The stars of Waking the Dead on their new prequel drama - and why the show could be coming back to TV
Sue Johnston, Claire Goose, Holly Aird, Wil Johnson and creator Barbara Machin spill the secrets of the crime drama's revival
Waking the Dead was a show that went before its time. In 2011, when the final episode aired, it was still pulling in seven million viewers, proof that the audience certainly hadn’t grown tired of its groundbreaking mix of police procedure, psychology and forensics. There was – pardon the pun – still a lot of life left in it.
“I think we could have done another season,” admits Sue Johnston, who played profiler Grace. “It was still very fresh.”
Wil Johnson (Spence) feels even more strongly than that: “I reckon we could still be running now. We always felt that the show was cut off too soon. It was ahead of its time and now that the rest of the world has caught up with Waking the Dead, it actually still feels current.”
At the time, of course, Waking the Dead was one of two cash-cow crime dramas showing on BBC1, the other being Silent Witness, which continues to run to this day. So why was one dispensed with and the other recommissioned?
“I’ll never understand it,” says Johnston. “I don’t know if it was a financial thing. Who knows? But one of us had to go and they decided to keep Silent Witness. I think Silent Witness ended up taking our studio, which hurt us even more.”
Well, you can’t keep a dedicated team of crimesolvers down for long and, seven years on, Waking the Dead returns in the form of prequel drama The Unforgiven (Monday-Friday, 2.15pm, Radio 4), written by creator Barbara Machin:
“I never recovered from not being able to talk to my characters again after Waking the Dead came to an end,” she confesses. “I felt like there was a lot of unfinished business with them. And what I’ve decided to do is take things in a different direction by jumping back 15 years before the show started to find out more about the characters that I love and am obsessed with.”
So how does The Unforgiven differ from a typical episode of Waking the Dead? “Well, the TV series was all about the shock of the new. Everything was cutting edge, from the forensics to the profiling to the police work. Now I take things back to 1984, before the silver bullet of DNA, before CCTV, mobile phones and computer databases. So it feels less familiar.
“But this isn’t Life on Mars. It’s actually a sophisticated time in its own right. I wanted to depict how clever crimesolving was back then, but without the resources that we’re now so used to seeing on screen.”
A prequel on radio is also a canny way of reuniting your original cast, though there is the notable exception of Trevor Eve whose role – irascible but brilliant Peter Boyd – is now played by Foyle’s War actor Anthony Howell. The plotline sees the nascent team trying to save the career of Boyd, who is forced to exit the scene early on. But was this what Machin had always planned or was an attempt made to tempt Eve back?
“Yes, we did approach all the cast, so we did talk to Trevor about it. But he’s involved in a big TV production at the moment, so it just wasn’t possible. But this is how destiny takes over because what I wanted to do anyway was bring Grace, Frankie and Mel to the fore. So Boyd is taken out of the leadership role and the three alpha women rise to the surface. It’s my Cagney and Lacey plus one.”
Adds Sue Johnston: “Spence is great too - and this serves as a good promotion for the character. But he is sort of left behind by the intelligence of the three women. They’re very bright. And coming out from under the huge presence of Boyd has freed them and the writing up. It shows that women can be witty and wonderful and carry the show.”
As for the reunion, it seems that the main players all jumped at the chance to explore the early days of the Cold Case Unit: “It was so lovely, such a thrill,” says Claire Goose (Mel). “We kept gossiping and having to be told to get back to work.”
Says Holly Aird (Frankie): “Waking the Dead has a special place in all our hearts because we did it for so long. So it really was like coming home.” And then there were the surprises in the script, such as the fact that scientist Frankie is revealed to have had an affair with Boyd back in the 1980s. “Oh my god, yes. And not only a fling with Boyd, but also her being a recovering alcoholic. All that’s quite interesting.”
Fans of Waking the Dead will also be thrilled to know that writer Machin not only has plans for further radio cases but also a transfer back to TV: “I’d been looking for a way to reboot it on television and this may hasten it. There’s a concept already in progress. We’re at quite an early stage. And when I stood watching the three women taking the lead while recording The Unforgiven, I felt that this would be the way to go.”
Were Waking the Dead to make a TV return with its original line-up, there would, though, be a huge problem: namely, the fact that Mel is no more, having been chucked off the top of a building back in series four. So surely the character can’t come back?
“You probably ought to talk to Arthur Conan Doyle about that,” says Machin, referencing the miraculous resurrection of Sherlock Holmes following his plunge over the Reichenbach Falls. “I don’t think we’ll let that get in the way. If it came back in a modern form, Mel is very much alive. And there’ll be a very intriguing, extraordinary way in which you will buy that.”
Speaking about Mel’s possible comeback in the present-day, Goose adds: “Yes, Barbara seems keen on the idea. And I said to her, ‘but Mel was thrown off a building’. She just said, ‘oh yes, but nobody remembers that!’ And I suppose that’s what you have to do.
“Barbara and I were talking about where Mel would be now. And she said it would be where Boyd was when we started Waking the Dead. She would effectively be heading up her own team. So that would be very exciting.”
Despite the whys and wherefores regarding Mel’s fate, one thing is for certain: there’d be no stopping the cast of The Unforgiven from returning should a new, present-day Waking the Dead get the green light.
“I’d absolutely come back. I will certainly be on board. It was such a good show,” says Wil Johnson.
Sue Johnston laughs: “Well, one of the great things about doing a prequel on radio is that we can all go back in time without the BBC having to pay for facelifts. So, god bless radio. But if it was to return to TV, they’d have to wheel Grace out. She’d probably be in an old people’s home by now. But it’s feasible, I suppose. Oh gosh, I’d love to do it again.”
And in an age where the likes of The Killing, Scott & Bailey and Happy Valley have repositioned women to be at the forefront of crime drama, Aird is of the opinion that it’s high time the female members of the Cold Case squad took centre stage.
“I can only speak for myself and my friends as women over the age of 45, but we’ve never been more interesting. We’ve lived a life, been mums and had careers, so there’s a real depth there.
“I don’t understand why there aren’t more roles for women over a certain age. Happy Valley has to be one of the best things I’ve ever seen on telly because Sarah Lancashire's character was a flawed woman who was brilliant and who had pain. That’s real to me.
“So it is the right time to bring Waking the Dead to return with three strong women. I’d definitely be back. I feel very at home there.”
The Unforgiven will be broadcast Monday to Friday at 2.15pm on BBC Radio 4