Helen Mirren as Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison is one of those sparkling TV rarities, the embodiment of the most perfect alchemy created by the right actor, the right part and the right time. They fitted together like a hand in the sleekest, smoothest kid glove.
The test of greatness always lies in asking yourself, “Could someone else play this role?” And the answer is and will always be “no”. Mirren’s Tennison was great because she was fallible and flawed and so incredibly clever, with a native wit and the kind of cunning that put her one step ahead of her male colleagues. She made mistakes but she didn’t dwell, she regrouped and went forward.
In this she was probably the greatest ever television role model for middle-aged women everywhere. So you’ve mucked up? Someone’s been mean to you? Don’t stew in your own fury, get up and get on with it.
Mirren wasn’t glam, she didn’t wear clicky heels to snip-snip-snip around the police station corridor. She’d run her fingers through her terrific hair (what a great cut!) in the ladies’ loos and was off, solving crimes and catching killers.
Mirren starred as Tennison in seven series of Prime Suspect from 1991 to 2006 and, admittedly, some were better than others.
For me the very first and the very last embodied everything that was right about Tennison and her methods. But the real key is that she lived and breathed in her time. She came to us as a television character and human being fully formed.
We knew a little of her history, her personal life was largely confined to disastrous love affairs and, latterly, we saw her struggles as the daughter of a failing father.
But what mattered was that Tennison was a mature woman who’d been bashed about by life. We saw her travails – at one point she was drinking too much. But everything that assailed her was current and we watched her deal with it. All of her problems made her who she was.
So, hand on heart, I never said, “Mmm, I wonder what Jane Tennison was like as a young WPC in 1973?” Why would I? The great Jane lived and breathed on my TV screen right in front of me. Why would anyone need to look back? And yet ITV did, and does, with Prime Suspect 1973 (the deadliest of all titles).
Stefanie Martini plays the young Jane but honestly, she could be playing anybody. Young Jane is of no interest. We see her having to make the squad-room tea, snogging her boss (yawn) and sitting watching telly with her family. Not much, is it?
The sexism that was surely the miserable lot of women police constables in 1973 is embodied by making the tea and clearing up sick in the cells. Yet Jane is encouraged to take part in a murder investigation and she’s even collected in a squad car to make an arrest with the men. Really? In 1973? The Metropolitan Police’s first woman police commissioner, Cressida Dick, joined the force ten years later.
I wonder if she found a profound change in the attitude towards women? Consider, only a year earlier, the BBC broadcast that notorious episode of Roger Graef ’s Police documentary series that showed male detectives at Thames Valley Police browbeating a woman into dropping a rape claim. So would Jane Tennison’s 1973 force be so enlightened as to include her in high-profile arrests? I doubt it.
The wider point is that young Jane isn’t our Jane, she’s just a character called Jane Tennison who’s younger than the Jane Tennison we know. She doesn’t seem to have much personality and there’s no sense that she’s a barrier-breaker.
Mirren’s Tennison left our screens more than a decade ago. I’d be thrilled if she were to return in 2017 in a new story. But as someone we don’t know who’s a lot younger? No, not bothered.
This article originally appeared in Radio Times magazine, 25 February-3 March 2017