Prime Suspect

Sunday, October 15, 2006 by

Bad weather follows Jane Tennison everywhere. Like the Douglas Adams character who blunders through a soggy existence unaware of his real status as a Rain God, and for whom precipitation was but a lumpen fact of existence, so Tennison has served her time in a near-continual downpour of dirty rain.

Much like the rest of her unforgiving, rancorous world, she has never questioned the reason for such inclement weather. Indeed, 15 years ago, when Prime Suspect began, it was raining. It rained in the very first scene: the discovery of a battered body. Whenever a further corpse was unearthed, inside or outside, in that or any of the successive filmed adventures, showers never seemed far away. And every time, in whatever circumstances, Tennison simply buried her face deeper in her clothes and carried on doing what she did, regardless of the consequences – be they another drenched overcoat or another affronted copper.

So it proved again here, the last ever outing (though we’ve heard that before) for Helen Mirren’s finest hour. But where once that steely resolution was born out of personal injustice or the enmity of rival colleagues, now it is other, more selfish sources spurring her forwards.

Her own personal finishing post is in sight: retirement. At the same time other portions of her life are detaching themselves and floating away, either through conditions beyond her control (the death of her father from cancer) or entirely at her mercy (her alcoholism). Memories, past ambitions, former hopes – they are all fading ever further out of reach. A sense of finality and farewell walks abroad.

When a long-established and much-loved TV character embarks on their heavily-advertised final bow, you can expect such notions to be writ large on the screen. You can also forgive a degree of sentimentality, finely-judged or otherwise. What isn’t so usual is to see that character so beset by slings and arrows as to appear to go out on a low rather than a high.

The last episode of Inspector Morse, winsomely titled “The Remorseful Day”, made sure our man passed away with reputation and good name intact. It was an incredibly safe, serene and reverential departure, and as such utterly at odds with the forces which had driven the series for much of its life and had made its hero so distinctive.

Thankfully it doesn’t look like the same treatment is about to be meted out here. The rain that is falling on Jane Tennison this time is all the more relentless, the gloomy skies forever uncompromising and unchanging. Her attempts so far to piece together the reasons behind a young girl’s murder have been thwarted not just by incompetence and bad luck, but also her deteriorating condition. Nobody among her existing family and friends offers her companionship. She finds it easier talking to the teenage friend of the victim rather than her own father. It is a very different, but no less credible, characterisation to the one Mirren debuted 15 years ago.

Nonetheless, a couple of scenes in this opening act referenced iconic moments from the original serial, a gesture that was inspired if deliberate, delightful if plain coincidence. The image of a shabby, fragile, half-drunk Tennison, just about to grill a suspect, manically washing her face in the toilets and crudely mopping it dry with a wad of paper towels, was an almost exact retread of a sequence in the first film. Except back then the Tennison viewers saw loitering in the Ladies was one of poise and total control, minutely applying make-up and settling her face into the most ordered of expressions before processing with utmost precision into the interview room.

And here, when we saw Jane struggling to pilot her wheelchair-bound father through a car park, not an ounce of dignity evident on her part or a semblance of respect on his, flashes of George Marlow, the original titular “Prime Suspect”, shuttling his similarly-confined mother along a windswept seaside pier swam into your mind’s eye. Marlow’s infantile pirouetting, a macabre dance of the doomed, now felt almost joyous when placed against with Tennison’s jumbled, shambolic scrambling. How the mighty had fallen.

Yet this was no easy victim, no poor soul waiting for our sympathy and making it simple to care for her reduced circumstances. That would have been too safe, too straightforward. This was a character we had to work to comprehend, and work damn hard at times, but whose dimensions of complexity were matched by the depth of reward you felt as a viewer upon reaching the point of understanding. When the full scale of Jane’s personal and physical deterioration was ultimately laid bare, it was impossible not to fall for her – as tragic hero, as a compromised saint, as a desperately lonely human being – all over again.

That point came when, on the moment of her father’s death, Tennison realised she had nobody left to confide in, nobody willing to grant her the attention to express her despair, and nobody to mourn with. Nobody, that is, except her erstwhile rival, professional tormentor and dour embodiment of everything she fought her life to outrun, DS Bill Otley.

In scenes almost overwhelmed by the significance of representing one of the last screen appearances by the late Tom Bell (alas, an appearance he recorded for Caroline Quentin’s perfunctory police drama, Blue Murder, which is due to air in a couple of weeks, may prove to be his epitaph) Tennison made her peace with Otley, typically in the most unglamorous of settings (a battered cafĂ©) and on the most inauspicious of terms. 15 years of screen history resolved itself around the cracked, lined faces of these two TV icons. It was impossible not to be moved by such a perfectly-executed, immaculately-scripted laying to rest of both a fictional partnership and a living legacy. After such viscerally draining viewing, that Bell’s character was seen to give up his life in order to save Tennison in the closing seconds of this episode could only reduce you to a silent howl of despair.

This was television drama of the highest and noblest of orders. Such was its scope, coupled with the baggage of a decade-and-a-half spent swirling round popular culture, minor faults and blemishes were trampled into inconsequentiality.

The endless scattergun establishing shots forever shouting “Look! It’s a busy 21st century city!” felt just as superfluous after their umpteenth outing as did the kind that pock-marked Cracker a fortnight ago. However they were repeatedly driven from your immediate thoughts by the brutal, bloody-minded force of the central performance.

Everything that was missing in Manchester two weeks ago – a context that served a story, not the other way around, plus a bunch of characters and concerns that did the same – was present in the London of Sunday night. What was handed such an astonishing beginning all those years ago looks destined to receive just as extraordinary a conclusion today. That Helen Mirren still makes us care for her character after all this time and in the face of such a blizzard of narrative corrosion is the most remarkable thing of all.


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