Prime Suspect — Killer TV No 5

Prime_Suspect_TV_Series-474100502-largeITV, 1991-2006 (seven series)

‘Don’t call me ma’am – I’m not the bloody Queen.’ – Jane Tennison

Helen Mirren (DCI Jane Tennison), Tom Bell (DS Tom Otley), Tom Wilkinson (Peter Rawlins), Mark Strong (Larry Hall), Ciaran Hinds (Edward Parker-Jones), Jonny Lee Miller (Anthony Field), Peter Capaldi (Vera Reynolds), Robert Glenister (Chris Hughes)

Identikit: DCI Jane Tennison gets her chance to lead a major murder inquiry, but has to battle her sexist male team members, who want her replaced.


Writer Lynda La Plante took the boring old police procedural and turned it into something challenging and ultimately moving. Helen Mirren had a career-defining role as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, fighting to do a good job in the face of fierce male hostility (at a time when female DCIs in London’s Metropolitan Police were rare). Series one, in which officers on her squad tried to get her replaced while she chased a rapist-murderer, was the best, but while the standard occasionally dipped in some of the subsequent seasons, the subplots of Tennison’s struggle for personal happiness, the termination of her pregnancy and her battle with alcoholism gave the character-driven drama greater impact than just about every other cop show of the time. Certainly by series 7, The Final Act, with Tennison confronting the death of her father (Frank Finlay) and receiving a heartrending apology from Sgt Otley (Tom Bell), who’d tried so hard to undermine her early on, Prime Suspect packed an emotional punch few drama serials ever match. The end, with Tennison alone with her drink problem, avoiding her own retirement party, was controversial. Some reviewers felt that the male scriptwriters wanted to punish the female protagonist for being successful. But hasn’t Tennison come through on her own terms? She was not a desk detective feathering her own career, but a dedicated case solver who successfully closed her final investigation, into the murder of a teenage girl. But she is not unscathed, having paid a similar personal price as Otley, both having sacrificed their personal lives and stared into the abyss of human degradation. The ending is sombre, but as Tennison leaves the office she has poise and even a faint smile. She did it her way, and a new phase of life without office politics, child killers and rapists awaits. Prime Suspect did for the British crime genre what Nordic noir is now doing for Scandinavia by shining a light on the underside of society, with stories tackling sexism, racism, paedophilia and prostitution. It won a shed-load of Baftas, Emmys and Golden Globes, and dwarfs all the whodunits and forensic shows that clog today’s TV schedules.

Spin offs: Steer clear of the limp 2011 US reboot with Maria Bello. La Plante’s most recent series, Above Suspicion, also has nothing like the resonance of Prime Suspect. News that the author is writing a Prime Suspect prequel has cheered many fans – soon to be seen on ITV in the UK – but it will have to be distinctive and powerful to match Mirren’s series.

Classic episode: The whole of series three. Make no mistake, it’s strong stuff, but this season (Lynda La Plante’s last as writer) reveals a lot about Tennison (she rejects the man who loves her, later having an abortion). It’s also a dark story about child abuse, with powerful performances from David Thewlis and Peter Capaldi, along with the regular cast.

Music: The music for the first five series was done by Oscar-winning composer Stephen Warbeck.

Watercooler fact: Writer Lynda La Plante wanted to know how many female DCIs were in the London Metropolitan Police. On calling Scotland Yard she was told, ‘Oh, quite a number – four.’ She based Tennison on the one she interviewed, Jackie Malton.

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