One of my best friends, and probably my most compelling acquaintance, is a semi-famous journalist around these parts. He was the talking head anchor on one of the local TV stations for several years until drink got the better of him and cost him that career. He's been sober for twenty years and now has other less high profile TV gigs along with several freelance journalist-type commissions. One of his current writing pursuits is in conjunction with one of those mavens of meanspiritedness whom you see popping up on national venues from time to time. His stories about meeting with her in NYC and DC have confirmed everything I ever suspected about that circle of elites. He pretends as if he is not tainted by their aura, but I can tell he craves permanent entree and an established seat in that circle ever so badly. Since he gave up drink, his only bad habits now are lust and cigarettes. He smokes (and lusts) privately for the most part, as if to pretend that no one knows.
Out of all the things this fellow has confided in me over the years, the one thing I can't forget is his total and abiding infatuation with Helen Mirren. He says it's just because of her looks, but while we were watching the full seven-season run of Prime Suspect recently (at his recommendation), I could not help but notice the similarities. She rises to near the top of her field but is always on the verge of sabotaging it due to ruthless cockiness or love of drink. She smokes with relish during most of the seasons, but is always at quitting's door. Some seasons she manages to go without, but winds up chewing Nicorette gum like a paper shredder that won't turn off. She lusts frequently and acts on it seemingly without much thought of consequences, until she wakes up the next morning and then is often wallpapered with guilt.
Yeah, this friend of mine says it's all about her looks. And I did see him get quite animated when he was retelling the story about finding naked pictures of her in some book that came out recently. But I think his fascination with Helen Mirren has as much to do with a shared sense of kinship with her Jane Tennison character in Prime Suspect as it does with lust.
The show sprang from the mind of Lynda La Plante. She was born in Liverpool in 1946 and trained at the rather pretentious sounding Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She had a modestly successful acting career but gave that up in the 1980s to try and become a full-time writer. She watched a lot of police shows on TV and decided she'd like to try her hand at writing in that genre. As she did background work, she discovered that there were only a small number of female DCIs (Detective Chief Inspectors) and that it was going to be hard to get any back-story if she wanted to create a female lead in a police drama. She finally met Jackie Moulton, one of the few women DCIs, and she was so impressed with her hard nosed no-bullshit countenance that she based the entire Prime Suspect series on her character if not most of her war stories.
One of the challenges for an American viewer are the accents. Helen Mirren's character is always understandable, but this is not always true with the supporting cast. I don't know the common names of various British dialects, but I would suppose the further down the class scale you get, the harder it is to fully grasp every word the character is saying. I don't think this ruins the viewing experience, but it is something that you have to get adjusted to if you're going to do as we did and sit down and watch this entire series from beginning to end.
Prime Suspect had seven incarnations between 1991 and 2006. The first, in 1991, was a total of four hours (three and a half without the commercials; typical for each of these "seasons") and ran on a show called "Mystery" which featured introductions by that lass who had American men both young and old feeling a bit tight in the 'loons as Emma Peel in The Avengers, Diana Rigg. The first three seasons were written by La Plante. The first story is about a serial killer who tortures his victims for a set number of days before killing them. It's also about the torture of the policemen involved in the investigation when they are told that it will be headed by a woman, Jane Tennison. John Bowe as George Marlow is excellent in portraying the Jekyll/Hyde abilities of an obviously highly intelligent monster. And Tom Bell as Detective Sergeant Bill Otley is also excellent as the "good ol' boy" most annoyed at having to answer to a woman. This character will return in the final season in an even more effective role.
Season Two aired in 1992 and centers on an Afro-Caribbean community in London. This is not as satisfying as Season One: Some bad acting and overacting (primarily by Fraser James as Tony Allen) make it sometimes hard to watch. As with all of these seasons, the thing that keeps you watching is Helen Mirren. The life of this series is the life of her character and what happens to her is not nearly as interesting as what is happening inside her.
Season Three aired in 1993 and is the last one actually written by La Plante. The storyline here transitions from racial prejudice to homophobia. This appeal to the "hot topics" started to wear on us, and we felt as if we were going to chuck the rest of the series. However, we trudged on, and thankfully were rewarded for it in the final two seasons. In this story, which should have been called "The Rent Boys," the character of Edward Parker Jones is played with an understated creepiness by Ciarian Hinds, a face you might recognize from the TV series Rome. The even sleazier character of Jimmy Jackson is played by David Thewlis who won a lot of praise for his role here.
Season Four aired in 1995 and contains three separate stories, all penned by different writers. The last of them, "The Scent of Darkness," has some throwbacks to events in Season One. I have to say that the ending here left us both scratching our heads. It just didn't make any sense, for several reasons I won't go into so as not to spoil the plot. However, let's just say that this is one which La Plante would have written much, much more tightly.
Season Five aired in 1996. It was written by Guy Andrews and centers on Tennison's tete-a-tete with a slum ganglord who goes by the name of "The Street." I think you can see how that might lead to a less than satisfying storyline. The endgame of this storyline is totally ridiculous, calling on a violent resolution which looks like a bad episode of mediocre American TV cop-drama. As with Season Four, this is Prime Suspect at its worst. But trudge on through this season so you can get to the final two gems. There are things happening to Tennison that you're not going to appreciate if you don't watch them all.
Season Six aired in 2003. Helen Mirren apparently was worried about being typecast in this role, and that is why there is a seven year gap here. This one was written by Peter Berry. It finds Tennison as a Detective Superintendent at age 54. She's supposed to be in management now and leaving the day to day work to underlings. However, she is bored and she decides to insert herself personally into a case investigating the torture and murder of a young Bosnian Muslim refugee. Obviously, the illegal immigration problem in England (as well as America) is the underlying motif, but it's the history of the Balkan conflict that drives the plot.
The final season aired in 2006 and is one of the top three (along with One and Six) in terms of dramatic quality. It was written by Frank Deasy. Tennison is within weeks of retirement and this, plus several other factors including her family situation, loneliness, old age, years of exposure to brutality of the worst sort, have all led to quite an active drinking problem. This season deals with the death of a young, vibrant white girl from the lower middle classes. In a moment of weakness plus inebriation, Tennison bonds with one of the dead girl's friends, Penny (portrayed brilliantly by a young Laura Greenwood). The storyline parallels between her relationship with this young live girl and the relationships of the young dead girl are fascinating. In terms of writing, this is the apex of the series and I'm quite glad that we stuck out the mediocre efforts in the middle so that we could enjoy this finale. Especially poignant is the return of Tom Bell as Bill Otley and the interaction between him and Tennison is on an entirely different and much more meaningful level than in the early episodes.
Mirren on Tennison: "This is the first time I've played a policewoman, but I wouldn't say it's the first time I've played a character like her; in fact the character that I have played that is closest to her is Lady MacBeth! Of course she wasn't on the right side of law and order, but their single-mindedness and their ambition are very strong."
Watching some of the newer cop shows, such as the CSI variations, you get the idea that police work is glamorous; full of futuristic technology and almost precognitive minds. Prime Suspect shows that real cop work is often boring, tedious and repetitive. This aspect is captured in some of the Law & Order episodes, but it was The Wire which wound up being the best police show since Prime Suspect.
If you've never seen this show, turn off CSI and Law & Order reruns and watch some real acting for a change.