What is it?
Prime Suspect was a detective drama that aired between 1991 and 2006 (regularly between 91 and 96, with standalones in 2003 and 2006). It starred Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector, then Detective Superintendent, Jane Tennison, the first woman to lead a murder enquiry for Scotland Yard. In many respects it was the Line of Duty of its day, it told big complex stories full of twists and darkness. They even share a director – John Strickland did Prime Suspect Two and started working on LOD midway through season 3. Other commonalities include the annoying tape recorder beep in interview sessions, and ‘An officer at least one rank superior.’
Tennison says it during Prime Suspect Two. I nearly laughed out loud.
Who’s in it?
Helen Mirren herself, of course. Don’t call her ma’am, she’s not the bloody Queen. She was the only character to appear in all seven series. But it had some notable guest stars over the years. The late Tom Bell played DS Bill Otley, Jane’s bete noire turned support, the criminally underused Colin Salmon appeared in Prime Suspect Two, Mark Strong was in Three and Six, and Marc Warren even appeared as a detective in Four. Robert Glenister, a shockingly young Steve Mackintosh, an even more shockingly young David Thewlis, and Velibor Topic all played villains at various times.
I know, right, Velibor Topic playing an Eastern European villain. At this point I don’t think I’d trust him if he ever played a good guy.
What I liked:
Jane Tennison is not an immediately, or entirely, likeable character. She pushes people away unnecessarily and loses one, possibly two, relationships, because she struggles to communicate with her partners. Her drunken rant at her sister and niece after the death of her father was horrible, and horribly believable – made worse by the way that her niece has clearly actually rather looked up to her over the years. Her affair with her boss in Manchester in Prime Suspect Five also doesn’t help – she knows DCS Ballinger is married and basically doesn’t care. She has big flaws, and they go beyond the acceptable ‘poor at relationships and drinks a lot,’ that are practically job requirements for most fictional detectives. I mean, she has these too, but writer Lynda la Plante took it further with Tennison.
What she is, is compelling. She has a strong moral centre that sees her fight for justice in the face of opposition from her superiors on several occasions. Early on, at least, she’s portrayed as a stickler for the rules who has to manage unruly subordinates, and throughout Prime Suspect One she has to fight for the approval of her team, who are, to say the least, unsure of having a woman put in charge over them. One of the emotional highpoints of the series is when her boss, Mike Kernan, is thinking of replacing her and her entire team backs her – it’s the moment when she’s won, and a woman in charge has become acceptable. Her refusal to bend to political pressure in Three and Six really got me behind her and on her side. One of the things in Six that could have backfired was her unsanctioned, unapproved trip to Bosnia to check out allegations against Marin Lukic – this is exactly the kind of thing that she’s disapproved of in the past. She sidelined a DI in the previous series who had undermined her in a similar way. But it works, because she’s so clearly doing it for the right reasons – encountering obstruction from MI5 and with little support from her boss, she decides to do the right thing anyway.
And I like that she’s an unapologetically feminist character. Jane enjoys one night stands well into her fifties, and clearly enjoys sex – daring creative choices for the 90s, that would still raise eyebrows today. Her choice to have an abortion is also shown positively, although the reasons given for it vary – in Four it seems to be the effect a child would have on her career, although in The Final Act she says it was because she didn’t feel able to deal with the darkness at work, and go home and be a single mother. Either way, it’s presented without judgement, as the right decision for Jane at the time. She’s a woman, making her own choices, and not really caring whether or not society agrees. . Even better is the way in which it’s presented – the writers never turn it into an obvious feminist statement, it’s always presented in a normalised way, as just who Tennison is and what she likes. It’s more impactful that way.
These were bold statements in the 90s, and it’s kind of a sad indictment of the way TV drama has gone in the intervening twenty years that many of these choices would still seem bold and daring today
Middle-aged woman likes one-night stands? Screams in TV Producer.
Dark and edgy
Ooooh so dark. Oooooh so edgy…
Writers Ronald D Moore and David Eick of Battlestar Galactica used to have a saying – ‘If you think it’s getting dark, turn out some more lights.’ I used it at various points during my own work-in-progress novel, In Murder’s Shadow, and considered it good advice. But Moore and Eick were beaten to the punch by the writers of Prime Suspect. The crimes aren’t just dark, they’re downright grim and depressing much of the time. The award for ‘darkest, grimmest crime,’ is a packed category. Put it this way, Prime Suspect Five, which featured a mentally ill teenager being murdered by his sister’s boyfriend as revenge for killing a gang member, was one of the series’ lighter instalments.
But all this darkness and grimness is earned, because Prime Suspect is one of those cop dramas that wants to take you into the murkiest depths of human psyche, and explain how some of the most shocking crimes occur. Prime Suspect Six, for instance, looked at war crimes in Bosnia during the break-up of Yugoslavia. It was horrifying, and difficult to watch at times, but for someone who only vaguely remembers the Bosnian War, also very eye-opening (it may have seemed more dated in 2003 when it aired, but overall that series has aged quite well). One of the episodes that stayed with me was the first of Prime Suspect Four, in which a struggling single mother killed her baby. A difficult crime already, the series then went further by showing Tennison’s team initially mistakenly focusing on a paedophile living in the area, eventually placing the family he’d begun living with in great danger. It was only very late in the episode when Tennison realised the truth, and the scene in which the mother confessed to her was one of the most haunting in the series. Tennison is never portrayed as a soft copper, but her ability to show compassion and acceptance to men and women confessing to horrific crimes, when it’s required, is one of her major strengths and helps set her apart from the usual parade of alcoholic mavericks. It also throws the screwed up world she inhabits into ever-sharper relief.
Again, the best thing about watching Prime Suspect for me, twenty years later, was how much of this still felt daring and edgy today. Even the plot of Three, about a VIP paedophile ring involving a police officer, felt like it went much further than other, modern attempts to tackle sexual abuse and what’s now termed child sexual exploitation (a term not used in 1993). It went a little over the top at times, what with the angelic choirs playing over the shots of homeless male sex workers. But there was a more frank look at how young people fall through the cracks, and men in positions of power can evade justice, than even Line of Duty or Hinterland have managed since the Savile scandal.
Very realistic procedure
At times, I should emphasise here. One and Two did very well, Three and Four not so much (Four had one laughably silly moment, and one frankly unbelievable moment, which I’ll look at below). But, this being the ‘What I liked,’ section, let’s start with the good stuff.
First of all, there’s always a sense that Jane operates as part of a much larger organisation. We don’t just see her boss, we see her boss’ boss at various times, and officers of equivalent rank to her are often mentioned. Prime Suspect Six opens with her mentioning that she’s overseeing three Murder Investigation Teams with several open cases, accurately for a Detective Superintendent. Most detective dramas and thrillers often act as though their middle-ranking cop is the only detective on the force. Tennison also leads big teams; although often only a few are named, she’s always shown addressing briefings of twenty or thirty. In One and Six we even see her placing a suspect under surveillance – this is often done in complex cases, and has resulted in murderers unwittingly leading the police to crucial evidence in the past. But it’s not often shown on TV.
I mentioned the annoying tape recorder beep – but Prime Suspect also shows suspects being interviewed with solicitors, something many TV shows often neglect. And the solicitors even say things! The attention to detail is often very good – Six and The Final Act actually remembered blue lights on unmarked vehicles, The Final Act showed detectives remembering their stab vests for once, DS Cox even wears a covert harness for his gear in the The Final Act.
One of its biggest strengths is that it often shows Tennison building a case against one suspect, rather than having to decide between the possible guilt of several. It’s often hard to maintain the audience’s interest when doing this, especially across three and half hours of TV (not including adverts). But Prime Suspect builds an absorbing, creeping sense of tension even in longer episodes where it seems obvious who the murderer is. One identifies its killer almost immediately, and builds tension on the question of whether Tennison can find the evidence to convict a man in denial about his own guilt. In Five, it’s established through a mix of the brutal efforts of gang leader The Street to frustrate Tennison’s investigations, and the increasing suspicion that he has an inside man.
There are some wobbles as well, especially in Four. But overall Prime Suspect shows one of the more realistic looks at how the police actually investigate serious and complex crimes that you’ll see.
Varied supporting cast
The supporting cast is almost as complex as Tennison herself. DCI Simon Finch in Six and DCI Tom Mitchell in Four both spring to mind, but the place to start is surely Tom Bell’s character, DS Bill Otley.
Otley starts life as an outright secondary antagonist in One, an unrepentant chauvinist who tries his hardest to undermine Tennison and whose sole redeeming feature is that some of what she’s uncovering relates to a dead superior to whom he’s very loyal (not that this is much of a redeeming feature, it must be said). In Three he’s more inclined to accept her authority. Although he’s still portrayed as a bit of a renegade, they’re on the same side as they investigate a VIP paedophile ring. He doesn’t appear again until The Final Act, when Tennison meets him in Alcoholics Anonymous. Here, fifteen years after he was first introduced, he apologises to Jane for trying to undermine her and wreck her career, and is then killed trying to protect her from an armed suspect when Jane runs into him at a hospital. Ultimately, Otley wasn’t just a secondary antagonist, he was a three-dimensional character in his own right, whom the writers allowed to grow from an adversary to an ally.
DCI Mitchell in Four is less sympathetic, as he appears to be out to prove himself by undermining Tennison and her big case, her 1990 arrest of serial killer George Marlow. But, when Tennison is able to identify the copycat killer, he reacts quickly to make the arrest and protect the final victim. He isn’t a bad cop, just one whose ambition gets the better of his good sense.
For me, the most memorably complex character after Otley is DCI Simon Finch in Prime Suspect Six (played by Ben Miles). Another ambitious, younger male officer, half of what he does is to a sarcastic accompaniment of ‘Tick, tick, tick in the box,’ from a deeply cynical Detective Sergeant. He disagrees with Tennison’s developing theory that the murders they are investigating are linked to war crimes in Bosnia ten years previously and seems to be far too close to Tennison’s own boss for comfort. But, it’s also shown right from the start that, whatever his team feels about his personal ambitions, he’s actually intensely loyal to Tennison, defending her when another detective accuses her of being a slave driver, and working with her covertly when pressure from MI5 leads to her being removed from the investigation. An imperfect male ally he may be, but an ally he is nonetheless, and he gets his payoff when he talks down the killer as he holds a knife to a child’s throat – Tennison’s dogged pursuit of the killer has unmasked him, but her relationship with him is too antagonistic for her to negotiate with him. Finch steps up immediately and bravely.
Other memorable characters include DI Devaney in Prime Suspect Five, a woman who wanted to work with Tennison when she transferred to Manchester, but couldn’t then stand her, and her loyal DI in One to Four, Richard Haskons. Tennison describes him as ‘one of the girls,’ in Four, which is probably the highest compliment she gives to any character at any point in the series.
Plenty of detective dramas feature complex stories, but some are, ahem, overly complicated and fall apart when you give them much thought. Midsomer Murders is the most famous example, but Death in Paradise is another where the plots are a bit flimsy. Now, both of these shows are immensely popular and do what they do very well. I personally enjoy Death in Paradise very much even if it is silly at times – it’s also fun escapism, and I like trying to see if I can spot how the seemingly impossible murder was committed. They’re cosies, unthreatening and light, or as light as dramas about murder can be.
Prime Suspect, on the other hand, featured complex stories that were tight and taut, with plenty of twists and turns, but which also mostly hold together even when you start to really track them through. One and Two were especially good at this. One gave us an obvious suspect in George Marlow, but shady ties between the senior officer Tennison had replaced and a couple of Marlow’s previous victims raised the possibility that Marlow was actually being framed – especially when Bill Otley tried to cover them up. In Prime Suspect Two, Tennison’s team discover a body buried under a patio in the summer of 1987 and swiftly focus on the house’s old owner. Tennison even persuades him to confess at the end of the first episode as he lies in hospital dying. But it’s all a lie; Tennison doesn’t believe his confession and continues to pick at it, eventually learning that he was trying to protect his nephew. Two also throws in a challenging subplot about DS Oswald, played by Colin Salmon, arresting a man with serious mental health issues and subjecting him to questioning bordering on bullying. The man then hangs himself in his cell, costing Tennison the trust of a key witness – but as the show points out, it was never just Oswald’s fault. Both his superior and the custody sergeant had concerns about the man, but failed to act on them.
At times it did get a bit too clever for its own good – I can’t really remember who killed the victim in the second episode of Prime Suspect Four, or why, and Five forgot to explain how a boy with no gang ties managed to get an Uzi to kill a gang member with. But when it was on form, like it was in One, Two, or Six, Prime Suspect delivered over three hours of TV that kept me hooked and had more than enough plot to fill its runtime, without ever feeling packed.
What I had problems with:
As always, these are fun to spot but if they spoil your enjoyment, you’re watching it wrong.
Six and The Final Act showed blue lights on unmarked vehicles, but the earlier instalments missed this out although they were standard by the 1990s. And seriously, if detectives raced to save the day without them, they’d probably just end up causing an accident. Police cars are equipped with them for a reason…
That’s one of my favourite bugbears, and British detective dramas are regularly very lazy about it. But, honestly, Prime Suspect doesn’t get too much wrong. Three featured four or five officers in an interview room with a suspect at once (after the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 it would be two, maybe three if a suspect is considered to be a risk to the interviewers). Three also referred to the senior police officer implicated in the paedophile ring as an Assistant Deputy Commissioner, whereas anyone who is as obsessed with goings-on in the Metropolitan Police as me (I’m a writer! Honest!) will know it’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner. But a lot of the real procedural errors are explicitly shown as officers either trying to undermine Tennison deliberately (Otley, Mitchell, Devaney) or just doing their own thing (Oswald, Finch). There is a real dedication to accuracy throughout, and I like it.
With all that said, viewers who choose to find this on Netflix may find themselves wondering why the London of Prime Suspect Four looks an awful lot like Manchester. And, well, that’s because, it, um, is Manchester. Trying and failing to look much like London. So much so that in Prime Suspect Five they admitted they were filming Oop North and just set the story there.
Prime Suspect does suffer from a few of these, usually relating to Jane’s career. It can’t quite decide how old she was when she started as a copper, or even when the events in the series take place. They seem to happen six months to a year before the show is aired, so Prime Suspect One, which was shown in early 1991, would be set in 1990 – and the dates given in on-screen interview do place it March 1990. Except… when George Marlow returns in Prime Suspect Four it seems to be giving the date of his arrest as 1991. Most modern shows employ someone to make sure that they don’t make that kind of error. You do have to wonder if Prime Suspect remembered to do the same.
The biggest issues are over how old Tennison is, and how long she’s served for. Prequel series Prime Suspect 1973 gives her age as 22, and in Prime Suspect Five she says she’s been serving for 22 years by what is probably 1995. That would make her 44, consistently five years younger than the actresses portraying her (Mirren, and Stefani Martini in 1973). All that seems fairly consistent even if she did rise to the rank of DCI in a relatively quick 17 years by the time of the first Prime Suspect.
Only then, along comes The Final Act, which states that she started serving at 17 and walked a beat for four years. That makes her four years younger than we thought, and nearly ten years younger than Mirren, and is probably the result of someone not checking what had previously been established about her.
Although I will point out that, on iMDB, it complains that an age of 22 in 1973 would make her 55 in 2006, during The Final Act’s bemoaning of Kids On Mobile Phones, which it says is past mandatory retirement age. Actually, as a Detective Superintendent, mandatory retirement age was 65 by 2006. If they’d really wanted to, they could have un-retired Jane five years later and have her grapple with Twitter and Facebook…
One to Three are actually pretty consistent in tone and approach – which is unsurprising, as all three were done by series creator Lynda La Plante. La Plante had stopped writing for the series by Prime Suspect Four, which started to veer away from some of the previously established traits about Jane.
This starts with her crying in front of her team in The Lost Child. Although I could buy her doing this in private, Jane is far too conscious of how many of the men around her want to see her fail. She’s far too controlled and professional to give them such easy ammunition.
Then, in Inner Circles, she takes over an investigation from a local DCI she has a low opinion of. Which is fine, I was rooting for her from the moment she heard his name and rolled her eyes at it, but then he walks into an interview she’s conducting, plonks himself down in front of her, and causes the witness she was just starting to bond with to clam up by being obnoxious. I was waiting for Tennison to tear him a new one as soon as the interview ended, but she never really did. Bearing in mind the roastings she’d given disobedient officers in the past, this was a bit odd. Whether or not a DCI would dare be so disrespectful to a Superintendent is another point – basically, he’s done enough there and then for Tennison to demand his suspension for insubordination. Otley’s undermining of her was subtle and it took a long time for her to get enough grounds to replace him. This was in-your-face obvious, it oversold the DCI as a wanker, and it weakened Jane not to take him to task for it.
The last episode of Prime Suspect Four, The Scent of Darkness, again sees Tennison dealing with an insubordinate DCI. Two murders with a similar MO to those perpetrated by George Marlow are committed, at about the same time as a book is released proclaiming Marlow’s innocence and naming another man as the probable killer. Christopher Fulford’s DCI Mitchell is convinced that Tennison was wrong about Marlow, and has officers check up on the new suspect behind her back – in fact, knowing that Tennison has decided to do this herself. Tennison’s sidekick, Haskons, develops information that rules out the suspect named in the book, but Mitchell’s antics still cast enough doubt on Jane’s investigation that she’s taken off the new case. Fair enough, at this stage some of the evidence is casting doubt on Marlow’s guilt. But Mitchell is promoted to Acting Superintendent to run it! He’s made a series of entirely insubordinate end-runs around Jane, there’s simply no way the Met hierarchy would reward that with command of a complex enquiry challenging findings made by a superior officer. Tennison might be moved to other duties; probably the only thing preventing Mitchell from being suspended would be the fact that one the surface he seems to have a point. One to Three Tennison would have raised hell about Mitchell being allowed to run a case he’d undermined. In Four she meekly accepts it.
Mitchell of course does eventually come good when Tennison identifies the killer as a prison guard at Marlow’s jail. But he wouldn’t be anywhere the case by that point. Any sort of reward for his behaviour would entice any ambitious Chief Inspector to undermine any Superintendent they felt like.
The writing was more consistent in Five and Six – when DI Devaney behaves similarly to Mitchell in Five Tennison acts rapidly to sideline her, and she’s back on disciplinary form in Six. But her relationship with Penny Phillips in The Final Act bothered me re-watching it as an adult (I hadn’t seen anything wrong with her bonding with a teenage girl as a teenager myself, which tells you a lot about how easy it would be to manipulate an over-confident teenager who think they know everything). The series explains it as Penny being about the age Tennison’s child would have been if she hadn’t had the abortion, which is fine as she approaches retirement. But as The Final Act progresses, we see her take Penny to her childhood home, where she shows Penny her old uniform hat and drinks whiskey whilst reminiscing with her about the good ol’ days, and… hold on, isn’t she basically grooming this fourteen year old whose friend was murdered? Good luck building any cases against Penny after all that. And it’s not the sort of thing that the Tennison of previous series would have condoned at all.
Mirren’s performance as Tennison, I should stress, is never anything less than excellent, and quality actors like Colin Salmon (someone, please give Colin Salmon his own series) and Tom Bell shine as well. Stephen Boxer gives a delightfully smarmy turn as Detective Superintendent Thorndike in Two, Three and Four, and try not to cheer as Tennison throws a glass of claret over him after he makes a sexist remark about her.
Some of the other performances, however, are full of the kind of scenery-chewing, yelling and screaming overacting that was popular in the 80s and 90s, with directors who’d never heard of understatement and the power of quiet. Tony Allen (Fraser James), the suspect who hangs himself in Two, really oversells his mental health to the point where what I think is meant to be a grimace of pain as he prepares to commit suicide looks like a comedy horror face he might pull to scare a toddler. And what should have been a powerful moment in Four, when Jane realises that Tony Muddyman (Jack Ellis) was himself abused as a child, is a little bit undermined by Muddyman’s flailing arms and wails of ‘I’m disgusting!’ I just don’t buy that Muddyman would lose it in quite that way. I could picture him breaking down in tears and repeating things he’d internalised as a child, but not screaming and tearing at his face.
It’s not all quite like this. I don’t know quite what directions David O’Hara was getting when he played DS Rankine in Prime Suspect Five, but a normally solid and reliable actor really did seem like he could barely be bothered for a lot of it. Even his Scottish accent seemed faked, which for a Scottish actor really must have taken some doing.
Most of the supporting cast are excellent (Laura Greenwood gave a star turn as Penny Phillips in The Final Act and it’s a real pity we haven’t seen her in more since then). Just be aware that some of them may rant and roar at odd moments.
You’ll enjoy this if…
Ultra-dark, ultra-serious, complex and lengthy crime dramas are your thing, and you want a show with an unapologetically feminist slant and lead character.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, please check out some of the others, or, alternatively, some of the crime-related blog posts. Or maybe even the main attraction – some of my own short stories, at https://attemptedmurder.uk/shortstories/. Go on, see if I can actually write anything myself, instead of just criticise the noble efforts of others. Shameless plugs below…
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