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One of the great Tv characters ( and performances) of all time
on 23 October 2006
Jane Tennison played with typical excellence throughout by Helen Mirren is probably the strongest female character in TV history , indeed one of the strongest in the history of popular culture ,sitting alongside say Ellen Ripley from the Alien saga as a redoubtable iconic woman. Though it must be said the Machiavellian sexist males Tennison encounters are creepier and more insidious than the any acid blooded bi-mandible creature from outer space.
Prime Suspect started in 1991 with Jane Tennison taking over a murder investigation after the sudden death of the current DCI.Not only is she up against a calculating killer, shielded by his current girlfriend (Zoe Wannamaker) but the whispering, conniving old boys network orchestrated by the sibilant sinister DS Otley (Tom Bell) is determined to discredit her and undermine the investigation. This is the best of the seven one off dramas, brilliantly written by Lynda la Plante, who can churn out journey man (or should that be woman) material but at her best is capable of riveting drama.
Mirren of course is superb and what is most impressive about Tennison as a character is that even though she is driven , tenacious , fiercely intelligent , as we would like to think all Police are, there is still something ephemeral, indefinable, that makes her less than 100% likable. In other words she comes across as a genuine character. We can truly believe in her.
The second Prime Suspect (1992) and Tennison has to investigate a murder in a mainly afro Caribbean neighbourhood with all the politics and racial tensions that implies. (Nowadays it would have been set in a Muslim community) Tennison as well as having to deal with the suspicion she is being hung twirling in the wind by her superiors also has the recriminations of an affair with a fellow officer (Colin Salmon) who has been seconded onto the investigation because he is black.
Prime Suspect 3(1993) and Tennison has been assigned into vice and has the disturbing case involving the death of a young boy in a fire and is soon once again mired in a cesspool of corruption, deceit and petty politics .This has a cracking cast with David Thewlis (Unnervingly seedy and baleful), Ciaran Hinds and Tom Bell reprising his role as Otley.
Prime Suspect 4 (1995) broke with the tradition of the previous instalments buy having three separate episodes ("The Lost Child", "Scent Of Darkness", "Inner Circles") which is a mistake as it dilutes the drama, and the issues become blurred. Tennison, skating the precipice of tragedy as ever, but heroically pulling back has an abortion, an affair with psychologist involved with the case of a missing child and is suspended, and something she fights with characteristic fortitude and tenacity.
Prime Suspect 5-"Errors Of Judgement" (1996) and Tennison has been transferred to Manchester, which some would deem as the worst misfortune to befall her yet, and suspects that the adolescent who has confessed to a murder isn't telling the whole truth. To complicate matters further she indulges in an adulterous affair with her boss (John McArdle). There is a terrific denouement and the episodes motif of law and order breakdown eerily predicts where we are today.
After a seven year hiatus Tennison returns in Prime Suspect 6 -"The Last Witness"(2003) which audaciously involves a case centring on the torture/murder of a woman of Balkan extraction and implications dating back to the Bosnian war. As ever she is impeded by politics, scheming and ambitious underlings and un-co-operative management. This is grim even by this shows standards but Tennison is now mellower, more reflective though still as forbiddingly determined and thorough as ever.
And so the series reaches its, apparent conclusion with the recent Prime Suspect 7which has a Tennison descending into alcoholism and fast approaching retirement tackling her last case that of a bright teenager murdered and dumped on park land. She also has to cope with the death of her father (Frank Finley) and most surprisingly makes peace with old enemy Otley.
Mirren is a tour de force throughout and the writing is of consistently high quality , and is aided by the uniformly superb supporting characters and the actors who portray them. It is noticeable that the early themes of sexism and discrimination are gradually assimilated by themes of social exclusion, and change and the subtle but precarious erosion of society and law and order.
Prime Suspect is a consistently superb piece of television and sits more than comfortably with other magnificent TV dramas of the last twenty years-"Cracker", "Between The Lines"," Our Friends In The North"-and like those illuminates the paucity of shows of similar value in our TV schedules nowadays., something the recent return, along with that of "Cracker" has indelibly proved.