by Les Chappell
Author’s Note: Welcome to This Was Television’s weekly feature on Prime Suspect, that most iconic of British police serials, where we’ll be unpacking the life and crimes of Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. At the moment, the plan is to tackle one part of each serial per week as they originally aired—all seven serials are available on DVD and accessible in bits and pieces on YouTube (Amazon also has the show available on its Instant Video service -NK). With seven serials split from one to four parts each that should ideally give us three to four months of content, thought I may be combining the halves into one if I don’t feel there’s enough to say on one particular installment. As I say below, I’m watching these for the first time myself, and I don’t know where the story’s going to take us.
But for the time being, let’s start with part one of the first series, and see what our initial impressions are. Next week on June 20, we’ll return for a look at the second half, talking about the big picture of the investigation and the show’s rather famous treatment of institutional sexism.
Series 1, Episode 1
Original airdate: April 7, 1991
How many times have we seen this before? Strapped for original hits and hoping to cash in on the nostalgia market, one of the major networks will try remaking/rebooting/violating the corpse of a show from a few years or decades ago, updating the story for modern times and recasting iconic roles with a few marketable stars. Sometimes this works—Battlestar Galactica and Hawaii Five-0 come to mind in recent years—but more often than not you get a Bionic Woman or Charlie’s Angels, something that fails because nostalgia can only go so far in disguising a terrible show.
In fall 2011, NBC tried to get back in the resurrection game with Prime Suspect. You all know the story behind this one: one of Robert Greenblatt’s first efforts to put his stamp on NBC, it never found an audience* and limped along for thirteen episodes in the Thursday night 10 p.m. hour before finally getting axed in favor of The Firm. However, it did manage to become a very serviceable cop show as time went on, anchored by the strong lead performance of Maria Bello and a squad room who gradually became more shaded characters.
*A lot of people blamed the hat, but I’m on record that it was a good prop and Bello used it to admirable effect. It’s a hat, she wears a hat now. Hats are cool.
But the complaint a lot of critics made at the beginning wasn’t that it was a terrible show, it was that they considered its source material sacrosanct. Showrunner Alexandra Cunningham built her show off a British serial of the same name, which ran for seven seasons aired between 1991 and 2006. Prime Suspect is considered not only a classic television show (counting amongst its accolades Emmy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, BAFTA Awards and a Peabody Award) but also one of the building blocks for more character-driven police dramas—Alan Sepinwall of HitFix went so far in his initial review of the remake to say that “American cop show producers can quote it chapter and verse.”
But me personally? I’d never even heard of it. So when This Was Television decided to select our first run of shows to cover, Prime Suspect was at the top of my list. What I’m hoping to do in this journey is to understand why this show is so revered in the annals of cop show history, where its central character Jane Tennison falls in the pantheon of fictional law enforcement officials, and just how much of a debt contemporary police dramas owe to what Lynda La Plante and company constructed. And at the very least, it should be an excuse to watch Helen Mirren work for several hours, and I can’t think of a soul who’d want to turn that down.
So, let’s begin with the first installment. To a modern audience (i.e. me), the show’s description comes across as a fairly standard police procedural. A dead body is found in a prostitute’s apartment, and the police are called in and begin their investigation. Thanks to a rare blood type, a suspect is identified early in the process—and as icing on the cake, he’s also a convicted rapist. However, the evidence isn’t good enough to get a conviction, so they’re forced to let him go for the time being. And almost immediately after that there’s the discovery of a second body to further complicate things, more steps to the investigation, and then a lucky break in the case (here a heretofore unknown witness) to put the blame back on our initial suspect.
The procedural aspect of it is certainly familiar, but there’s a few things that begin to show it as something new, starting with the most obvious one: Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. As one of a very few female DCIs in all of London, Tennison’s risen through the ranks on her own merits but been trapped under paperwork ever since getting to her current state. The serial’s as much about her journey as it about the investigation, as she fights to be given the investigation when the original DCI John Shefford keels over of a heart attack, and upon succeeding there has to fight to be taken seriously by the all-male squad room, a task complicated by Shefford’s embittered partner Bill Oatley (Tom Bell).
In an interesting stylistic choice, the show doesn’t focus on her to begin with, instead centered on Shefford’s investigation and subsequent arrest/interrogation of the suspected killer George Marlow (John Bowe). We don’t spend any extended time with her until fifteen minutes into the first part, and when we do it’s a scene where she’s dealing with her boyfriend Peter (Tom Wilkinson) and his visiting son, and trying to stay in control even with half a chocolate cake on her blouse. The show even works technically to deemphasize her at the start: one early scene with Shefford and Oatley in the elevator has her directly behind the two discussing Marlow’s record, but the two never even acknowledge she’s there until she gets off the floor.
But once Tennison’s given the role, it moves her character directly into the line of fire, and she proves that after being ignored for so long she’s not going to let go. Mirren is, quite bluntly, fantastic as Jane Tennison, bearing herself with every inch of professional unflappability that she knows she needs to be taken seriously. If she can’t be liked, she’ll settle for being respected, as she makes very clear to Oatley in the middle of their first briefing: “All I ask is your undivided loyalty and attention. … You don’t like it, put in for a transfer.” There’s an implacable nature to this character, which we see in her interactions with both the squad mates and various interrogation scenes. It’s so implacable that even one of the interview, the victim’s leather-jacked boyfriend, leaves sobbing asking “What kind of person are you?!” as she calmly lights a cigarette afterwards.
*A leather-jacketed boyfriend played by none other than a very young Ralph Fiennes. If you ever wanted to see a young Voldemort squirm, here’s your chance.
But at the same time, she’s not unbreakable. There are plenty of human moments involved in her performance, particularly when she’s able to let her guard down—an early scene when she meets with her superior after being given the investigation, raising her fists and saying a quiet “Yes!” is an utter delight to watch. Her frustration with the investigation occasionally boils over in snapping at her men* when they thwart her, or even childish pouting when something little goes wrong like her first TV interview being videotaped incorrectly. Tennison isn’t a super cop, she’s someone trying to prove herself in a very cutthroat environment, and the effort to show both sides of the equation—particularly in a haunting monologue where she explains her degree of emotional involvements with the victims. “At that moment I feel like a pain. I feel it and I hold onto it, because it’s up to me to find the man that destroyed that life.”
*A line not funny at the time, but certainly funny with modern context: In an effort to be taken seriously, Tennison asks the men to stop referring to her as ‘mum,’ yelling “I’m not the bloody Queen!” Fast forward fifteen years later, she’ll be singing a different tune.
The other thing that makes Prime Suspect so arresting at the start is, paradoxically, just how much time they take with it. Part one clocks in at 104 minutes, longer than two episodes of any standard hour-long drama, and by the end of it they’ve only gotten so far as a line-up that may or may not put Marlow back in prison. The investigation’s dragged on for several days, with leads drying up and interview subjects running short, to the point that the inability to locate Marlow’s car turns into a recurring punchline around the office (“Anything on Marlow’s car? No, of course not”).
This long-running case approach is a risky approach in cop dramas (one need only look back to last year and the backlash The Killing received) but Prime Suspect knows how to use its time in the right ways. The longer the investigation goes on, the tenser the relationship between Tennison and Oatley gets, and the more his efforts to undermine her clash with her natural tenacity and the hidden details about Shefford she digs up. The pacing is also helped by the show’s rather minimalistic style choices, with the grainy made-for-TV video quality enhancing the dingy setting of the police station and general sense of paranoia that builds on both sides as the process drags on.
And that’s the biggest difference here, in that we’re seeing not just an investigation but the tool it takes on the involved parties. Our early glimpses of Tennison’s harmonious relationship with Kevin pre-murder become more poignant as we see how it fragments under the stress of her new position, particularly as her neglect builds up without her even noticing it (“Anything you do is important, anyone anything else does is not important?” Kevin wearily says as she remains fixated on rewatching her interview tape). In a novel structural choice, we also get a glimpse into Marlow’s home life and the strain the investigation it puts on his marriage, spending a lot of time with the suspect without knowing if he’s really the killer. It adds a lot to the uncertainty and tension of just how hard Tennison and company are trying to put Marlow in prison, an uncertainty accentuated by the raw desperation Bowe invests in his words.
So, there’s a lot of interesting things going on here to start, and there’s some deeper roots that’ll likely play out next week when we learn whether or not Marlow’s guilty—and if he is, Tennison can make the collar stick. We’ll be back on June 20th with part two of the series to see how the investigation ends.