Choo! Choo! So, Prime Suspect is now the latest to get off the Nostalgia Train. To be fair a prequel to one of the best and most influential crime dramas in history does sound intriguing on paper. Jane Tennison is an icon, and with Lynda La Plante having returned to the world with a prequel book series entitled Tennison, it was inevitable that ITV would soon come knocking. While La Plante was attached to this adaptation under a cloud of speculation, the scripts for this six parter have been adapted by Vera and Home Fires writer, Glen Laker. But could it create the same impact as the brilliant original? And why did La Plante leave?
Firstly, this may be a very silly criticism, but I hate the title. It’s uninspiring and bland, and should have been called Tennison. Not that that’s too thrilling either, but would feel less like a dull cash grab title.
Stepping into the shoes of Helen ‘The Queen’ Mirren would always be a challenge, but Stefanie Maritini does a fine job portraying the young Tennison. Already she’s the flawed heroine we love who’s committed to the job. Our first glimpse of Tennison is on the bus, and she jumps off to help an old lady who’s being mugged. When late to work she’s spoken down to by her Sargent who seems irate by everything she says or does and is expected to make the tea and wash up while Blake Harrison’s Gibbs eyes her up.
Although she’s not as ballsy as her other female colleague Morgan, Tennison shows a seriousness and meticulous calculation that will help her in future cases. Though she’s clearly vulnerable, as she’s disturbed by the autopsy and frustrated when questioning a prostitute near the end, but you can see the makings of the steel woman who believe will grow into the DCI who in years to come will demand not to be called m’am because she’s not the bloody Queen.
Another aspect explored is her family life as despite attending gruesome autopsies and comforting the family of murdered victims, she’s still treated like a child. Her parents worrying where she is and her mother’s jaw dropping reaction when she discovering she’s on the pill. The original series hints at tensions between Tennison and her family, and here it’s clear why as her frustration comes from still being treated like a teenager and being in some ways, the family freak.
Back at work, despite the sexism she experiences, not every male character is (thankfully) a full blown misogynist. Detective Bradfield clearly sees something special in her, praising her for asking questions as he claims it will make her a better copper and giving her every chance to learn. He obviously fancies her, but Sam Reid brings sincerity to the role.
The basis for Tennison’s character and eventual growth are all there, but it’s the actual case which brings the episode down. When seeing the female victim lying dead on the ground, my first thought was, please, please, please, don’t let this be a prostitute. And shock, horror, she was. While slightly appropriate considering murdered prostitutes was central to the first Prime Suspect case, I’m sure they could have thought of something more original. Why can’t crime dramas realise that other people get murdered in this world! Even in 1973!
And while it’s interesting to see a criminal investigation in a pre-CSI forensics world, this just isn’t exhilarating enough. In fact, it doesn’t feel like Prime Suspect. Even 20 years on, while dated in its procedural, the series remains riveting drama and at times very uncompromising viewing. What made it and Cracker so successful is they were crime dramas that showed the true extent of human evil. In the years since, while there are exception such as Luther and The Fall, British detective dramas feel like an all too familiar affair, with very gentle and safe murders to please the masses, sadly Prime Suspect: 1973 hasn’t taken inspiration from its raw original and instead feels likes something on Sunday night. And it’s just the case where there’s problems.
Although I was never a fan of Life On Mars, it was definitely an accurate depiction of overt macho sexism within the police. And although she wasn’t the series protagonist, Mars’ Annie endured taunts and crude comments off her male colleagues that shined a light on the way female officers were treated. Here there was a real chance to explore these ideas from the perspective of a female lead, and yes it’s only episode one, but it was an all too tame affair and compared to the vicious the bigotry Mirren’s Tennison endured in the 90’s series, Martini’s came off lightly.
While only the first episode, the biggest crime of the series so far is how slow it is. The original Prime Suspect was never action packed, but fast paced and totally gripping. In contrast this was boring and lacking in storytelling substance that it didn’t quite know what it wanted to be. And with a dull cliffhanger and not a very intriguing case, I dread to think how they’re gonna drag this out of over six weeks.
It’s this lack of originality that makes it stand out in the current television landscape for all the wrong reasons. Having recently finished the amazing second series of No Offence, a crime drama that’s dares to be different in its style and the stories they tell, Prime Suspect: The Prequel Series just feels like a nostalgia cash in schedule filler. It’s a shame because it had potential but failed to successfully blend the brilliance of the original while trying to create its own identity.Although we may never know why La Plante left this series, it’s quality doesn’t make it difficult to speculate why.
For any newcomers wanting to watch this in the hope of leading onto the original, just skip this drivel and start Prime Suspect: 1991.