Prime Suspect 1973: Stefanie Martini stars as Jane Tennison.
She’s one of the most iconic characters in TV drama – mould-breaking female detective Jane Tennison. Crime Scene meets Stefanie Martini as she takes on the role for gritty ITV prequel Prime Suspect 1973.
When Lynda La Plante published her Jane Tennison origin story in 2015, a TV series was never going to be far behind. Eighteen months later, Prime Suspect 1973 is reporting for duty on ITV. A gritty, authentically ’70s prequel, the show doesn’t shy away from the era’s institutional sexism, police brutality or garish fashion.
Based on La Plante’s Tennison novel, Prime Suspect 1973 stars Stefanie Martini ( Endeavour, Doctor Thorne) in her first leading role, a prospect made even more daunting by Oscar-winner Helen Mirren’s performance as the detective from 1991 to 2006. When Crime Scene meets Martini on the 14th floor of ITV’S London TV Centre, the 26-year-old is taking it in her stride. Confident, talkative and given to spontaneous bursts of laughter, she’s thrilled about landing the role.
“It is a lot of pressure. I know that a lot of people have a very strong relationship with the original series,” says the Rada-trained Martini, whose West Country upbringing is not obvious in her accent. “But that’s great. It’s a challenge and a really good opportunity as an actress. It’s a very unique situation – it’s been terrifying but also exhilarating. I guess we’ll just have to see what happens.”
The first episode is a reassuring introduction to the young Tennison – Martini is clearly not overawed by the episodes she’s seen of the original.
“It’s great having Helen Mirren’s performance,” she says. “It was very useful to have that to work towards. But I think in this script she’s incredibly different. She’s very naïve, she’s young, inexperienced and clumsy – she doesn’t really know what she’s doing.”
While the young Tennison is “keen and eager”, she’s signed up at a time when WPCS were still seen, essentially, as skivvies and uniformed social workers. Women officers joined the Metropolitan Police in 1919, though the first female detective was not appointed until 1973, the same year that the “women’s department” was fully integrated into the Met.
Prime Suspect 1973 begins with the discovery of dead girl’s body in Hackney, though for anyone under 50 the murder is not as shocking as the blatant sexism. As well as being bullied, Tennison is expected to serve tea and biscuits, do the washing up and mop up vomit left by prisoners. A former WPC advisor confirmed to the cast that all this was no exaggeration.
“That sort of sexism was just accepted,” says Martini. “From the people I’ve spoken to, it seemed like that expectation of women to fulfil certain domestic duties – even at work – that’s just the way it was.” For Jane and her colleague Kath Morgan (Jessica Gunning), the solution is to laugh it off and try and be smarter than the men. “It’s kind of the same as today,” adds Martini. “If you’re a woman and you have an idea and want to put it across but you don’t want to make the man feel attacked, you have to do it in a slightly different way.”
It definitely works for Tennison, who’s a 22-year-old WPC on probation when her eagerness results in her assisting on the murder case with DI Len Bradfield (Sam Reid). “He’s like her mentor – he takes her under his wing and gets her involved in the cases,” explains Martini, though she’s tight-lipped about any screen romance.
Her initiation into detective work is the first episode’s postmortem examination, filmed in a real mortuary. As it’s the ’70s, Tennison smokes a cigarette to disguise the smell of the corpse. “It was very creepy filming that but also good – it felt real,” says Martini. “And it’s the first time she’s seen a dead body.” But definitely not the last.
The dark side of 1970s policing was the heavy-handed handed approach to suspects – think Life On Mars, with fewer laughs – and the corruption. “The police brutality surprised me,” says Martini. “Rules were very much bent, and you could just slap a criminal about and that would be kind of expected. The twisting of the rules within the station is interesting, and that’s explored in the programme.”
Does Tennison become compromised? “She has a sense of right and wrong, but that’s also something that gets challenged by the police force itself. How does she keep her integrity in that world? Does she bend, does she go with it? She gets put in some really difficult situations.”
If Prime Suspect 1973 sounds a bit bleak, don’t worry: the ’70s weren’t all bad. The show has an arresting soundtrack from the era, including Blind Faith, Cat Stevens and Pink Floyd. Even the fashion has its high points. “It’s a different colour palette. I just felt like I was slowly time travelling,” says Martini. “Yellows, oranges, browns. Before this I wasn’t actually that keen on the ’70s, and now I think it’s kind of amazing.”
The police brutality surprised me. Rules were very much bent
There’s also plenty of action over the course of the series. Tennison gets to drive a Hillman Hunter (“really fun”), while the opening scene has her leaping off a moving bus to come to the aid of woman being mugged. There was a stunt double, though Martini did have to do a lot of running – not that easy in an outfit from 1973. “The uniform isn’t very practical,” she explains. “Running in a knee-length woollen skirt is not the best thing. It’s kind of dorky.”
Despite the sartorial challenges, Martini enjoyed the London shoot last summer alongside a largely young cast. “I’ve never corpsed so much on set – I literally was giggling all the time,” she recalls. “Everyone got on so well. I think what’s quite cool about this is that a lot of the police officers are quite young, and it’s also focusing on a young woman trying to make her way in this man’s world.”
Mirren’s performance is a landmark in crime drama, though the two actors have not discussed the role yet. “I’d love to meet her,” says Martini. “I’m not trying to make any bold, conscious decision to try to be like her. I think she’s supportive of the production and released a statement saying that it’s a good idea for young women to see what it was like back then.”
However, there’s been less consensus with La Plante. As the creator of Prime Suspect, she was central to its success, though ITV announced her decision to “step back” from the prequel. It’s not clear whether the channel will continue to adapt her novels or devise its own stories. But having stepped into Tennison’s shoes, Martini is ready to return to the beat for a second series: “I would love it if it happened again.”
Prime Suspect 1973 airs on ITV and is available online at the ITV Hub.
L tor: DC Hudson (Tommymcdonnell), DI LEN Bradfield (Samreid), WPCJANE Tennison (Stefaniemartini), DS Spencer Gibbs (Blake Harrison), Dcedwards (Joshua Hill).
Stefaniemartini takes on the role of Jane Tennison.