March 22, 2021
Whether it be Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Father Brown or something more recent such as Line of Duty everybody loves a good murder mystery. And of recent television series, one of the most successful and popular is Unforgotten, with its atmospheric opening theme (All We Do by Oh Wonder) and the unlikely but effective double act of Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar as DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunny Khan. But how true to life is it? And how accurate is it to call it a ‘cold case’ drama?

To find out more about how well the programme stands up to expert scrutiny, we spoke to retired Detective Superintendent Roy Lambert from Suffolk Police, who conducted a number of cold case reviews into murders that may have been linked to Steve Wright, the so-called ‘Suffolk Strangler’, following his conviction.

The first point to make is that Unforgotten is not, in fact, a cold case programme at all. A ‘cold case’ is one where there was an investigation at the time, which either led to no suspect being found or to an unsuccessful prosecution. The investigations in Unforgotten are (up to now, at least) all first investigations into a crime committed many years before.

All ‘cold cases’ (as defined above) are kept under review and, in the event of new leads or advances in forensic science, the case can be looked at again. This of course imposes a heavy responsibility on the original investigating team to ensure that the evidence from the original investigation is preserved and that the exhibits are protected from corruption and contamination by the passage of time. This, according to Mr. Lambert, is the primary difficulty in any ‘cold case review’.

In what may be seen as the ‘bad old days’ the case papers and exhibits were stuffed into an archive in any old fashion with little thought given to the fact that it may need to be re-visited at some stage in the future. This, of course, would be a godsend to a defence barrister in any subsequent trial, giving them free rein to cast doubt on the integrity of the exhibit and its re-analysis by a forensic scientist. Add to this the effect of the passage of time on the memories of witnesses and the prospects of a successful re-trial diminish significantly.

Unforgotten, of course, deals with a very different scenario. There is no evidence contemporaneous to the commission of the offence, no matter how well or badly it has been preserved. This presents the police officers investigating the case with a completely different but equally difficult set of obstacles to overcome. There is very unlikely to be any forensic evidence left at all. Whatever there is will almost certainly have been corrupted by the passage of time. Eyewitnesses of the crime may be long gone, whether dead or moved on and impossible to trace. Those that can be traced may have limited recollection of the events they witnessed. Depending on the circumstances in which the body has been laying, it may even prove impossible to identify the deceased. This is perhaps where a degree of dramatic licence is required. In order to solve the crime, there inevitably has to be a lucky break of some sort: a sudden ‘light bulb’ moment for a witness. Clearly, these things can and do happen but, we suggest, far less frequently than television might suggest. Cold Case investigations have far fewer Eureka moments and much more labour intensive police work.

Whether a cold case or a first investigation, one criticism from Mr Lambert was the way in which this police work was conducted, especially how searches were carried out: officers trawling through boxes of property looking for the missing body parts in no order at all and wearing no sterile clothing other than a pair of latex gloves. The DI lifting up the deceased’s sleeve with a pair of tweezers to view a distinctive tattoo (and in full view of the forensic pathologist? Hardly likely in real life).

That in mind, for a very tragic reason, the current series has turned out to be remarkably prescient. The focus on a murder that took place over 30 years ago concerns suspects who are all serving or past police officers; a sad similarity with the Sarah Everard case. Nevertheless, Unforgotten must be watched as a drama and not a documentary. In that sense, it offers a powerful opportunity for the writer to shape the viewer’s attitude towards the police. The personal life of DCI Stuart and her neuroses allow us to see her vulnerable side and in doing so, the writers have made her distinctly human.

And so, with the backdrop of police as suspects in Unforgotten and in recent events, we can only watch to see how attitudes towards the police will develop, both on and off screen.

Simon Spence QC is a member of Red Lion Chambers, located in both London and Essex; with additional research by Pupil Barrister Joshua Ellis, Red Lion Chambers