has been on European and other non-US narrative forms. The major influence in the UK seems to have been the success of European crime fiction and especially Nordic crime fiction on TV epitomised by The Killing and The Bridge following the initial success of crime writers such as Henning Mankell with his Inspector Wallander stories in print form and then film/TV. At first this seemed to be a general influence in terms of noir and the tone and visual qualities of the crime fiction programmes as well as the increased emphasis on female leads. More recently perhaps we have seen more interest in the crime melodrama aspects – a focus on the emotional lives of both the police investigators and the various people involved in crimes, either as perpetrators or victims, witnesses etc.

There is nothing new in this interest in melodrama. As far back as 1956 and Ealing’s The Long Arm, we’ve seen little glimpses of the home lives of police investigators. Since then it has gradually been increasing, but the approach of Nordic crime fiction was on another level. The Killing (Forbrydelsen, Denmark 2007), the first serial of 20 x one hour episodes, stands out for me because of the interweaving of three major strands – the hunt for the murderer, the melodrama about the victim’s family and the political intrigue. I don’t think any of the later attempts to follow this model have achieved quite the same blend – or the same high quality of writing, performance and overall presentation. However, I was struck by my first viewing of Unforgotten and then by Innocent, both of which I found engaging and compulsive viewing. A comparison of both their shared and different elements is intriguing.

Unforgotten is an example of the ‘cold case investigation’ narrative. A separate police unit in London headed by DCI Cassie Stuart and DI ‘Sunny’ Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) plus a small team of detectives investigate cases on the basis of new evidence. Each of the four serials comprises six 46 minute episodes (2015-2021). It shares the basic premise with the BBC series New Tricks (2003-15) and Waking the Dead (2000-2011), both very successful but in formal terms mainly single episode cases  for the former and two-part episodes for the latter. But New Tricks featured retired detectives working for a serving officer in charge and tended towards a lighter and sometimes comic tone and Waking the Dead emphasised psychological profiling and forensics. Unforgotten focuses more on traditional procedural work and adds the dimension of the personal emotional life of DCI Stuart and to a lesser extent DI Khan. But what really distinguishes these serial narratives is the complexity of the crimes. I’m referring to serials 3 and 4 in which the investigation uncovers an incident several years ago which involved several individuals who have since led separate lives and may have dispersed geographically. Each of these individual histories needs to be investigated and each has the potential to develop into a personal narrative as well as contributing to the overall investigation. The original crime is eventually solved through dogged procedural effort rather than sudden flashes of inspiration (though this may happen at moments along the way). In terms of narrative structure this means each episode could be following two or three personal narratives, some of them emotional in bringing up past indiscretions, injuries, arguments etc. The complexity of the cases and the emotional triggers also impact upon DCI Stuart and the serials were highly praised partly because of Nicola Walker’s performances (and those of the team overall).

Katherine Kelly as Sally Wright in Innocent

The same level of complexity is found in the narratives of Innocent which has so far run as two serials of 4 x 46 minutes in 2018 and 2021. The difference here is that the narrative begins not so much with the discovery of new evidence in an old case, but with the release from prison of a convicted murderer because of a re-trial. This character returns to their community, not surprisingly keen to clear their name but also to find the real killer. The local police have to re-open the case, but this is clearly a different scenario. Interestingly, the two serials have also been set in more rural parts of the UK meaning that the return of the ‘innocent’ has more impact in a small community where the interlocking narratives are more visible and also more emotionally charged.

In the second serial aired Monday to Thursday last week, Sally Wright is released from prison after 5 years following a re-trial with new evidence turned up by a local journalist, a friend who ran a campaign. Sally (Katherine Kelly) had been convicted of killing one of her students, Matthew Taylor, a 16 year-old boy with whom, it was alleged, she was having a sexual relationship. As a result of the conviction she lost her job and her home when her husband divorced her. In a small market town like Keswick (pop. 5-6,000) she is a very visible figure and she provokes some people by demanding her job back at the school. There are several ‘interested parties’ who, for different reasons, are concerned about her release. They include her ex-husband who is now engaged to a woman who was the murdered boy’s social worker and a governor of the school. This woman has a daughter who is still at the school and there is at least one other ex-school student who is involved. Matthew’s parents are also enraged by Sally’s release. There is at least one other possible suspect known to the others so the writers have seven lines of enquiry to pursue, each fuelled by emotional responses. To top off the potential for emotional conflict, the detective assigned to re-open the case is DCI Mike Braithwaite. He has just returned to work after a period mourning the deaths of his wife and daughter in a car crash. Well played by Shaun Dooley, he proves both determined to solve the murder and also capable of treating Sally with empathy.

This then is the distinctive pattern of the narrative structure. Two non-competing investigators and seven potential suspects, all interconnected through emotional relationships, are contained in a small community in a beautiful location. There are scenes shot in Keswick, augmented by Irish locations since the production received Irish public funding during the pandemic. I was worried about this initially but actually the melding of two location shoots works quite well. Is it really a new type of narrative structure? I do think that it could be traced back to the traditional ‘country house murder’ of the 1930s but the inclusion of the previously convicted murderer makes a difference. In both serials so far the central character’s marriage has ben important. In the first serial a man has been released after a seven year internment for murdering his wife. He now has to recover custody of his children  as well as convincing them that he didn’t commit the original murder.

Watching Innocent I also thought of the non-procedural novels of the crime writer Ruth Rendell both under own name and as ‘Barbara Vine’. These often feature a network of close relationships at the centre of which is a serious crime of some kind. Many of them have been adapted for TV films or international film features. But the other touchpoint is perhaps the UK history of soap opera. As is common in many British TV drama series, leading players like Katherine Kelly might be recognised by soap audiences who feel that they ‘know’ characters from earlier years on a soap. But the soap link also refers to ITV’s scheduling which saw Innocent broadcast for four successive nights at 9pm ‘peak time’ and then repeated on the same evening at around midnight while also being available on ITV Hub to stream on the same evening. I watched each episode as they appeared on the hub and I’m sure the knowledge that this was possible attracted me to follow the story over the four evenings. The second serial of Innocent is on ITV Hub now alongside the fourth serial of Unforgotten.

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