PRIME SUSPECT

British Crime Series

In 1991 Prime Suspect was broadcast on British television to great critical and public acclaim. The production received numerous awards for its writer Lynda La Plante and star Helen Mirren, including a rather controversial BAFTA Award for Best Drama Serial. Prime Suspect's importance to the development of the police drama series as a genre in Britain is great. By installing a woman as the head of a murder squad, Prime Suspect broke new ground in terms of both gender and the authenticity in the portrayal of the internal dynamics of the police as an organisation.

Almost six years earlier, La Plante had brought to the television audience the formidable Dolly Rawlins as the single-minded leader of a group of disparate but gutsy women criminals in her successful television crime drama Widows. With Prime Suspect and the creation of DCI Jane Tennison, La Plante continued to elaborate her predilection for problematic heroines, but this time, her central character is not a criminal but a woman both shaped and defined by her role as an officer of the law.

By being positioned as the head of a murder squad hunting for a sadistic serial killer, Tennison transcends many of the traditions of the British police series. It is interesting to note that La Plante did not put Tennison forward primarily as a woman police officer who does her job the feminine way. In terms of the British police series, Tennison's female predecessors such as Kate Longton (Juliet Bravo) and Maggie Forbes (The Gentle Touch), had been deliberately represented as bringing the nurturing and compassionate aspects associated with femininity to the role of senior police officer. In fact, it would be true to say that central to programmes such as Juliet Bravo, The Gentle Touch and, indeed, the American police series Cagney and Lacey, was the exploration of the contradictions inherent between the institutionalised masculinity of the police and the presence of femininity. The dramatic resolution, however, was usually to endorse the compassionate compromise made by the female characters between being a good police officer and being a "real" woman. The fascination of Tennison as a character was the powerful and compelling focus on the internal and external confrontations and contradictions faced by a leading female character who was in most circumstances a police officer first and a woman second.

It is, in fact, the Tennison character, and Mirren's performance of her, that unify and act as the reference for the six programmes in the series. And although La Plante has only written Prime Suspect/s I and III, her creation of Tennison, her exacting original script, and Mirren's own compelling performance, have generated a successful and repeatable legacy and framework.

Symptomatically, the subtext for each individual drama in the series has some kind of social issue as its basis and could be read as in order as: sexism, racism, homosexuality/young male prostitution, the results of physical abuse in childhood, class, and institutional conformity in the police. Equally symptomatically, it could be noticed that each drama contains a character who has a particular investment in the chosen subtext--e.g. one of the officers is black, in the next drama, one is gay, in the next, one has suffered childhood abuse, and so on. In a rather obvious, sometimes crude manner, this device has been used to situate and contextualise the tensions of the internal police dynamics within those of the larger society. It is our fascination with Tennison that spawns a more integrated and sophisticated involvement with the drama. Because of Tennison's place in the text, the issues of gender in the police force is never far away, as evidenced by the fact that masculinity and male relationships are also always under inspection.

Above all, no matter the focus of a case on a particular social problem, it is the institutionalised performance of masculinity and femininity within the police force which dictates the often considerable dramatic tension. In Tennison's pursuit of serial killer George Marlowe in Prime Suspect I, for example, not only must she prove she is an exceptional detective and win the support of her male colleagues, but the narrative is shot through with her compulsive need to succeed in her job at any cost. Her obsession with her police career even becomes tinged with perversity when the interrogation sessions between Tennison and Marlowe are used to generate a fake, yet compelling, sexual tension. The fact that she will get out of bed at night to interview a serial killer but will not make time to see to the needs of the man in her life heightens the idea of perversity and obsession.

In a culture still guided by the binary divisions of active masculinity and passive femininity, the fact that Tennison is a woman means that her sexuality and sexual practices are subject to much more dramatic scrutiny than if she were a man. Tennison does not, however, stray much from the sexual conduct expected from the male officer in the television police genre. As Geoffrey Hurd explains "the main characters.... are either divorced, separated, widowed or unmarried, a trail of broken and unmade relationships presented as a direct result of the pressures and demands of police work".

The focus on sexuality, however, is dramatically changed by Tennison's pregnancy in Prime Suspect III and her consequent abortion in Prime Suspect IV. This moment marks the watershed in her personal and career conflict and it is interesting that the following programmes (not written by La Plante) then seem to devote themselves to saving Tennison's soul. No moral judgement is made about the abortion; in fact, it is not even discussed. The imperative is clearly to establish Tennison's reputation and stature within the police (she is promoted to the rank of superintendent) and to re-establish her and contain what femininity remains within a heterosexual relationship with a professional equal, the psychologist played by Stuart Wilson.

In Prime Suspect VI, an interesting intertextual exercise is carried out when the Marlowe case is re-opened, with the investigation now centred on Tennison's own police practices. Apart from one long-standing loyal male colleague, the male ranks are again seen to close in the face of this unsympathetic woman who remains insistent on her infallibility and methodical detection. Her ultimate triumph in the case casts her in a new but recognisable mould, that of maverick cop, where gender is even less of an issue.

-Ros Jennings

 


Prime Suspect
Photo courtesy of Goodman Associates

CAST (Prime Suspect I)

Jane Tennison........................................... Helen Mirren DS Bill Otley................................................... Tom Bell DCS Michael Kiernan................................ John Benfield DCI John Shefford................................. John Forgeham Terry Amson............................................. Gary Whelan DI Frank Burkin..................................... Craig Fairbrass DI Tony Muddyman .........................................Jack Ellis WPC Maureen Havers.............................. Mossie Smith DC Jones................................................ Ian Fitzgibbon DC Rosper............................................ Andrew Tiernan DC Lillie ...................................................Phillip Wright DC Haskons......................................... Richard Hawley DC Oakhill.............................................. Mark Spalding DS Eastel.................................................... Dave Bond Commander Trayner.................................... Terry Taplin DC Avison................................................. Tom Bowles DC Caplan............................................. Seamus O'Neill DI Caldicott............................................ Marcus Romer George Marlow .............................................John Bowe Moyra Henson ......................................Zoe Wanamaker Mrs. Marlow ............................................Maxine Audley Felix Norman............................................ Bryan Pringle Willy Chang ..............................................Gareth Tudor Price ..........................................Tilly Andrew Abrahams Joyce ................................................Fionnuala Ellwood Lab Assistant ............................................Maria Meski Lab Assistant ...........................................Martin Reeve Lab Assistant............................................. John Ireland Peter..................................................... Tom Wilkinson Marianne.............................................. Francesca Ryan Joe....................................................... Jeremy Warder Major Howard....................................... Michael Fleming Mrs. Howard........................................... Daphne Neville Karen....................................................... Julie Sumnall Michael................................................... Ralph Fiennes Mr. Tennison......................................... Wilfred Harrison Mrs. Tennison............................................. Noel Dyson Pam....................................................... Jessica Turner Tony................................................. Owen Aaronovitch Sgt. Tomlins................................................ Rod Arthur Carol....................................................... Rosy Clayton Linda .......................................................Susan Brown Painter .......................................................Phil Hearne Helen Masters.......................................... Angela Bruce Mrs. Salbanna............................................. Anna Savva Arnold Upcher............................................ James Snell Mr. Shrapnel ................................................Julian Firth

PRODUCER Ron Lever

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

Granada TV
7-8 April 1991                                 2 Two-Hour Episodes

PRIME SUSPECT II, 1992

PRODUCER Paul Marcus

PRIME SUSPECT III, 1993

PRODUCER Paul Marcus

PRIME SUSPECT SERIES, 1995

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER Sally Head

INNER CIRCLES

PRODUCER   Paul Marcus

THE LOST CHILD

PRODUCER Paul Marcus

THE SCENT OF DARKNESS

PRODUCER Brian Pak

FURTHER READING

Ansen, David. "The Prime of Helen Mirren." Newsweek (New York), 16 May 1994.

Carter, Bill. "A British Mini-series with Many Lives." The New York Times, 2 May 1994.

Dugdale, John. "Intruder in a Man's World." New Statesman and Society (London), 11 December 1992.

Rennert, Amy, editor. Helen Mirren: Prime Suspect: A Celebration. San Francisco, California: KQED Books, 1995.

 

See also British Programming; La Plante, Lynda; Mirren, Helen; Police Programs