The TV series ‘Unforgotten’: Tragedy in our everyday lives

Unforgotten(c) the series is available to watch on Britbox

Unforgotten(c) the series is available to watch on Britbox - Credit: ITV

In this week's community education column, academic John Astley writes for the Journal.

We have been living through a very demanding year, dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

There have been many tragic consequences of this public and personal health crisis reported on in this newspaper. Many people have described this as a tragedy, but strictly speaking this is not so because ‘Tragedy’ is actually the description of a dramatic form, like a play, film, novel, or opera. All of which is likely to develop empathy in us for others; we have seen this during the pandemic. One aspect of the civilising process.

A tragedy will certainly depict tragic events and characters, often, paradoxically, for our entertainment. I thought about this a good deal while watching through, and thoroughly enjoying, the four series of ‘Unforgotten’, written by Chris Lang, directed by Andy Wilson, produced by Tim Bradley, and acted out by a stellar cast lead by Nicola Walker (Cassie) and Sanjeev Bhaskar (Sunny). These plays emphasised for me just how good mainstream TV can be given the right combination of people and insightful commissioning.

In this piece I wish to say why I believe that ‘Unforgotten’ was an excellent example of Tragedy, and why this is important for us culturally and politically. This is popular culture at its best, and sadly stands in stark contrast to 90% plus of contemporary TV which is both vulgar and banal. Good products of popular culture are entertaining, stirring, demandingly thought-provoking, and essentially, educational. They are educational because they encourage us to think about the experiences portrayed in the drama, even discuss them, and also consider how what we have watched tells us something important about, gives us insight in to, the human condition. Who are we? What are we like? What values do we hold? Values that direct our attitudes and actions, our inter-relations with others; who do we care about? What do we care about? And the stark reality is that we all take action (think and do things) but not necessarily in conditions of our own choosing!

In Series 2 of ‘Unforgotten’ three lead characters; all suspected of murder; are in fact the victims of sexual abuse in their childhoods. 

Tragedies are a form of drama based on human suffering, and usually the terrible or sorrowful events that befall people, and frequently, their families.

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A key aspect of tragedy is catharsis, simply put, the process of raising our emotions and feelings to a level of consciousness where we are encouraged to address these feelings by working through the highs and lows, the snakes and ladders, the laughter and tears, of what we have experienced.

Another dimension to Tragedy; and to be found in all the arts; is that of irony. 

This is the incongruity between the actual circumstance and the expected or appropriate result, for example, on being let down by someone to respond with ‘oh thanks very much, that’s really great!’

The other dimension to dramatic irony is that we, the audience, can see the unfolding of events which are hidden from the main character, or characters, only to be revealed to them at some later time, may be too late? Just think about poor Hamlet; confused, angry, uncertain about life and loves; not knowing about some actions being taken by others. Or Romeo and Juliet, who despite all the family/tribal hatred, believe that ‘all you need is love’; driven by circumstances and misfortune to early deaths. These, like many others, like those three in ‘Unforgotten’, are tragic characters, presented to us in dramatic form to remind us all of the paradoxical nature of everyday life, the end of hope? Tragedy also concerns itself with these moral questions, what is right and wrong; how should we lead our lives, can we be ourselves and fair be minded?

There is redemption for them because Cassie and Sunny can see it would be wrong to punish them further, to take away their hope for a better life.

What matters to us now, based on our understanding of the past, and our hopes and even fears, for the future?