IN HER PRIME AGAIN

A highly suc­cess­ful Bri­tish po­lice pro­ce­dural has been given a new lease of life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Prime Sus­pect 1973,

They call best­selling crime nov­el­ist and in­de­fati­ga­ble tele­vi­sion drama­tist Lynda La Plante the “ma­tri­arch of mur­der” and her cre­ation, DCI Jane Ten­ni­son, might just be the most fa­mous fe­male de­tec­tive since Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Cre­ated by La Plante in 1991 in the long-run­ning TV se­ries Prime Sus­pect, and played so com­pellingly and un­com­pro­mis­ingly by He­len Mir­ren, Ten­ni­son em­bod­ied the flawed, lonely, fa­tigued, painfully heroic char­ac­ter once only the prov­ince of men.

Her pro­fes­sion­al­ism as a de­tec­tive was linked to her fem­i­nist abil­i­ties to recog­nise and an­a­lyse the sex­ist at­ti­tudes and struc­tures that not only hin­dered women from tak­ing their right­ful po­si­tions in a sys­tem based on merit but also mired po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions be­cause of pre­con­cep­tions and prej­u­dices. But Prime Sus­pect was more than the sum of its gen­der concerns; it was equally sig­nif­i­cant for the way it treated con­tem­po­rary so­cial prob­lems and the na­ture of jus­tice. It set high stan­dards with its grip on what some crit­ics called “foren­sic re­al­ism”.

The show re­mains a global phe­nom­e­non, one of the most suc­cess­ful pro­ce­dural po­lice show for­mats, hav­ing aired in 78 coun­tries, with world­wide au­di­ences for some episodes es­ti­mated at more than 200 mil­lion view­ers. It’s won more than 23 in­ter­na­tional awards, in­clud­ing Em­mys, BAFTAs and the Edgar Al­lan Poe for best TV fea­ture or minis­eries.

Some­what oddly, La Plante — known for her prick­li­ness and acer­bic out­spo­ken­ness in the TV busi­ness — was not ac­tu­ally in­volved in Prime Sus­pect af­ter the third sea­son. She was dis­ap­pointed in how the se­ries con­cluded in 2006, with Ten­ni­son strug­gling with al­co­holism and im­mi­nent re­tire­ment. In 2015 she re­leased Ten­ni­son, the first in a se­ries of books re­veal­ing the de­tec­tive’s early years from rookie po­lice of­fi­cer to se­nior de­tec­tive. To many it seemed like an at­tempt to re­trieve own­er­ship of her most pop­u­lar char­ac­ter.

“I just find it very sad that for the end of a great char­ac­ter, fe­male, some­body has to say, ‘Make her a drunk’ ,” she told the BBC at the time the se­ries fin­ished. And her prob­lems with the way TV com­pa­nies have treated Ten­ni­son have con­tin­ued with the pro­duc­tion of Prime Sus­pect 1973, star­ring the rel­a­tively in­ex­pe­ri­enced 26-year-old Stefanie Mar­tini as Ten­ni­son, based on La Plante’s novel and adapted by Glen Laker ( Vera) for Bri­tish com­mer­cial net­work ITV.

La Plante was orig­i­nally sched­uled to write the six-part se­ries but pulled out of the project fol­low­ing a dis­agree­ment, it seems, over Mar­tini’s cast­ing. To judge from early episodes, it may have been an over­re­ac­tion — the se­ries re­ceived gen­er­ally favourable re­views in both Britain and the US, with crit­ics prais­ing Mar­tini’s per­for­mance. And it is a con­vinc­ing, em­pa­thetic por­trayal of a young woman try­ing to find her place in a man’s world, and worth fol­low­ing to the end of the se­ries.

Jane Ten­ni­son is 22, fresh out of train­ing and start­ing a pro­ba­tion­ary stint at east Lon­don’s Hack­ney Po­lice Sta­tion in 1973. As the story be­gins she’s late to sign on a few weeks into her ser­vice, hav­ing jumped off a bus in a fu­tile at­tempt to stop a bag snatcher rob­bing an el­derly woman. “You turn up for duty late, look­ing like you’ve been wrestling a pig,” she’s told. “You’re sup­posed to be mak­ing up for last week’s traf­fic screw-up so I’ve got some­thing pos­i­tive to write in your first pro­ba­tion­ary re­port.”

Ro­man­ti­cally driven to in­ves­ti­gate crimes, she has lit­tle in­ter­est in the things that ob­sess other young women of her class, to the cha­grin of her mother, Mary (Geral­dine Somerville). She voices concerns about her daugh­ter’s vo­ca­tion, dis­mayed she’s not more like her sis­ter, who is ab­sorbed in her forth­com­ing mar­riage. She’s as much an out­sider in her fam­ily as she is in the po­lice.

At work, Ten­ni­son bris­tles at the sec­re­tar­ial du­ties as­signed un­think­ingly to her, fetch­ing tea and bis­cuits for her male co-work­ers and clean­ing up af­ter them. Their only ac­knowl­edg­ment, apart from check­ing out her body in her pert uni­form, is to mut­ter: “Ta, love.”

The world of the Lon­don cops is ster­ile and sor­did, she quickly dis­cov­ers. As an ide­al­is­tic young woman, she chal­lenges the male de­tec­tives’ phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal se­cu­rity, and they fo­cus their sex­ual and sta­tus anx­i­eties on her. Women po­lice at this time rep­re­sent a para­dox­i­cal com­bi­na­tion of at­trac­tion and fear. Ten­ni­son quickly senses she can’t al­low her­self to show in­de­ci­sion or weak­ness. The men are al­ways watch­ing her, wait­ing for her to crack.

She sees her­self as hon­ourable and de­ter­mined to do good in the world. When ques­tioned by a su­pe­rior about her call­ing, she an­swers sim­ply: “Be­cause it mat­ters.” But later adds mis­chie­vously, when DI Brad­field (Sam Reid) be­comes im­pressed by her ob­vi­ous acu­men and ap­pli­ca­tion: “I thought the force could do with more posh sorts, sir.” He also ap­pears just a tad smit­ten and of­fers sound ad­vice: “You should never apol­o­gise for ask­ing ques­tions; it’s the only way to become a better cop­per.”

Brad­field in­volves her in the mur­der of teenager Julie Ann Collins, who is found dead in the un­der­ground carpark of Kingsmead Es­tate in Hack­ney, hav­ing been beaten on the back and but­tocks. Ten­ni­son at­tends her first au­topsy and ac­com­pa­nies Brad­field on a bereavement visit to the girl’s par­ents, both events leav­ing a last­ing im­pres­sion, es­pe­cially the cig­a­rette she’s of­fered at the au­topsy, “for the smell”.

The girl’s drug-ad­dicted boyfriend Ed­die Phillips (Jacob James Beswick) looms as the ob­vi­ous sus­pect, es­pe­cially when, af­ter be­com­ing sick dur­ing an in­ter­ro­ga­tion and be­ing taken to hos­pi­tal, he dis­ap­pears.

A par­al­lel plot that twists in and out of the mur­der in­quiry sees Clif­ford Bent­ley (Alun Arm­strong) serv­ing time in prison while look­ing for a way out of a bank rob­bery he and his fam­ily are plan­ning for gang­land king­pin Clay Whit­ley (Do­rian Lough), also in jail. Bent­ley’s youngest son, David (Jay Tay­lor), is seem­ingly con­nected in some way to the mur­dered girl.

At the end of last week’s first episode Ten­ni­son had started her own noc­tur­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Collins’s death, speak­ing with a lo­cal pros­ti­tute who knew her. It’s an ex­change that fin­ishes with the sense of ob­ses­sive­ness that will drive Ten­ni­son. “It makes me sick to my stom­ach that that bas­tard is still out there some­where, breath­ing, eat­ing, liv­ing, while Julie Ann is in the mor­tu­ary be­ing prod­ded, poked and sliced open,” she shouts in frus­tra­tion. “Help me help her.”

This week as the in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ues, the bank rob­bery planned by Bent­ley and his sons shifts gears, and the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ten­ni­son and Brad­field be­comes tense af­ter they have a drink to­gether.

It’s well put to­gether by Laker and di­rec­tor David Caf­frey, if lack­ing slightly the en­ergy and sense of jeop­ardy of both La Plante’s novel (“She grabs you by the lapels, shoves you up against a wall, and doesn’t stop talk­ing un­til you have heard the story she wants to tell,” lit­er­ary critic Shirley White­side wrote of Ten­ni­son) and the ear­lier se­ries. But it’s flu­ently di­rected with a nice feel for pe­riod, a rainy, slightly nicotinet­inted aes­thetic that works ef­fec­tively.

Mar­tini is ter­rific as the younger cop, bear­ing more than a pass­ing re­sem­blance to Mir­ren, and she gives an early taste of Ten­ni­son as a woman of ac­tion who is de­ter­mined to give a voice to those who have none.

It’s in­evitably ab­sorb­ing view­ing, of course, given our knowl­edge of what the young WPC’s life will become one day when she has ma­tured into the hard-bit­ten, chain-smok­ing, bea­t­en­down heavy boozer played by Mir­ren, a fe­male po­lice­woman pay­ing for 35 years of re­pressed rage and alien­ation.

AS AN IDE­AL­IS­TIC YOUNG WOMAN, SHE CHAL­LENGES THE MALE DE­TEC­TIVES’ PHYS­I­CAL AND PSY­CHO­LOG­I­CAL SE­CU­RITY

Fri­day, 8.30pm, ABC.

Stefanie Mar­tini as DCI Ten­ni­son with Sam Reid and Blake Har­ri­son, above; Alun Arm­strong in the new se­ries, left

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