British crime series from Inspector Morse to Midsomer Murders have long dominated linear television schedules in the UK and show no sign of slowing down. The man responsible for many of the latest gruesome hits is Chris Lang, creator of ITV’s Unforgotten and Innocent.
Lang tells Deadline why this new generation of police dramas is resonating with audiences and why he is interrupting this murder spree to focus on a number of more lighthearted, romantic comedy projects.
Unforgotten is currently in its third season and the Mainstreet Pictures-produced series is averaging 6M viewers a night, despite fierce competition from Aidan Turner’s sythe-wielding drama Poldark. The show follows two London detectives, played by The Split’s Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar (Goodness Gracious Me) as they work together to solve cold case murders and disappearances. The first series explored the case of the death of a 16-year old schoolboy, the second investigated the murder of a political consultant and the current season looks at the killing of a schoolgirl who disappeared on New Year’s Eve.
The show has managed to retain its audience – helped by streaming catch-up figures – in its latest incarnation despite moving to a Sunday night slot. Lang said, “I wasn’t entirely convinced by the scheduling of the show but it won the slot and beat Poldark eventually. People love the cast and the actors that we’ve attracted are the actors people want to watch. It’s not easy to lead an audience through a procedural whilst retaining humanity and warmth and wit and they both do it effortlessly.”
He said that crime procedurals are just good devices to tell broad stories. “Shows like mine and other cop shows are sold as genre shows but really it’s just a hanger on which to tell human interest stories. They happen to provide a good structure with a beginning, middle and end with a resolution as well as more complexity but really you’re looking at how people live their lives. People will always be fascinated by that and the police element is just a wrapper.”
Lang is currently considering whether he wants to bring the pair back for a fourth series. “ITV has asked for more and the truth is I don’t know. If I can get the team together, I have ideas, that’s never an issue, but it’s whether we can pull the same team together. There are very few shows on telly, if any, where you have the same director [Andy Wilson] for 18 hours and the same production team and editors. We all know what we’re working towards and to do another one, we’ve got to make it even better, which is quite a big ask.”
Unforgotten began airing on U.S. public broadcaster PBS earlier this year and ABC is currently developing a U.S. remake with Josh Berman, Sony Pictures Television and BBC Worldwide Productions. “Those things tend to take a long time – The Night Of took ten years. It’s already in development. Mainstreet has struck a deal and been ongoing for quite a few months. I am fairly uninvolved in that; the Americans buy the concept and make it their own and I wasn’t interested in trying to get involved in it,” he adds.
In addition to Unforgotten, Lang penned, and produced through his own indie TXTV, Innocent, a four-part drama that told the story of a man who professes his innocence over the murder of his wife. It starred Hermoine Norris, Lee Ingleby and Daniel Ryan and was the highest rated new drama of the year across all UK channels when it aired on ITV earlier this year. “I think people are becoming a tiny bit weary of the gargantuan series that come out of America, which are a little directionless on occasion and four-parters that are extremely punchy and can be stripped across one week,” Lang says. He is currently in discussions with ITV for a second season, that would use the same title but would be a completely new story.
It is also being remade in France, and possibly Germany. European remakes is something Lang knows a lot about. He has already remade a number of British thrillers, including A Mother’s Son and Torn, for France’s TF1. Initially approached to remake the shows by former ITV Studios France boss Francois Florentiny, Lang writes the scripts in English before his drafts are translated into French, with attention paid to local nuances.
Following these remakes, he turned his attention to delivering a French original. He wrote One Night Love (Plan Couer) for Netflix, an eight-part romantic comedy, based on a feature script he wrote, about a female bachelor who does not understand why she can’t find love. Her three friends, determined to help, hire an escort, whom she promptly falls in love with. Lang says that the show, which is currently in post-production, is a movie told over eight episodes.
He also hopes to get another romantic comedy project away and is in talks with broadcasters. He says that he is keen to move across genres, having started his career in a comedy revue group with Hugh Grant. “Writers do get pigeonholed. Non-genre is much harder to get away so you end up with more stuff that is commercial. I’m delighted that I won’t be seen just as a thriller writer.”
Elsewhere, his Tom Riley-fronted drama Dark Heart, an adaptation of Adam Creed’s crime novel Suffer The Children, is returning to ITV for six more episodes. The drama, which stars Riley as DI Will Wagstaffe, a police detective haunted by the unsolved double murder of his parents when he was just 16 years old, initially launched in 2016 on pay-TV channel ITV Encore and will air later this year on the main channel. “We’re in post-production. We come back in September to do the score. It’s looking stunning. Tom Riley is absolutely amazing in it and it’s so different to Unforgotten. It’s lovely to be able to work on two very different shows like that.”