Raising The Bar
Tripwire continues its list of its Top 30 Crime and Police shows, selected by its editor-in-chief and senior editor. Counting down to its first choice at the end, Here’s its 19th entry, ITV’s Prime Suspect…
19. Prime Suspect
Creator: Lynda La Plante
Stars: Helen Mirren, John Benfield, Tom Bell, Richard Hawley
Former actress Lynda La Plante had already proven herself as an adept screenwriter with the Widows series for Thames Television in the mid-1980s, but her writing / producing on Prime Suspect, beginning in 1991, is her signature work. Detailing the life and career of Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) of the Met, the series broke new ground in its portrayal of women working in senior positions in the police force. It also brought in a more verite, graphic illustration of police procedurals, with a complete absence of sugar-coating. This was crime television for a new era in British broadcasting, with little of the humour or old mores of previous shows.
The strength of the series is in its focus on the unremitting sexism and animosity that dogs Tennison throughout, along with the effect it has on her well-being. It also excels in showing how the character maintains her status and direction at all times, in the face of bureaucracy and constant attempts to undermine her authority, especially with her junior officers and colleagues, notably the vulpine DS Otley (Tom Bell, inevitably cast as Tennison’s bête noir). The criminals she brushes up against in the course of duty are pathological dissemblers, sociopaths who operate outside morality as they try to gaslight her and her reluctant lieutenants. In certain respects this program was a corrective to The Sweeney, with its endemic sloppiness, unprofessionalism and laissez-faire, old-school chauvinism – rather ironic considering that La Plante herself had featured in an episode – but what is also key is how Tennison has taken on board her disadvantage here as a woman DCI (and later Superintendent) to such an extent and how it eventually wears her down. Nevertheless, she handles her predictably contemptuous co-workers with resigned but forceful disdain.
Later series moved on to other themes such as racism and child exploitation, all detailed in the same forensic, uncompromising fashion. Like other illustrious British crime productions, each entry had a surfeit of key character actors on board such as David Thewlis, Colin Salmon, Zoe Wanamaker, Peter Capaldi, Ralph Fiennes, Robert Glenister, and many others. But it was Helen Mirren’s stoic, resolute turn that shone the brightest, gaining Baftas and Emmys for a part that was practically made for her. A seminal, tightly-scripted series that pulled few punches, and raised the bar.
Prime Suspect is on now on Amazon Prime in the UK and Britbox in The US