The original Prime Suspect, broadcast in 1991, remains arguably the best police drama ever seen on British TV. Seven years after Prime Suspect V, there was a danger that the formulaic approach of today’s ITV, which has already seen two of this year’s major new dramas (Family and Sweet Medicine) shunted out of prime time by poor ratings, would leave Prime Suspect VI a pale, by-the-numbers shadow of its former self. The good news is that it hasn’t.
At the centre is Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren), now promoted to Detective Superintendent and, as always, a mass of contradictions; strong but vulnerable, good with people but an indifferent manager and bad at relationships, an excellent copper but undermined from above and below by male – and sometimes female – colleagues.
A lesser actor than Mirren would make a pig’s ear of such complexity, exposing the facets of her character’s personality one after the other like baseball cards (“look, I’m ruthless, but look, I’m sensitive too”). But Mirren is a truly great actor, and mixes them all together, flicking between fragments moment by moment, gesture by expression. Having suspended your disbelief you sometimes have to suspend the suspension, to remind yourself that Tennison isn’t a real person. The only other actor achieving this on TV at the moment is, of all people, Shane Richie as Alfie Moon in EastEnders, but that’s the reason why he’s such a big hit, too.
Unlike Richie, Mirren gets a supporting cast, script and production worthy of her talents. The plot brings the almost-forgotten Bosnian conflict horrifically back to life through its fallout on the streets of London, while the script and direction deviate from the New ITV drama manual at almost every turn, eschewing guaranteed, box-tickable techniques such as flashbacks and on-screen violence in favour of terror made real by recollection. It isn’t perfect; as always, Tennison’s colleagues are a bit two-dimensional, and the interpreter’s-actually-the-villain story idea was used in The Bill earlier this year. But it’s still streets ahead of almost anything else on TV, except, perhaps, Waking The Dead, and unlike that show it doesn’t have Trevor Eve.
A big budget probably helped to make Prime Suspect this good, but the major factor was more likely having a star with enough clout to tell the suits to back off and let the creative team do their jobs. You can almost hear them saying “Bosnia? Not sexy enough. Couldn’t it be lesbians?”, and Mirren (who had a say in the choice of script) replying “It’s this one or I go back to LA.” It’s a shame there aren’t more like her about.