Prime Suspect 1973

What is it?

Prime Suspect 1973, also known as Tennison, is ITV’s adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s prequel novel to the Prime Suspect TV series, featuring the young Jane Tennison and focussing on her early days as a uniformed police officer. Having not read the book, this review is going to focus on the TV series in itself – I won’t be talking about how well it adapted the book (and my understanding is that it was quite different in many respects, to the point that La Plante eventually walked away from the series). This review will focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the adaptation as a standalone, without referring to the book unless necessary.

That’s ok. They’re different art forms.

Who’s in it?

Stefani Martini has the immense task of playing young Jane Tennison (the older Jane was portrayed by someone called Helen Mirren. Anyone?), whilst Sam Reid plays her boss DI Len Bradfield. Alun Armstrong is main villain Clifford Bentley and Jessica Gunning plays Jane’s colleague and friend Kath Morgan.

What I liked

Strong performances

Martini was handed a bit of a hospital pass with this one – Helen Mirren is a tough act to follow, and comparisons between them were, and are, inevitable. But, she handles it very well, giving Tennison the same dogged tenacity that Mirren did, whilst also conveying that she’s very young and naïve at this point in her life. Tennison is not always entirely likeable and Martini managed to get this across too, rather than trying to make Tennison into a fully sympathetic hero. She comes across very believably as a young female police officer at a time when this was unusual, and her uncertainty and hesitancy during her final confrontation with the villain is nice to see and well-earnt. We’ve seen Tennison be decisive and calm in the past; it feels fully consistent for her to struggle with what to say the first time she confronts a desperate villain, and Martini gets this across well. I never thought that I was looking at a completely different character, and that’s an achievement in itself.

Sam Reid is also strong as Tennison’s superior DI Bradfield, playing him with enough restrained fury and competence that he seems like a superior Tennison would admire and respect. His anger towards Clifford Bentley is well-conveyed, and Reid makes his turn away from the previously competent detective towards obsession with the man who evaded him years ago, neglecting the murder he’s supposed to be investigating in the process, entirely believable. With a strong supporting cast, the performances dragged me in and engaged me with the characters, and for a TV show that’s always a good start.

Consistent dark tone

The original Prime Suspects were dark stories. The first one got stuck right in by showing Tennison squaring off against a serial killer who’d already murdered six women without his crimes being linked, and later series only turned off more lights – Prime Suspect Three featured Tennison trying, and ultimately failing, to break a VIP paedophile ring involving a senior police officer, Four featured a woman murdering her own baby and trying to blame the local paedophile, Six a Serbian war criminal murdering two woman who could identify him in his quiet life as a north London optician, and The Final Act blew out the last candle when its murderer was revealed to be a fourteen year old girl who’d stabbed her pregnant best friend to try to protect her father – also the father of the best friend’s child.

1973 doesn’t quite go as far as its earlier cousin, but it’s still a dark and twisted story. The victim, Julie Ann Collins, is a heroin-addicted sex worker whose boyfriend accidentally got her killed by revealing the details of a crime he was involved in. We get there via drug-dealing in a rehabilitation clinic, Bradfield’s obsession with Bentley who got away with murdering a young police officer ten years earlier, and a cover-up of an assault on a suspect by Bradfield’s sidekick Spencer. Julie Ann’s murderer is ultimately revealed to be her boyfriend’s psychopathic brother, killed when she stumbled upon the Bentley family’s bank robbery, and in the end Clifford Bentley accidentally shoots his son as they struggle for a gun whilst a paralysed Jane can only watch.

It’s dark, it’s tough to watch at times, there’s little joy in any of it. The world Tennison and her colleagues inhabit is relentlessly grim and depressing – just like the world she and they inhabited between 1991 and 2007.

70s period details

Every episode opens with a track that was a hit in 1973, there are flared jeans and panda cars that actually look like pandas. If pandas were powder blue. Jane leaves her parents’ place to stay in a police section house that bans female officers from having male guests (unless the local DI wants to have it off with one of them. Guess there’s just an exemption in the rules for that). There are no interview rooms – Bradfield and Gibbs often put the screws on people in Bradfield’s office. Everyone smokes, the PCs and Sergeants all wear blue shirts instead of white (standard until the early 90s), someone complains about decimalisation, the tables are all cheap formica, the cars are all 70s models and some of them are even Austins. Jane’s parents are openly horrified by the thought that she might have sex with an older, married superior – not that that would pass unremarked today, but it wouldn’t cause anything like the stir it would then, when the sexual revolution was still very new and appearing prim and proper still important.

Not having lived through the 70s, or being an expert on the period, I can’t really say I’d have spotted any but the most glaring anachronisms. But I never once got the impression I wasn’t watching that period – nothing reached out and pulled me out of the moment. The major changes in police procedure were shown accurately – no one records any interviews, Bradfield and Gibbs aren’t above using physical persuasion, the majority of Tennison’s duties are administrative rather than operational. It all felt real, it all felt authentic, it felt like I’d expect 1973 to feel.

Jane and Kath

It would have been remarkably easy to make WPC Kath Morgan into a secondary antagonist – indeed, it’s often the done thing in shows with strong female protagonists to make other women into secondary villains, rivals for promotion or employment or love interests who have to be overcome. The narrative, it seems, is that Strong Women can Trust No One.

1973 broke with this refreshingly. Kath is an older, more experienced WPC who is always shown positively and never portrayed as anything other than an ally and friend of Tennison’s. She’s even someone whose successes Tennison celebrates, when Kath is posted to CID ahead of her. Throughout, she’s shown as a role model for Tennison, and a source of advice, counselling her against her affair with Bradfield and on how to fit in around the station. They are friends instead of rivals, and the show is stronger for it.

Give us more female characters who are allies instead of opponents – especially when they’re the only two female characters in a male-dominated world. If there’s a reason for them to be antagonistic, that’s fine, but let’s have fewer women who can’t stand each other Just Because, and more who help and support each other like Jane and Kath.

What I had problems with

If you’re familiar with my reviews, you’re probably thinking ‘Huh? Where’s the procedural niggles section?’ Well, 70s police procedure was very different from today’s in many respects, and even then it wasn’t always followed – in fact it was thrown completely out of the window in many major cases. From what I understand of 70s police procedure, Prime Suspect 1973 represented it pretty well. The only major issue I saw was that the relations between the uniformed and CID branches were far too friendly. They were often openly antagonistic towards each other throughout much of the decade.

Tennison doesn’t match her later self

In later editions as she got drunker and closer to retirement Tennison turned into a bit of a maverick (see my Prime Suspect review), but in the earlier, 90s, versions, she was more than just a bit of a disciplinarian. She forced Bill Otley off her team in the first Prime Suspect when it became clear that he wouldn’t respect her authority, and showed limited tolerance for his antics in Prime Suspect Three. She sidelined a Detective Inspector who wouldn’t play by her rules in Five, and chewed out senior detectives for racial insensitivity in both Two and Six. We get the impression that Jane Tennison takes no shit and tolerates no fools, nor fooling around, in her murder squads.

In Prime Suspect 1973, she witnesses a brutal and unprovoked assault by Spencer Gibbs on a suspect, and is pressured by Gibbs himself, and Bradfield, into a cover up. Now, this in itself isn’t a problem if Tennison goes along with it but with major reservations, and makes it clear that if she were the DI (or indeed DCI) she wouldn’t tolerate it. But, as it’s portrayed, Tennison has few if no qualms about the lies she’s asked to tell – and her decision to participate is treated positively, as though it’s how she gains acceptance with officers like Gibbs who’ve been wary of her middle-class background (she describes herself as a posh sort, although in the words of Jess Phillips she really means that she eats olives). We’re asked to buy that the suspect deserved his beat-down, and that Gibbs is all right really. And fair enough, many cop shows ask us to overlook brutality. But Jane Tennison was never that kind of cop, and a prequel show should either explain why twenty years later she’s a stern takes no nonsense boss, or have her take a consistent moral stand right from the start.

Déjà vu all over again part 1: the 70s

Most of my major problems with Prime Suspect 1973 stem from the fact that there’s very little in it that I haven’t seen elsewhere, often done better. Starting right at the top, the 1970s. Can anyone remember a show that did 70s police before? Named after a Bowie song? Life on Somewhere? Or was it Space Oddity?

Life on Mars is, was, and remains the definitive looking-back take on 1970s policing, and Prime Suspect 1973 does little to shift that. I think they made the right decision by not making Len Bradfield into either a Gene Hunt homage, or Diet Gene Hunt for that matter. He comes across as more restrained, more professional and more accepting of the changes that Tennison represents, and that was a good choice. However, in other areas, Life on Mars definitely did a better job. 1973’s police are generally accepting of Tennison, Kath, and the black detective on their team, there’s no overt racism or sexism shown. Tennison’s direct superior, uniformed Sergeant Harris, comes across as tough-but-fair. Neither Bradfield nor Gibbs ever question Tennison’s competence, or right to be there, based on her gender – which was the main theme of Prime Suspect One in particular. Bradfield even tells her he admires her – which, in episode one, was a strange choice as she hadn’t really done much beyond look sympathetic when they informed Julie Ann’s parents.

The 1970s were a dark time for British policing, with several major corruption scandals burbling away in the Met police. Between 1972 and 1977 roughly one-fifth of all serving detectives were forced to resign, and around thirty were prosecuted. Major cases such as the Birmingham and Guildford pub bombings were carried out shockingly poorly, leading to ten innocent men being convicted. Stefan Kisko was even jailed for a 1974 murder police knew him to be innocent of because he was infertile, whereas the killer’s semen contained sperm. Life on Mars made reference to this wider context. Gene Hunt ran a very realistic ‘licensing,’ system with a major criminal, convinced himself that an Irish republican was guilty of a series of bombs in Manchester, and even had a drawer full of jewellery he could plant on suspected armed robbers. But there’s little to none of this in 1973. The Met’s internal affairs unit, A10, never swings by, no one’s under investigation in Bradfield’s department (which would have been remarkable in 1973), and even if Bradfield himself is quite clearly too good a cop to plant evidence, no one else on his team even discusses it.

There’s some unnecessary flying fists, a bit of literal arm-twisting in interviews, and everyone covers up Gibbs’ assault on a suspect quite happily. But, even though they resisted the temptation to make Bradfield a Diet Coke Gene Hunt, Prime Suspect 1973 at times feels like Diet Coke Life on Mars.

Déjà vu all over again part 2: the Bank Job

The Crime of the Series is a bank robbery planned by Clifford Bentley to be his last big score. His gang tunnel into the bank vault from a neighbouring café, whilst his crippled son David keeps watch from a nearby car park and radios to the gang when trouble approaches. Eventually these transmissions are overheard by a local ham radio enthusiast, who goes to the police.

This may sound familiar to readers, because it’s heavily based on the 1971 Baker Street bank robbery (in fact it’s pretty much exactly what happened). The only problem is that the 1971 Baker Street bank robbery has been done, and done better, by no less a figure than Jason Statham in 2008’s The Bank Job.

The Baker Street bank robbery was a fairly small-scale crime, and the robbers were convicted of it in 1973. But a whole series of urban myths have grown up around it, chiefly that the robbers were actually in the employ of MI5 and being used to steal compromising photos of Princess Ann that were being held in a safety deposit box by Jamaican revolutionary Michael X. And that all reporting of the crime was suppressed by a D-Notice issued by the government, and that no one ever went to prison over the crime, and even that the robbers bought their immunity partially with a list of corrupt detectives at Scotland Yard.

Unpicking all of that could be a post in itself, but for now, basically, most of it isn’t true, although some of it is partially true (the list of corrupt detectives at Scotland Yard did exist, but was found by accident by honest detectives when they raided the home of a major porn baron). The Times actually reported on the convictions of the robbers in 1973, if anyone wants to get through their paywall and examine their back editions to actually check. But I digress, The Bank Job was an entertaining romp that I thoroughly enjoyed and which did a good job of showing the seedier side of the British establishment at the time.

Prime Suspect 1973 was always going to invite comparison to it simply because it looks at the same crime, even if this time it shows much more of the perspective of the police investigating it, and The Stath doesn’t show up in a leather jacket to be our anti-hero. And… it just doesn’t do as well. So, most of the urban myths around the Baker Street robbery are bollocks – that doesn’t mean you can just ignore them! Even if all you do is start to show how some of them came about, they need to be dealt with. It’s also less faithful to the real event. The Bank Job accurately depicted a tense moment where the police, on the trail of the robbers, actually arrived outside the vault during the robbery, but couldn’t gain access because of the design of the door. 1973 just glosses over this entirely. It also denies Tennison her big confrontation with the killer by blowing him up during Bradfield’s botched arrest of the robbers, before he’s even been revealed as the killer. It all feels a bit of a let-down at that point, and I’m wishing The Stath would show up and punch someone.

And Prime Suspect never shied away from putting Jane in the way of big conspiracies before. Three revolved around her efforts to break into a VIP paedophile ring featuring a senior police officer being protected by her superiors. In Six MI5 appeared to try and frustrate her investigation of a Serbian war criminal they were using as an informant. Again, it all feels a bit like a Diet Coke version of something we’ve already seen – not distinctive enough to stand out, or to compete with the original.

Déjà vu all over again part 3: some of this has been done in La Plante stories before

Now, I do know that Lynda la Plante had some big creative differences over the TV adaptation, and I don’t know what those were, not having read the book, so I don’t know if the affair between Tennison and Bradfield was in the book Tennison or not. I do know that La Plante has done ‘Affair between younger female subordinate and older male superior,’ before, in her Anna Travis series, and although the affair between Bradfield and Tennison is less troubling than that between Anna Travis and James Langton (Langton is portrayed as highly manipulative and extremely dangerous at times), it’s still a huge clunker of a cliché and it doesn’t feel necessary. In fact, it means that Bradfield’s eventual death can be seen coming from a mile away. Their relationship would have been more interesting as mentor-protégé.

It is consistent with Tennison from the later series, I will concede. She has an affair with her married boss in Five (who’s actually younger than her) and is still having one-night stands into her fifties, and good on her incidentally. But ‘Middle-Aged Man Inexplicably Attractive To Lithe Young Woman,’ has been done. To. Death. Even outside of La Plante’s writings. I just watched their sex scene thinking ‘Same old, same old, if you’re going to do unnecessary boobs just do unnecessary boobs, don’t squirrel them in like you can’t decide if I’m supposed to notice or not.’ Both Tennison and Bradfield are well-acted and there’s genuine chemistry between Martini and Reid. But I’ve seen all of this before.

Unnecessary boobs in a show about a strong female character

I really shouldn’t have to explain why that one’s a problem.

You’ll like this if…

You like your thrillers dark, bleak, and twisted, and you like strong female characters.

If you’ve enjoyed this review and want my, erm, unique take on other crime fiction, look at my reviews page here: A review of Prime Suspect 1973‘s chronological sequel/TV prequel can be found here:

Or maybe even the main attraction – some of my own short stories, at Go on, see if I can actually write anything myself, instead of just criticise the noble efforts of others. Some shameless plugs below…

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