IN HER PRIME AGAIN
A highly successful British police procedural has been given a new lease of life
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