Prime Suspect 1973 episode 1 review

ITV's Prime Suspect prequel gets off to a strong start. Spoilers...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This review contains spoilers.

Jane Tennison (Stefanie Martini) isn’t having a good day. Her journey to work is interrupted when she witnesses a mugging and rushes off the bus to give chase, but the woman involved, while grateful, isn’t interested in reporting the crime. When the young WPC finally arrives at the police station in Hackney at which she’s on probation after completing her training, her hair’s dishevelled and her make-up’s smeared. She gets an earful from the overbearing Sergeant Harris (Andrew Brooke) and is swiftly put on tea-and-biscuit duty for her male superiors, who are quite happy to leave their washing-up to her and likeable WPC Kath Morgan (Jessica Gunning). Downpours notwithstanding, the

Britain of 1973 is a very different country.

Tennison’s curiosity about a murder case isn’t encouraged by Harris, but DI Bradfield (Sam Reid) is impressed by her keenness and brings her on board the investigation. Teenager Julie Ann Collins has been found strangled in the nearby Kingsmead estate’s underground car park. Door-to-door enquiries turn up a few leads from the suspicious residents, and the appearance of the victim’s drug-addicted boyfriend Eddie Philips (Jacob James Beswick) at her squalid flat yields more insight into her bleak life than her devastated parents, living a world away in suburban comfort, can offer Bradfield and Tennison when they visit to break the news. Hints that there may be more to this case than is at first apparent are provided by glimpses of Clifford Bentley (Alun Armstrong), a career criminal who’s desperate to get out of the bank job he must commit on his release at the behest of local gangland boss Clay Whitely. Bentley’s wife Renee (Ruth Sheen) was, it turns out, the victim of the mugging in which Tennison tried to intervene. The assault was no accident, but a warning to her husband to stick to the arrangement.

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Prime Suspect 1973 comes loaded with expectations. We’ve met Jane Tennison before, but in circumstances far removed from these. The tough, brilliant Detective Chief Inspector was played by Helen Mirren in seven series of the original Prime Suspect from 1991 to 2006. Lynda La Plante’s iconic character fights against ingrained prejudice as she deals with the isolation and immense responsibility of her job, while retaining her instinctive compassion for victims and their families. The price she pays for this relentless pressure is a growing dependence on alcohol, an addiction she acknowledges and takes steps to conquer at the end of the series. This six-episode prequel is an adaptation of La Plante’s book, Tennison; the author herself was initially involved in the show, but has since withdrawn from its development. Glen Laker (responsible for Vera and Home Fires) has taken up the task of adapting her novel for the small screen, a difficult job given the elder Tennison’s status as one of the most memorable female characters in television history.

On the evidence of the first episode, this account of Tennison’s early years in the force will fascinate those who enjoyed Prime Suspect while proving an intriguing watch for viewers new to the character. Martini’s performance is compelling, hinting at the complexities and strength familiar from Mirren’s take on the role, while revealing a certain youthful awkwardness that makes her instantly relatable. Her colleagues make an impression, too; Reid’s quiet determination and suppressed fury at the misery exposed by police work soon identifies Bradfield as a suitable mentor for the inexperienced Tennison, while Blake Harrison has fun as the flashy, quick-tempered DS Spencer Gibbs. Other characters promise interesting twists to come, from Bentley’s attempts to break his shady pact with Whitely to Eddie Philips’ as yet unexplained role in Julie Ann’s life.

ITV has set a high standard for period crime procedurals with its hugely successful Endeavour, and those hoping for a richly evoked 1970s atmosphere won’t be disappointed. Tennison’s Hackney is all damp concrete and grimy browns, in stark contrast with the scrubbed domesticity of her middle-class, Maida Vale home. From flares to Watergate, the era’s references are all present and correct, set to a soundtrack laden with rock and reggae. It’s far from a nostalgia trip, though; like the casual sexism faced by Tennison and Morgan, the cultural touchstones are welcome background to an engrossing mystery.

Our lazy assumptions about the decade’s attitudes are reinforced by some scenes, and challenged by others. Tennison thoughtlessly refers to her squeamishness at dealing with the death of a ‘murdered prostitute’, and is sharply reminded by Bradfield that Julie Ann was also somebody’s daughter. The scene in which the pair must break the news of the young woman’s murder to her parents is devastating, thanks to sensitive performances from Geoffrey Streatfeild and Nancy Carroll as the grief-stricken couple. Tennison’s own family troubles provide a point of contrast as she grapples with her well-meaning mum’s attempts to persuade her to be more like her sister, whose upcoming wedding highlights the many differences between them. Geraldine Somerville strikes the right note of affectionate condescension as she laments her daughter’s priorities in life, which don’t leave much time for assessing the merits of bridesmaids’ dresses.

A welcome touch of humour, meanwhile, is provided by Harris’s barbs and Celyn Jones’ sarcastic pathologist, Dr Dean Martin (‘Spare me the Rat Pack jokes’) who lightens an otherwise bleak scene during which Tennison learns the full tragedy of Julie Ann’s abbreviated life. She looks on as the dead teenager’s naked, battered body is probed and cut, a grimly moving spectacle that leaves her with a new determination to find the killer. The detective we know she will become is taking shape in front of us.