How One Cold Case Inspired PBS’s Latest Intense British Crime Drama

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In the premiere episode of the crime drama Unforgotten, premiering April 8 on PBS, London DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) asks a question that is crucial to the series: "Is a crime less serious because time has passed? Is it wrong, less wrong, because it was done 50 years ago?" In the series, Cassie and DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) investigate the disappearance of one Jimmy Sullivan — a case that is nearly 40 years old. While Unforgotten is not a true story and Jimmy Sullivan is fictional, the process of re-opening historical police investigations is very real.

Unforgotten creator and writer Chris Lang told Drama Quarterly that his inspiration for the show came from watching an 80-year-old man be convicted for a crime that had happened decades previous. "I was struck by how that person’s life, in a space of a few hours, had collapsed," he said. "I just thought that was a really interesting starting point — what’s it like to live with a crime for 30 or 40 years and have a family and career, only to see them dismantled in an instant?" While Unforgotten isn't the first show to deal with cases that remained unsolved for decades, it is reflective of a cultural moment in modern British history.

The murder in Unforgotten is what's popularly known as a "cold case." The National Institute Of Justice describes a cold case as "any case whose probative investigative leads have been exhausted." The visibility of cold cases can be tracked throughout recent television, with series such as the BBC drama New Tricks and the aptly named Cold Case following investigators trying to come to new conclusions in historical cases. However, in an interview in Radio Times, Lang points specifically to "historical cases that we’ve been reading about in the last two, three or four years" as his inspiration for the series. He doesn't indicate, however, which specific cases influenced the show.

In a recap for the series' initial 2015 airing in the UK, The Guardian drew a line between its fictional action and the real Operation Yewtree. Operation Yewtree is a Metropolitan Police Service investigation launched in 2012 that brought to light several cases of sexual assault and child abuse. Per The New York Times, the investigation took shape following a rush of accusations of abuse against British children's entertainer Jimmy Savile, who had died in 2011. By the 2013 publication of the Times piece, $2.7 million had been spent on the nationwide investigation into sexual harassment and abuse complaints from years long past.

Per the BBC, a similar investigation — the National Police Chiefs' Council's Operation Hydrant — had opened investigations into 2,228 child abuse suspects in the UK as of 2015. Because those investigations were focused on "non-recent" accusations, 286 of those suspects were already deceased when the work began. The scope of Operation Yewtree and its ilk loomed large in the media around the time Unforgotten first premiered.

Though cases do go cold, Unforgotten doesn't waste much time questioning if crimes are any less serious just because time has passed. As DCI Cassie Stuart tells her husband, "I think if people are still alive who are affected by it, or even if they remember people that were affected, I think that society has a responsibility to take it seriously. No matter how far back, no matter how old they are." And while it's easy to let these investigations languish, there are those in law enforcement who are committed to solving unsolvable mysteries or giving closure to people who have had none.

So its story isn't real, but Unforgotten's message to the world is: there's no statute of limitations on the truth.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.