It is fitting that Prime Suspect 1973 began just days after Cressida Dick was appointed first female Metropolitan Police commissioner. She joined the Met 10 years after the period in which this series is set – and it remains to be seen if she can cleanse the Augean stables of the lingering messes of the past including accumulating allegations of high-level Met corruption relating to historical child abuse. She’s certainly got her work cut out. So here we are in 1973, when such things as institutional racism and corruption were unremarked upon and were almost acceptable. Ah, 1973 – the year so beloved of TV dramatists because it is oft cited as the most significant year of the 20th century. Over 40 years on, it is still remembered for power cuts, the three-day week, the oil crisis, the miners’ strike and a break-in at the US Democrats’ Committee HQ at the Watergate Building, whose suffix has been appended to almost every scandal since.
NB: Spoilers inside
It is wearyingly predictable that the opening shots portray the body of a dead prostitute “young late teens, strangled, dragged and dumped” lying in the underground car park of a council estate in the rain as a mournful but shifty man looks on. To stretch out the cliché, she’s been strangled with her own bra. Quintessential Lynda La Plante territory. Never mind how La Plante now decries the ‘appalling’ levels of gratuitous violence on today’s TV, she was something of a trailblazer in the genre that is still the default for many crime procedurals.
Unlike Dick, who benefited from the force’s later accelerated promotion scheme, young Tennison (Stefanie Martini – seen in last year’s Endeavour) is definitely clawing her way up from the bottom.
But as soon as we meet her we know she’s a spunky gel because she jumps off her bus to work to stop a lout robbing a woman in a side street. Being middle-class and still very green, she can’t persuade the woman that she needs to make a statement. Her valiant effort is greeted by a bollocking from her desk sergeant about turning up late and looking like she’s “been wrestling a pig”.
Tennison rates even lower in her station’s pecking order than DC Ashton (Daniel Ezra) the lone black guy there, who hands her his dirty crockery in the squad’s kitchen with a cursory “Ta love”. Yes, we get it; it’s the 70s, they’re sexist. This is so heavy-handed that you half expect some tough, uncompromising cop fromThe Fast Show to burst on screen and yell: “You! Put your knickers on and make me a cup of tea!”
She’s sent to the comms room to work with another WPC and to get tea and biscuits(!) for CID boss DI Len Bradfield (Sam Reid) who, noticing her pluckiness, seconds her to help with door-to-door calls at the estate with a sketch of the dead girl. There, she again meets mugging victim Renee Bentley (Unforgotten’s Ruth Sheen) and her surly son, John (Lex Shrapnel). He has lots of tattoos, long before they were fashionable, so we know he has to be Bad.
It’s always good to see New Tricks’ Alun Armstrong – albeit this time on the wrong side of the law as old lag Clifford Bentley. His release from prison imminent, Bentley is reluctantly prepping for a bank robbery that he and his sons are committing for gangland boss Clay Whiteley (Dorian Lough). It was Whiteley who had Bentley’s wife Renee attacked to pressure him into the blag. Naturally, Renee was no incidental mugging – by an amazing coincidence her criminal family is linked to the murdered girl – it was her younger, prettier son David (Jay Taylor) moping over Julie Ann’s body in the cold opening. But obviously he can’t be the killer. The Bentley brothers are already scoping out the bank job under the cosh from Whiteley’s gang, although John seems fairly gung-ho at the prospect.
Thus middle-class, gone-to-the-bad teenager Julie Ann Collins becomes probationary WPC Jane Tennison’s first murder case. We know Collins was a cut above the locals because her grieving dad is well-spoken George (Geoffrey Streatfeild – Spooks, The Thick Of It).
Among other familiar faces is Blake Harrison – an Inbetweener looking all grown up here as DS Spencer Gibbs, who spends much of his time gawping at Tennison’s bum.
Bradfield believes that the victim’s haunted-looking druggie boyfriend, Eddie Phillips (Jacob James Beswick) is involved and pulls him in for questioning, which is abandoned when Eddie throws up and collapses in the interview room. Tennison later bonds with a local prostitute who tells her Eddie had Julie Ann trapped, which seems unlikely, as after absconding from hospital he meekly turns up at her parents’ house.
Bradfield is a bit of an anachronism in an era when the police tended to chalk up the murder of a prostitute as ‘occupational hazard’ and of slightly lower importance than a lost dog. In his Age of Enlightenment, he even chides her for describing Julie Ann as a dead prostitute – “she was someone’s daughter”.
Our posh plonk from Maida Vale does her first next-of-kin interview and gets to sound the siren in Bradfield’s squad car. He asks why she joined the police. “I thought the squad could do with more posh sorts, sir” – yes, you can imagine Helen Mirren saying that. Tennison also attends Julie Ann’s grim 70s-style post mortem, when smoking was encouraged in the autopsy room to block out the smell. “Let’s proceed to the fainting part,” says the gruff pathologist. She’s a tough girl and earns Brownie points from Bradfield for her conduct. We learn Julie Ann was pregnant.
She may be gaining traction with her boss, but at home Baby Jane’s mother (Geraldine Somerville, Cracker) worries about her chosen vocation and wishes she were more like her sister Pam, who is about to be married. More friction lies ahead here.
In a screenplay adapted by Glen Laker from the novel Tennison by creator La Plante, directed by David Caffrey (Lucky Man, Line Of Duty), this is Jane Tennison before Mirren flattened her accent to sound more ‘Estuary’ to fit in with the pervading canteen culture that was such a significant subplot in her initial TV outing in 1991.
Following in Dame Helen’s footsteps was never going to be easy but Martini does share a striking physical resemblance (bar the eyebrows) and a resolute and sassy demeanour with her.
The production designers have done a good job of evoking an era some of us grew up in. Production designers just love the 1970s – the palette is so easy – all those muddy browns, oranges and yellows that characterised both exteriors and interiors. That and lots of Village People moustaches and incipient mullets milling about.
Again the soundtrack is in keeping – Concrete Jungle by Bob Marley, Speak To Me/Breathe by Pink Floyd from Dark Side Of the Moon – and it was nice to hearLady D’Arbanville by Cat Stevens.
Chat about Nixon and Watergate and a reference to Thin Lizzy place us in 1973, as does the obligatory roughing up of estate yobs long before the 1984 PACE Act took all their fun away. As a period piece it’s pretty accurate (although not 100 per cent).
Sadly, there are no classic Bowie tracks, underlining the fact that what we are really yearning for is for Gene Hunt to fire up the Quattro and tell us “it’s 1973, nearly dinner-time and I’m ‘aving hoops”.