1991: Looking Back At PRIME SUSPECT - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

1991: Looking Back At PRIME SUSPECT

Tony’s in his Prime.
From our position in 2021, looking back at Prime Suspect, which first hit our screens thirty years ago in 1991, feels almost like an act of social history, rather than just an act of popcorn popular culture.

There had been female-led crime-solving dramas on TV before in both British and American culture: Charlie’s Angels (a ‘glamorous’ team of skilled agents working more or less alongside the law) in the Seventies giving way to more realistic relationship cop drama Cagney & Lacey in the Eighties in the States. The UK had Juliet Bravo (the drab but worthy ‘Woman in charge of a Yorkshire village police force’ BBC drama with the immaculate theme tune), and The Gentle Touch in the Eighties, the latter giving us a more realistic, metropolitan drama of a female copper, Maggie Forbes (Jill Gascoigne), making her way in the male-dominated and patriarchally patronising police force, and blending a good deal of police procedural with relevant issues of the day, including racism and sexism.

Ironically, while the US went from a glamorous crime-solving supergroup towards more police department realism in the Eighties, The Gentle Touch – really the forerunner of British female-led police procedural drama – found itself softened into glamorous crime-solving super-group status with its mid-Eighties spin-off, C.A.T.S. Eyes.

By 1991, the crime drama fever seemed to have died down a little, and what there was on TV had swung back towards male leads. Inspector Morse, which recast John Thaw, (famous from the rugged and sometimes brutal The Sweeney) as a loveable grump, had begun in 1989, televising the novels of Colin Dexter, with the ageing detective solving crimes in the bucolic academic atmosphere of Oxford University. The same year, a masterstroke of interpretation had begun when David Suchet first took to our screens as Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

Then, as if out of nowhere, came writer Lynda La Plante, and Prime Suspect, an initial two-part series that put a high-ranking policewoman, Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, in charge of a complicated murder case.
That’s slightly disingenuous – Lynda La Plante had not in any sense appeared as if out of nowhere. As far back as 1983 (after a stint as an actor which had seen her appear in everything from Z Cars to Rentaghost), she had burst onto the British public consciousness by writing Widows – a crime drama with an incredibly strong all-female central cast. She followed it up with She’s Out, which took up the same story ten years later, just two years on in real time, in 1985.

It would also be wrong to claim that it’s Prime Suspect for which La Plante will principally be remembered. Throughout her career, she has done more than many an academic to push open a feminist window and change attitudes in society towards smashing glass ceilings for women in traditionally ‘male’ professions – particularly around policing, prison service and the law. She’s one of the quietest, least lauded icons of feminism you’d never have thought of.

But while Prime Suspect is not by any means the be-all and end-all of La Plante’s career, if you’re looking for the jewel in her crown, you’d have to make quite the argument to unseat Prime Suspect from that position.

Prime Suspect is absolutely a bone-dry police procedural drama – it has a central crime in each of its storylines, and the dilemma in each of those stories is usually how to get from police INTEREST in a suspect to having enough evidence to convict. The stories always have enough of a hook in and of themselves to make you watch them AS crime drama – they wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t.

But alongside that, they are, also, a much-needed feminist polemic, calling time on the cosy boy’s clubs of policing as DCI Tennison takes on resentment from colleagues, resistance from bosses, and a generalised societal sense that women are somehow not competent to hold top jobs in tough environments.

In particular, the show did something that the likes of The Gentle touch had only been able to scratch the surface of. It showed the tremendous, potentially exhausting double labour it took to be a ‘woman in a man’s world’ in work, and still remain emotionally open and true to yourself in your personal life – Tennison had several emotional entanglements throughout the course of Prime Suspect on TV (1991-2006), and in later series faced the impact of the job and her life, developing a drink problem and dealing with her addiction.

The point about Prime Suspect though is that it dealt with these things not as overt plots or sub-plots, but with as much gritty realism as it brought to the procedure of investigation.
While the original Prime Suspect tackled sexism and the glass ceiling in police work more overtly, that made sense in context because La Plante took an innovative approach to her story-hook – DCI Tennison is one of the first women to achieve the rank of Detective Chief Inspector (and later Detective Chief Superintendent) in the Metropolitan Police, and so she acts as a ceiling-breaker, revealing the institutionalised sexism of the police force in the Nineties.

Future series would tone the overt fight against sexism down, bringing up the volume of the police procedural and ‘normalizing’ Tennison in a position of power, though there would always be a cadre of idiot men making sexist and demeaning remarks throughout the course of Prime Suspect. If you have to wonder why that should be, chances are you’ve never been a woman simply trying to exist in a screaming patriarchy. Idiot sexist men were everywhere in the Nineties (the age of the New Lad, and may all the gods save us from another renaissance of THAT phenomenon), and it’s a mistake to think that 30 years on, they’re not STILL everywhere – they’re just (and then only possibly) SLIGHTLY more passive aggressive in an age where more women like DCI Jane Tennison have broken through to positions of power in the real world.

It’s important in the Prime Suspect stories that Tennison was extremely efficient at her job. That reflected a reality many women instinctively understood, the reality that within a patriarchal, inherently sexist system, women had to be at least twice as competent to be regarded as half as good as the nearest man who could do the job, simply because the sexism was engrained and institutionalised in society and its employment structures.

But if this all makes it sound like a flag-waving feminist diatribe, it’s important to understand two things. Number #1 – Lynda La Plante was, is, and always will be a better writer than that – she hooked us in every time with layered, interesting crimes, psychological investigation and accurate-feeling police procedural, from scene-of-crime operations through autopsies to case-building. And Number #2 – well, number #2 is the thing we’ve held off from saying so far.

Number #2 – they hired Helen Mirren in the central role.
There’s always a danger in cases like this of mythologizing the talents especially of women who succeed, of making them something beyond the norm. That said, you’d have to be quite the churl to not acknowledge that Helen Mirren is an actor of superb focus, sensitivity and power. As Jane Tennison, right from the very beginning, she inhabited the role in all of its complexities, particularly drawing out the difference between a relatively unsmiling, efficient Tennison at work, where she rightly feels she has a seriousness and an aptitude to ‘prove’ to a gang of male colleagues if she’s to get her job done, and at home, where she deals with everything from relationship drama and soothing male egos to trying to be liked by children. These things aren’t performative as such, they’re genuine parts of what Tennison wants to achieve, but in Mirren’s hands, the show deftly showed the extra labour ‘expected’ of a woman trying to be exceptional in work and still available, physically and emotionally, in their personal lives.

If Mirren and La Plante together are the dynamite that made Prime Suspect something beyond special in the TV schedules, it’s also fair to say that – again, right from the beginning – the casting directors on the show lucked out and skilled out all along the line.

Tennison’s love interest in the first series is played by Tom Wilkinson. You also get the grumble-arsed wonder that is Tom Bell as Tennison’s chief police antagonist, Detective Sergeant Bill Ottley. Ralph Fiennes pops in for a scene or two. Zoe Wannamaker is a suspect’s wife – and you can’t tear your eyes away, 30 years on, from electric scenes between Mirren and Wannamaker… and on it goes. A young Colin Salmon stars in Series 2. Peter Capaldi in drag is one of the first things Series 3 serves up. It goes on to throw David Thewlis at our screen. And on. And on. Reading the list of actors who appeared in Prime Suspect over the years is an astonishing way to blow your mind for half and hour. Watching their performances is an astonishing way to blow your mind for really quite a lot longer.

The police procedural would go from strength to strength following Prime Suspect. 1992 would bring us the first episodes of A Touch of Frost, dramatized versions of the novels of RD Wingfield starring David Jason, and Cracker, a crime procedural with ‘super-profiler’ Fitz played by Robbie Coltrane would follow in 1993. Suddenly, you couldn’t move in the TV schedules for cops and detectives, many of whom had hidden pains and addictive personalities.

That Jane Tennison evolved in a similar way is not – and should never be mistaken for – a show following a formula. By virtue of the additional pressure on her to be emotionally supportive and available at home, AS WELL AS brilliant at her job, Lynda La Plante and the Prime Suspect team made Tennison something much more than a stereotype. They made her feel real to a generation of viewers, and they made us care what happened to her.

Tight, hook-filled writing, character dilemmas, an overdue dose of feminism in drama, a central performance that blows the doors off your TV, and a ridiculous quality of co-stars and guest stars over the course of 15 years of screen crime makes Prime Suspect an eternal pleasure, showing the struggles of a women in a position of power. Thirty years on, it feels odd to look back at it and realise that it’s ONLY 30 years on – in everything from the copious indoor smoking to the rampant sexism in the early years, it feels like it should be set in the 1970s.

We’ve come on a bit since 1991. But it would be interesting to ask Tennison, La Plante, and Mirren if we’ve come on as much as we sometimes like to think we have.

Take a trip back to the early Nineties, and remind yourself just how impressive a show Prime Suspect really was.

Watch Prime Suspect today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad