By Les Chappell
(Author’s note: Since the fourth series of Prime Suspect follows a different format than the other series—being split into three individual stories—we’re going to approach coverage in a different way as well and cover each one separately. Next up, “Inner Circles.”)
Series 4, Part 2: “Inner Circles”
Original airdate: May 7, 1995
If one thing can be said to unite Prime Suspect’s various installments ideologically, it’s that it has a clear distrust for authority verging on blatant disregard. It was most apparent in Prime Suspect 3, where the suspect had deep ties to a high-ranking member of the police force and everyone involved wanted to sweep the case under the rug, but it’s played a part in virtually every single installment. Jane Tennison, our erstwhile hero, spends as much time solving crime as she does fighting her superior officers, men of influence who thwart her efforts in the interest of protecting their careers and connections. Even when the superiors are sympathetic to her needs, like DS Kernan, she has to negotiate, mislead, and even threaten to get the resources she needs—and even then, victory comes by the skin of her teeth.
“Inner Circles,” the second of Prime Suspect 4’s installments, brings this conflict back into focus with the murder of a country club manager, an investigation that calls Tennison to the attention of some of the district’s wealthiest and most connected members. As is to be expected, the attention and pressure doesn’t do much to dissuade her from going about her investigation, and Prime Suspect’s creative team manages to follow up “The Lost Child” by proving that it can again condense its storytelling and build an effective case with only half the time of the first three series. But at the same time, this is also the first installment that raises questions about how much ground there is to cover, with the uncomfortable sense that we’ve seen a lot of this before.
Not that it’s a carbon copy of prior installments, as the case is something of an outlier compared to earlier investigations. Rather than the victim being an unidentified young woman, rent-boy, or someone from the wrong side of tracks, the central figure here is Denis Carradine, manager of the Huntington Country Club with a penchant for not paying his bills. Neighbors interrupt a burglary in progress at his home, and in the process find him with pants around his ankles and a belt around his neck. The district’s commander, DC Raymond, is prepared to write it off as either kinky sex gone wrong or the work of the burglars—one of whom is in custody—but Tennison, called in when Raymond is unreachable, isn’t convinced and decides to keep control of the investigation. The move aggravates both Raymond and club president James Greenlees, both of whom are perfectly willing to stonewall and mislead her until she backs off.
The fact that the case is something of an outlier—tied up in higher society, centered on financial questions as opposed to crimes of passion—does provide new territory for Prime Suspect, but unfortunately that doesn’t make it rich territory. Perhaps I’ve simply become jaded by the darkness into which the show can delve, but this mystery feels woefully routine and fails to engage at any of the previous psychological levels. If anything, the focus on blackmail and flipped property gets more confusing the longer it goes on, the harsher motivations replaced by simple greed.
More damaging to the series is the fact that some of what made the show so engrossing to start—the split between the investigation and the prime suspect/suspects in question—feels more token than it has in the past. The focus on such magnetic figures as George Marlow, Jimmy Jackson, Edward Parker-Jones, or more recently Christopher Hughes kept the energy of the investigation high, while the members of the Huntington Country Club are a more restrained bunch. There’s some good moments in the time the show spends with them, particularly around stuttering bartender Hamish and his drug-addicted friend Polly, but the home struggles and greasing of palms simply can’t measure up to the suspenseful heights the show’s proven it can reach. Structurally at least, the show does maintain to sustain the mystery as to the killer’s identity is maintained until the very end, and delivers it courtesy of one of Tennison’s legendary interrogations.
Part of the problem with the series also is that while the mystery is a bit different, Tennison feels like she’s running in circles. After “The Lost Child” seemed to promise a more established structure with Tennison finally secure in her position as detective superintendent, “Inner Circles” is another installment where she’s thrown into a new squad room where the reactions to a new commanding officer range from neutral to hostile. This is a well that the show’s gone to now three times, and it’s lost a lot of the import by putting her in the same situation and dealing with the same arguments. It does find ways to advance the structure, but again that’s because of Helen Mirren’s strengths: she’s not the same Tennison she was at the start, and is much more aware of the cutthroat tactics needed to succeed. The scene where she threatens Kernan over breakfast by musing just how the press would react to a tip-off of a conspiracy is perfect, particularly as Mirren conveys the satisfaction at throwing his earlier advice back in his face: “Politics Mike, that’s what its all about!”
The transfer to a new station also means that the show’s sense of continuity beyond Tennison is weaker than it’s been before; other than Richard Hawley’s DI Haskons, none of Tennison’s usual crew shows up to assist her. (No word on the fate of DI Muddyman from the last series, and it looks like that story will end on the ambiguity of his sitting down to face the disciplinary committee.) The move gives us another swath of detectives, most unidentifiable from the squad rooms of cases past. Contributing to that sense of averageness, “Inner Circles” lacks the colorful supporting cast* that has livened up previous installments—the swath of recognizable British actors from Prime Suspect 3 isn’t equaled, possibly a consequence of the series having to split its resources among three stories. Ralph Arliss as DCI Raymond does a respectable job digging at Tennison for taking his investigation, but he’s more of a cardboard cutout adversary, not as distinctive opposite Tennison as an Oswalde** or an Oatley.
*Well, almost devoid of recognizable faces. I missed this last week, but the police pathologist is played by C-3PO himself, Anthony Daniels.
There is one officer who does bring something new to the story: DS Christine Cromwell, the only female member of the squad room. As played by Sophie Stanton (who would go on to play DCI Marsden in the long-running series EastEnders), Cromwell is one of those officers who gets under Tennison’s skin almost immediately. She nearly jeopardizes the entire investigation early on by leafing through correspondence in Greenlees’s office while he’s not around, and later loses her cool at a public meeting in plain view of a tabloid photographer—something Tennison, once branded “dragon lady” by the Fourth Estate, is particularly sensitive to. Additionally, her closeness to DC Raymond rubs Tennison the wrong way, both as a threat to her control of the squad and an indicator of more coarse ways to climb the ladder than Tennison opted for.
But at the same time, having this Cromwell lets us see another side of Tennison’s personality, to betray that in her own way she can be understanding. Something that’s interesting about Prime Suspect is that as much as it’s a show with a feminist spirit, Tennison isn’t interested in advancing a feminist agenda or looking out for fellow female cops—if anything, she treats her gender only as something to factor into consideration when trying to finish her investigation. Certainly she works well with the other female detectives, but she affords them no special treatment—partly because she’s afraid of being accused of playing favorites, but also because she doesn’t have much patience for women unwilling to put forth the same effort she did to get where she is.
At the same time, Tennison’s not heartless, and more to the point she can recognize a good cop when she sees one. Cromwell impresses Tennison early on in an interrogation scene where she uses her own background in foster care to get through to a young runaway. Following that, Tennsion willingly incorporates the other woman in her legendary interrogations. (“Well you sounded like you knew what you’re talking about in there, that’s always an advantage” comes across as a ringing endorsement from her.) When she’s forced into threatening Kernan for more time, one of her conditions is to keep Cromwell off suspension, and while Tennison’s not afraid to lay into her for her mistakes, she can still dig deep enough to find one word of advice: “Just don’t let your pride blow it for us, all right?” It’s a moment where she’s clearly speaking from experience; for all the packs of detectives she’s whipped into shape in the daily briefing, this is the closest she’s ever been to being a mentor.
But at the same time, it also looks like Cromwell might be better off picking another role model, as her early observation of Tennison—“She’s got it written all over her, no life but the job”—is proving more accurate than ever. When she gets the call to cover for Raymond, not only does she greet the news with a disproportionate amount of enthusiasm, she gets it while drinking alone in her office late at night. A trip to the grocery store sees her buying not just the stacks of frozen meals but also two bottles of Famous Grouse, indicating she completely ignored DS Oswalde’s disappointment in her dietary habits in Prime Suspect 2. And speaking of her romantic life, she places a late-night call to Dr. Schofield from “The Lost Child,” an awkward call lacking in any of the confidence she had when blackmailing Kernan for more time. While “Inner Circles” is certainly the weakest of the installments we’ve seen so far, it still manages to have Helen Mirren holding things together—and paradoxically, she does so better the more Tennison appears to be falling apart.
Les Chappell is one of the founders of This Was Television, a freelance writer for The A.V. Club’s TV Club and founder of the television blog A Helpless Compiler and the literature blog The Lesser of Two Equals. You can follow him on Twitter @lesismore9o9.