Sarah Hilary: Prime Suspect 1973 has nothing new to say

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Last week saw the start of much-anticipated prequel to Prime Suspect, Prime Suspect 1973. Our own reviewer, Deborah, felt that it was ok but ‘wearyingly predictable’. Now friend of the site and brilliant crime author Sarah Hilary has presented her own opinion on that first episode – and it’s not entirely complimentary.

Sarah wrote her opinion piece on the excellent Pool website, and started with this gambit:

For starters, it expects us to take a young Jane Tennison to our hearts just because we love the woman she’ll become: tough and compassionate, fierce and flawed; an icon for a generation. But take away her hard-fought-for authority and what’s left for today’s young women to admire? Not much.

And, of course, she makes a good point: it’s hardly a courageous or outre move by a TV network to keep a much-loved show going and flogging it for all its worth. It’s all about comfort, familiarity and giving the masses what they want. This has been happening for a long time now in both film and TV, most notably in this country with Endeavour, which has been an enjoyable and successful look at Morse’s earlier years. There’s nothing taxing or stretching about this approach – it’s a home banker for a network if it gets it right – but another reason these things often work is because it taps into our sentimentality, and Sarah makes a very good point here: we’re sometimes overlooking the new stories and concentrating on the characters they will become.

Endeavour is one thing, but Prime Suspect 1973 is another thing entirely. The key difference is that it depicts a young woman at the start of her career in an era and workplace where a gauntlet of sexism (and pretty much every manner of prejudice) had to be traversed on a daily basis.

Here’s Sarah again…

The show flings the 1970s at us with forbidding enthusiasm yet nothing really resonates, certainly not our heroine’s struggle with workplace sexism which – since it’s sporting polyester flares and a pornstache – feels as remote as the three-day week and Watergate. Jane Tennison circa 1991 bristled with relevance. We recognised her right away: clever and clumsy, bolshy, lonely and besieged. In serving up an underripe variety of a peach of a woman, Prime Suspect 1973 isn’t only being lazy, it’s cheating a new generation out of a feminist role model.

Despite some frantic action that musses up her hair, Young Jane is remorselessly glamorous. It’s here that the show’s at its most old-fashioned, as if Happy Valley’s Catherine Cawood and The Bridge’s Saga Norén never happened. We’re right back where we started, with pretty girls pouting their presence as if this should be enough to hook us. The story itself involves a dead prostitute (of course it does) because this is 1973 and we don’t need New Ideas. Except we really, really do.

We’re in an era where well-rounded, believable and nuanced female characters exist. As Sarah mentioned, Catherine Cawood and Saga Norén are two. Sarah Lund, Kate Fleming and Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir are three others. Jane Tennison predated them all and blazed a trail.

So it seems Sarah’s point is this: it’s all very well making a prequel, but to depict a young female character in a man’s world you have to do more to just make her young. But what does Young Jane have to say about this world? From what Sarah saw, not that much.

What do you think? Let us know!

For our review of episode one of Prime Suspect 1973 go here

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7 thoughts on “Sarah Hilary: Prime Suspect 1973 has nothing new to say

  1. I think Sarah is being unduly and unfairly harsh at this point. She ultimately may be proved correct, but after only one episode I’m willing to give it a chance and wait and see. I wasn’t in love with Happy Valley or Vera after their first eps either, but boy, was I wrong.

    Martini’s biggest challenge is that she is not Helen Mirren. Apart from that, let’s give this lady a chance, eh?

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  2. Seija

    I wasn’t over-the-top thrilled with the first episode, either. The story seemed quite ordinary, and the whole scenario reminded me of BBC’s WPC 56, and therefore, I had a déjà-vu -feeling all along. Not as good as I’ve learned to expect of British tv series, but I will give the show the benefit of the doubt and keep watching.

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  3. Andrew

    Totally agree with Sarah, we spent the last half playing spot the heavy handed 70’s reference. Total loss of interest, won’t be back for episode 2

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  4. Sarah is spot on, and your comparison with “Endeavour” shows how wide of the mark the “Prime Suspect” reboot is. I’ve given up on the series already – give me one episode of “Life on Mars” any time, with all its time-travel elements and OTT characters.

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  5. Well, it’s sad that you (Sarah) turned out to be correct. I really have given this series a go (four eps) but it plays more like bad fanfic than a competent sequel. One can believe Shaun Evans is a young Morse; but Martini is in another country from Tennison. SO disappointing.

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