The prequel to Prime Suspect, that queen of TV police dramas which starred Helen Mirren as Metropolitan Police detective Jane Tennison, has had a poor reception from professional critics and the social media variety alike. Even the look of the show, which for the most part captures the dial telephones, dreadful haircuts and pervasive cheap veneers of that Vauxhall Viva age extremely well, has not escaped unscathed, with connoisseurs of female fashion circa 1973 taking exception to the thickness of the female lead’s eyebrows.
Other historical details too have sparked debate. I cannot recall Londoners saying “aks” rather than “ask” before the mid-1990s, though respondents on Twitter have said they definitely can. Someone questioned whether the front doors of Hackney’s once notorious Kingsmead estate would have been of different colours 40-odd years ago, before Right to Buy and when councils enforced uniformity. There is, though, no question that Homerton Hospital, my local, and mentioned often in the show, did not exist until 1986.
But all of this is nit-picking given the deeper problems. Two episodes in, neither the story nor the characters have yet really taken a grip. Why is that, exactly? One argument is that the part of the young Tennison, a beginner constable, is simply very underwritten, almost reducing her to a marginal character when she should be at the core.
Perhaps that partly results from a conflict between the plot construction demands of a cop procedural show and the incidental place within a murder investigation allotted to an officer of Tennison’s rank and inexperience. She gets in on the action by spotting things from the fringes that the cynics with big sideburns who are running the operation don’t. This seems a logical device, but we viewers might feel a closer bond with WPC Tennison if we knew more about her at that stage in her life and career.
Would Prime Suspect 1973 be working better if it had started from a different place? A strand of the script is addressing Tennison’s middle-class background and family home in Maida Vale, but the roots of the tensions within it have not been closely explored. She is the character viewers care about most, so there’s a yearning to know more about what motivated this self-described posh girl to take a job that entails long hours talking to prostitutes in Hackney and watching pathologists take dead bodies apart.
There are references to the social revolutions of the era, but few clues as to why Tennison has broken with its gender and class conventions. We are less inside her head than we might be. We are also not much inside the mood of the capital during that time – the scuzzy, seedy London which, for all its Sixties swinging, had a falling population and a shrinking economy. The National Front was gathering strength and dole queue rock was on its way.
Prime Suspect 1973 is a historical police drama about a terrible crime and a young woman making her way in the Met of that time. It isn’t there to provide clunky political commentary, but would be more convincing if its recreation of the early 1970s went deeper than good period detail. What would prompt a young woman from a respectable London background to seek a new life amid the bleakest corners of a declining capital 44 years ago? That is the mystery Prime Suspect 1973 is yet to solve.