It’s been years since we last saw Superintendent Jane Tennison with all her ugly, angry demons on display in Prime Suspect. Helen Mirren left us with an indelible impression of the character created by author Lynda LaPlante—one that can’t truly be replicated. (Sorry Maria Bello, but the American version of Prime Suspect was never going to be a winner.)
Then, along came Endeavour to show us you can go home again, provided you arrive earlier than when you left. Take that favorite character and make him or her simpler, more innocent, more open, less encumbered. Fill in the flesh on the bones of the character’s past. That way there’s less pressure to replicate success and more opportunity to evolve.
Of course, it helps if you show respect for the original, because you know the audience does. It also helps if you have a great story to tell and a fine cast to tell it. Prime Suspect: Tennison (aka Prime Suspect 1973) delivers on all fronts.
It’s 1973, and 22-year-old Jane Tennison (Stefanie Martini) is a probationary WPC in her first posting, which mainly involves dispatching “real” officers to real crime scenes and fetching tea for the guys in the office. Her younger sister is about to be married. Jane’s mother (Geraldine Somerville, who was the edgy DS Jane Penhaligon in Cracker long before she became Harry Potter’s mom) would be pleased if Jane would follow suit. But Jane has no intention of becoming a Mrs. just yet.
A career with the police isn’t a likely choice for a girl from upscale Maida Vale. So why has she joined? “I thought the force could do with more posh sorts,” she tells the fellow who asks her. Did she just reveal a lot about herself or nothing at all?
This Jane is not as steely and brittle as the Jane Tennison we know from the original Prime Suspect, but the girl has backbone. Mostly, though, she’s a blank slate who Stefanie Martini manages to make innocent but not gullible, direct but not insubordinate, idealistic yet cynical.
Supporting cast standouts include Sam Reid as Jane’s irresistible boss DI Len Bradfield and Jessica Gunning as Jane’s slightly more seasoned colleague WPC Kath Morgan. Alun Armstrong—whom you know as idiosyncratic Brian “Memory” Lane from New Tricks—does a believable turn as a baddie here, with Ruth Sheen as his wife.
The crimes are unpleasant (predictably, our young female officer is immediately confronted with a sexual assault and murder case), and while some of the story is telegraphed, the series is diverting and satisfying. Catch it on PBS this summer (it airs at different times in different markets), or binge-watch it on a streaming service.
I had my doubts going in, knowing how hard it can be to reinterpret—even lovingly and respectfully—a favorite series, but I was hooked from the first moment with Jane on the double-decker bus and Blind Faith on the soundtrack. If Jane had compiled the soundtrack to her life, it would sound like this one (okay, it would sound like my iPod), and Series 2 would kick off with “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Sadly, though, we won’t have a Series 2.
The show had a healthy viewership in the U.K., so it’s nothing to do with ratings and everything to do with internal “creative differences.” That’s a pity because the groundwork has been laid for an interesting journey and there are more Tennison novels on which to base future episodes. This might have been a series with legs. Instead, it looks like we’ll have to cue up one more song for that soundtrack: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.