Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison, originally came out in 1991. It was ahead of its time, as both a show with a woman at its head, and as a gritty police drama focusing on one difficult-to-solve case. Twenty years later, it is still as absorbing and shocking as when it first came out.
Current American police shows may be gritty, but they rarely capture the bleak lives that British policiers seem able to do so effortlessly. Prime Suspect shows London as most have never seen it, the fringes of the city and the people that inhabit it.
The gritty squad room where Tennison works has more in common with the look of ‘70s movies like Serpico and The French Connection than modern police dramas. Prime Suspect also doesn’t shirk from showing the battered bodies or detailing the perversions of a serial killer, yet there is no dwelling on the murders. They are presented in almost documentary fashion, which makes shows like CSI seem positively prurient yet strangely antiseptic. That isn’t to say that the deaths depicted in Prime Suspect aren’t shocking. They are.
While watching Prime Supect it becomes clear how much computer work has changed since the early ‘90s. Television heroes have changed, too. Tennison drinks and smokes incessantly. Every cop at the station seems to have a dependency on nicotine and afternoon visits to the pub. It’s a realistic depiction, as the officers need some stress relief in such a dangerous and often thankless job.
Mirren portrays beautifully how Tennison has been overlooked time and again, always being told that male officers won’t want a female boss. When DCI John Shefford (John Forgeham) suffers a sudden and fatal heart attack she quickly makes her move and asks her superior DCS Kernan (John Benfield) to put her in charge of his case, a major murder investigation. The squad, and especially DS Bill Otley (Tom Bell), Shefford’s close friend, are at first resistant and then go all out to try and get her replaced.
Tennison tries to not let the sexism interfere with her work as she investigates the rape and murder of a young woman, a presumed prostitute. The prime suspect in the case, George Marlow (John Bowe), may have been falsely accused. As Tennison continues to investigate, she discovers that the case may involve police corruption and be just one in a series of serial murders.
Tennison just wants a little respect from her team:
Tennison: So what do you think?
DI Frank Burkin (Craig Fairbrass): About what, sir?
Tennison: My voice suddenly got lower, has it? Maybe my knickers are too tight. Listen, I like to be called Governor or The Boss. I don’t like Ma’am – I’m not the bloody Queen. So take your pick.
Burkin: Yes Ma’am.
Mirren’s Tennison is a difficult character. You cheer for her to fight the old boy’s sexist network at the Metropolitan Police, or as it more commonly known, Scotland Yard. But you also cringe as she pushes her way to take charge of an investigation just hours after Shefford keels over in the station. She must trample others to get ahead, and she shows no hesitation in doing so. Tennison is fantastic at her job, but she lacks empathy. Her dedication to her work and her ambition eventually drives away her current lover (Tom Wilkinson), but her tough-as-nails approach to the case and her determination to get the right man slowly earns the respect of her fellow “lads.”
All of the acting is top-notch. Besides the now well-known Mirren, Zoe Wanamaker and Tom Wilkinson, a young Ralph Fiennes turns up in a small but powerful part as a murdered girl’s boyfriend.
Wanamaker is amazing as Moyra, suspect Marlow’s common-law wife. She’s hard as nails and funny as hell when she catches one of Tennison’s detectives poking through her laundry basket:
Moyra: And you can put that laundry back, sonny! Unless you’re a perverted crotch sniffer. Those are my dirty knickers! And I know how many there are!
Tennison: How’d you feel about your boyfriend picking up prostitutes?
Moyra: I love it! Gives me a night’s rest!
But underneath her tough-talking exterior, Moyra is vulnerable. And scared. She stands by her man, but she must have lingering doubts. Has he just cheated on her by picking up a prostitute, or could he be guilty of murder as well? Prime Suspect doesn’t just take place in the police squad, but shows us Marlow and Moyra at home, how they live — their hard-scrabble life and the tensions and pressures created by the police’s frequent visits to determine his guilt or innocence.
If Prime Suspect had Tennison battling sexism in the police force, the focus of Prime Suspect 2 is racism in London and in the police force. Tennison is now enjoying success since her first case, but she is still incredibly ambitious. As DCS Kernan looks forward to a promotion, Tennison immediately asks him if she can have his job.
She was willing to sacrifice her love and family life for her career. She may be ambitious, but it comes from having to constantly battle the inequities of how the work world is constructed. A man could put in as long hours as Tennison and his marriage might be shaky, but it wouldn’t necessarily fall apart. But when Tennison focuses on her career she has to discard the more traditional female roles of wife, mother, and even girlfriend. She may ultimately be successful, but it is lonely at the top.
When she meets Sergeant Robert Oswalde (Colin Salmon), someone as ambitious and headstrong as herself, they quickly have an affair and then just as quickly clash. And when he turns up in her squad room as a new member of her team the sparks really fly, and not romantically.
Tennison’s new case centers on the body of a young girl which has been unearthed in a primarily Afro-Caribbean neighborhood of London. Tennison must not only determine if her prime suspect, David Harvey (Tom Watson), is actually responsible for the crime, but also to try and defuse the tensions between her officers and the neighborhood’s residents. Oswalde finds himself conflicted by the rising racial tensions and his own career ambitions.
Oswalde is questioned during a trial about a suspect in the case that he arrested and who died in police custody:
You had an exemplary record, Sergeant. Could it be that in some subtle way you were being tougher — harder — on this black suspect because you too are black?
Oswalde: I’m afraid your question is too subtle for me.
Besides the racial tensions, Tennison must deal with insinuations about her relationship with Oswalde, which she refuses to acknowledge. Again, a female is being judged more harshly than a male in a similar position.
Tennison dresses fairly conservatively, as befits her rank as a detective chief inspector. Her uniform is a crisp white shirt with a usually drab-colored skirt or pant suit and the ubiquitous London overcoat. She is not overly feminine, but she is all woman and has sexual relationships. She (and Mirren) can’t help but exude her female attractiveness, which has probably weighed against her in her quest for the top.
Prime Suspect 2 is as fascinating as the first installment, as we watch Tennison continue her journey to make an arrest, earn respect, and get to the truth. Mirren is fantastic and DCI Tennison is a classic television hero.
Both DVDs have scene selection and subtitles available as extras.