1 9 9 1 – 2 0 0 6 (UK)
15 x 101/120/207 minute episodes
Prime Suspect was the blanket title for a gripping set of occasional British police procedural television dramas from Lynda La Plante focussing on the career of ambitious Metropolitan CID officer Detective Chief Inspector (later Detective Superintendent) Jane Tennison as she pursues high-profile crimes, beginning with a serial prostitute murderer in 1991’s original two-parter.
Such was the success of the original Prime Suspect that the chain-smoking, not-so-gentle-touch Tennison (La Plante based the character on real-life policewoman DCI Jackie Malton) was back in Prime Suspect 2 a year later, while Prime Suspect 3 (1993) saw her transferred from Southampton Row to Soho’s vice squad to solve a paedophilia case.
Tennison had a drinking problem and an on/off relationship with cigarettes. She also formed brief but ultimately doomed relationships with men, who were either too safe or too unreliable for her. Even her own family didn’t quite understand.
Yet she won viewers over through her strength, tenacity and determination to see justice done.
1995’s Prime Suspect 4 brought a change of format to a series of 3 x 120 minute films (The Lost Child, Inner Circles and The Scent of Darkness), with their common link being the way they more fully explored the way professional women – the emblematic Tennison – (mis)use and experience power.
For Prime Suspect 5: Errors of Judgement (1996), Jane was demoted to Manchester where she came up against a local gang leader nicknamed “The Street” and uncovered a dizzying web of police corruption.
When the series returned in 2003, after a seven-year hiatus, Jane had returned to London and – although under pressure to retire – flushed out a number of war criminals while investigating the murder of a Bosnian refugee.
October 2006 brought Prime Suspect: The Final Act, in which Jane – struggling with her alcoholism and the death of her father – solved the case of a murdered teenage girl before finally retiring.
Much of the programme’s continued success was down to actress Helen Mirren (born Ilyena Mironoff, daughter of a Tsarist colonel), which was recognised in 1996 with an Emmy award for Best Female Actress. The series made Mirren a huge international star.
Later American series The Closer has been called “an unofficial Americanisation” of Prime Suspect and, certainly, owes much to the British series. NBC aired an American adaptation of the series in their 2011–2012 season.
DCI/DS Jane Tennison
DS Bill Ottley
DCS Mike Kernan
DI Richard Haskons