Murder, She Blogged: Prime Suspect

Are there any explicitly feminist crime TV shows? Prime Suspect, which ran on UK television channel ITV from 1991 to 2006, is surely a contender, starring Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, a female detective breaking into a male-dominated world. It dealt explicitly with issues such as institutional sexism and racism in London’s Metropolitan Police force. It’s being remade for US television, with Maria Bello taking on the role of Tennison, and from the teaser (below) we can see that it starts with Jane Tennison struggling to get assigned a case, which is what happens in the first episode of the original too:

The first series of ITV’s original Prime Suspect aired in 1991 and drew on the real-life experiences of police officer Jackie Malton in the 1980s. But we’re now much more than familiar with female detectives heading up investigations—at least on TV. So it’s going to be interesting to see how they’re going to make the same atmosphere work in 2011. Lynda La Plant, the creator of the show, reportedly came up with the idea of a show starring a female detective after noticing that there were only male lead detectives on Crimewatch, a long-running UK television show which carried slots about actual crimes, with the aim of helping to solve them, similar to America’s Most Wanted. In the first series, Tennison is the first female detective to appear on Crimenight, the show’s fictional equivalent. Advert for Prime Suspect 1, Helen MirrenTennison’s colleagues call her “tart” and “that bloody woman” regularly. The male detectives struggle with how to address her (when one of them calls her “Ma’am”, she says, “I’m not the bloody queen.”). Many of these touches were drawn directly from Molton’s experiences over decades on the force. It’s not just that Tennison is breaking into the boys club in leading the investigation, but she’s actually the only female detective on the squad; the other female police officers shown in the first series are in uniform. The first series of Prime Suspect revolves around solving the murder of several women, the first of whom is thought to be a sex worker. The first detective in charge of the investigation doesn’t even realize that they’ve misidentified the first body, even though it later is implied he was a client. The show doesn’t shy away from police dismissal of crimes against sex workers; at one point, a uniformed police officer says of a murdered sex worker: “These tarts bringing their blokes in here, bloody well asking for it.” While he dismisses her friends (“slags isn’t the word for them”), Tennison takes them seriously. But the difference in their worlds isn’t ignored: there’s a great moment where Tennison is in the pub interviewing two sex workers; she realizes she’s missed her train, and says, “Cutting it fine, got a dinner party,” and the two women give each other a hilarious look. Where other crime shows treat murders in a lighthearted way, or even occasionally as a joke, Prime Suspect never shied away from the seriousness of the issues, and the grim realities. As it went on, Prime Suspect dealt with other internal issues in the police force, which continue today on both sides of the Atlantic. The second series confronted institutional police racism, although perhaps not as successfully as the first tackled institutional sexism. One storyline also sees Tennison learn she’s pregnant and have an abortion. In the final episode, a pointed contrast is made when Tennison is questioning a teenage girl who has murdered her friend; the girl insists that Tennison’s abortion was “murder,” while avoiding the fact that she is the one who committed a crime. It’s really exciting to see this concept revived in the US; let’s just hope the remade version manages to break new ground as well. If not, there’s always the option of immersing yourself in the box sets of the original.

Previously: Mrs. Columbo

by Jess Mccabe
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6 Comments Have Been Posted

I wrote an essay relating to

I wrote an essay relating to Prime Suspect for my MA program, so I just wanted to throw a couple of things out there. It may seem nitpicky, but her last name is spelled La Plante, with that 'e' on the end.

The other thing was that her reason for creating Prime Suspect was more than just that only men were detectives on British television, or that only men were featured on Crimewatch, but more specifically that women were relegated to being girlfriends, wives, mothers, and hookers; they never had any form of subjecthood, as they were simply plot devices. This came from the fact that La Plante was an actress prior to becoming a writer, and had been relegated to playing her share of hookers. This also lends an extra depth to her choice to have the first installment deal with a serial killer who murders prostitutes. The fact, as you point out, that Tennison treats them as human beings rather than disposable non-subjects, is thusly made even more important. (You can find all of this in interviews with La Plante)

As with every other English show 'remake' America embarks on, I am immediately doubtful. You don't have to look very far (Skins anyone?) to find disaster.

@Rachel W Not nitpicky at

@Rachel W Not nitpicky at all! I'll try and get that changed.

The commercial alone makes me

The commercial alone makes me doubt the US version will be anything like the British one; Tennison is shown in the back of a cab being driven recklessly; when she is unable to convince the driver to cool it, she slams her gun (and then her badge) into the divider. It's clearly the weapon, not the badge, that makes the impression on the driver.

I feel that this version of Terrnison is going to be the recently-typical "strong" woman, where power is displayed through violence and crudeness.

@Anonymous Hmm, yes, I have

@Anonymous Hmm, yes, I have my reservations too.

But I am interested to see this reimagining. As I think I hinted at in the post, my biggest reservation is whether they'll manage to pull off setting this in the same male-dominated world. I'm not sure if that's true to life, perhaps it is? But this year we had the success of the Killing, for example, which has a female lead detective on a murder case which is totally uncommented upon. I'm interested to see how audiences respond to the US Prime Suspect in a media environment which has changed significantly since 1991 - both in the UK and the US.

"I feel that this version of

"I feel that this version of Terrnison is going to be the recently-typical "strong" woman, where power is displayed through violence and crudeness."

Personally I had a problem with how she was depicted as overly strong and tough in the British version, but I could understand that being in the force just did that to you back in the day (and today as well, as far as I know). But honestly, don't you have any "first woman in the police force/army/marines" kind of stories of your own in the US? I think that would be far more interesting for us on the East side of the pond as well than yet another remake.

I haven't seen this, but I'll

I haven't seen this, but I'll be sure to check it out.

Random question, and apologies for its not pertaining exactly to the subject at hand: Have you seen the series "New Tricks"? It's a British cop drama featuring a group of older (age 55-ish +) detectives. All are male except for the head of the squad, who is female. I haven't seen it in a while, but I know it deals with subjects of sexism, ageism and racism in its plots. If you've seen it, what's your opinion?

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