Why Unforgotten star Nicola Walker could be the next Olivia Colman
The ITV crime drama Unforgotten had a truly unforgettable finale on Monday night, killing off its heroine, Nicola Walker’s DCI Cassie Stuart. The outpouring of tributes on social media demonstrated how beloved her determined, moral, empathetic and quietly brilliant character had become over four series, and how much she’ll be missed by viewers.
Happily, the show itself will continue: a fifth series has been announced, with Cassie’s junior partner, Sanjeev Bhaskar’s DI Sunil “Sunny” Khan, elevated to the lead - a deserved promotion for character and actor alike.
Khan’s kindly, wry Sunny was a great match for the stormier Stuart. It will be interesting to see who writer Chris Lang pairs him with next - a challenge not unlike when Morse’s sidekick got his own show, Lewis, and a new partner, Hathaway. In that instance, several of Morse’s traits were transferred to Hathaway: both intellectual and fans of cryptic crosswords, in contrast to the down-to-earth Lewis’s more instinctive approach.
Lang could look to Unforgotten’s recurring characters for a new partner - perhaps Carolina Main’s DS Fran Lingley or Pippa Nixon’s DC Karen Willetts - or take the opportunity to bring in a fresh face. We’ll probably see more of Sunny’s home life, too: his girlfriend Sal, who he proposed to in the action-packed finale, and his two daughters, Aisha and Gemma. Perhaps he’ll also check in on Cassie’s dementia-suffering father (a heart-wrenching turn from Peter Egan).
Otherwise, Unforgotten’s premise means it’s actually well suited to a cast change. Though Cassie Stuart was vital in setting the tone of the show, its longevity is equally due to the new cast of suspects that appear each series. We’ve seen numerous great performers over the years, including Tom Courtenay, Trevor Eve, Gemma Jones, Mark Bonnar, Nigel Lindsay, James Fleet, Alex Jennings, Neil Morrissey, Emma Fielding, and, this latest series, Sheila Hancock, Susan Lynch, Phaldut Sharma and Andy Nyman.
In that sense, it’s rather like fellow crime dramas Taggart, Silent Witness, Midsomer Murders and Death in Paradise - all of which changed their lead actors, but benefited from a steady stream of guest stars. With Lang still involved, Unforgotten should be in safe hands.
But what now for Walker? The quintessentially British character actress, who was born in London’s East End and was the first in her family to go to university - and to Cambridge, no less, where she became friends with Sue Perkins - she’s a grounded, believable presence in every project, whatever the genre.
That’s included multiple law enforcement figures, from DI Susan Taylor in Touching Evil and the assistant commissioner in Babylon to the late DS Stevenson in River and intelligence analyst Ruth Evershed in Spooks. The latter clearly meant a lot to Walker: her son, with fellow actor Barnaby Kay, is named Harry, after Spooks’ Harry Pearce.
The bulk of Walker’s career saw her playing supporting roles - some indelible, like her film debut as one half of the frightful folk duo in Four Weddings and a Funeral. But she’s taken the lead more often in recent projects: aggrieved daughter Gillian in Sally Wainwright’s Last Tango in Halifax, divorce lawyer Hannah in Abi Morgan’s The Split, and, of course, Cassie Stuart in Unforgotten.
She’s made her mark on stage as well, winning an Olivier Award for playing Christopher’s mum in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the National Theatre, and getting rave reviews for the Young Vic revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.
Her next project is another crime drama, Annika, the TV version of Radio 4’s Annika Stranded. Walker reprises her marine homicide unit detective, investigating murders off the coast of Scotland - the action moved from the radio series’ Oslo. Less Scandi noir, more Tartan noir.
But does Walker have Hollywood ambitions, too? In 2015, when asked if she’d be interested in doing a superhero movie, she replied: “Yes. Of course. I would probably quite literally rip their arms off for it. It would just be a hilarious experience.” It might seem a leap, but Walker already has a decent US profile: River aired on Netflix, Unforgotten and Last Tango in Halifax on PBS, and The Split on Sundance TV.
The question is whether the qualities that make Walker such a favourite here, like her no-nonsense brusqueness and closely guarded emotions, would translate to a glossy American series or Marvel film franchise. She can perhaps take heart from another British actress whose career has risen stratospherically. Could Walker be the next Olivia Colman?
Both are renowned for bringing a deep well of humanity to every role, elevating side characters through sheer force of will. Both, also, became household names thanks to shattering crime dramas (Colman in Accused and Broadchurch), while also demonstrating a knack for comedy - albeit of the darker variety.
While neither fits the bill of classic Hollywood starlet, Walker, like Colman, could certainly seize the kinds of juicy roles available later in a career - like Queens Anne and Elizabeth II in The Favourite and The Crown respectively. Walker could perhaps do with an American-courting, Oscar-baiting period drama role - or one like Colman’s horrific godmother in Fleabag that shows a very different side of her.
The good news is that with so many streamers now desperate for content, in addition to Hollywood’s movie slate, there are more opportunities than ever, and well-trained, dedicated British thespians are hugely appreciated. Walker’s theatre background would stand her in good stead for the many stage-to-screen adaptations (like the Oscar-nominated The Father, in which Colman plays a key role), and her simmering naturalism would suit one of the ever-popular psychological domestic dramas.
Unforgotten’s loss might yet be LA’s gain.