Review: Prime Suspect 1973 (S1 E2/6), Thursday 9th March, ITV

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My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk. Oh no, my mistake – I’ve just dropped off in front of Prime Suspect 1973 again. 1973 – a year so dull that anodyne James Blunt wrote a song about it.

Except it wasn’t – there was good telly for a start: The Ascent of Man, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? Not to mention the Smash Martians advert.

Is it obvious that we’re not enjoying this adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s novel about her mould-breaking heroine’s first faltering steps at the Met?

It may not have helped the producers that La Plante’s novel wasn’t written contemporaneously with the era it inhabits. Tennison, published in 2015, seems like her attempt to reappropriate her most famous creation from the makers of Prime Suspect’s last outing in 2006. She made it no secret at the time that she was unhappy that Det Supt Jane Tennison was portrayed as struggling with looming retirement by hitting the bottle.

PC Tennison might have seemed a telegenic idea – but maybe the source material isn’t authentic enough to make good drama.

After last week’s scene-setting, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere fast. We know pregnant Julie Ann was killed some time after she had decided to come off heroin and that her pathetic junkie boyfriend Eddie was hazy about what had happened to her after she disappeared from a rehabilitation unit.

The police are looking for errant Eddie, which ought to be an easy nick considering that the guy’s brain cells are so roasted he’d think Roe v Wade was a ladies’ tennis match and the Common Market somewhere to buy hooky gear. They need more information from him about the driver of a red Jaguar that he said he saw whisking Julie Ann away from the dependency centre at Homerton Hospital.

It doesn’t belong to flash Dr Hussein Pryor (Richard Sumito), who had Julie Ann on methadone treatment. Pity – he’s plausible and middle-class, which in TV drama is so often shorthand for villainous.

Eddie’s mates also point the finger at connected drug dealer Dwayne Clark, aka Darren (Thomas Coombes), which involves everyone getting tangled in another cop TV trope – an interdepartmental clash with a covert drug squad that is surveilling Clark. DS Spencer Gibbs (Blake Harrison) and Duke, an undercover Russell Brand lookalike, get into a turf skirmish for no real reason because surely murder trumps getting rat-faced Clark, who is hardly Howard Marks – more of a no-mark.

Meanwhile, the Bentley family blaggers are noisily posing as builders at the café adjoining the target bank and could not be making things more obvious if they had erected a big sign saying ‘Hi folks, we’re robbing the bank next door’. Even the café’s owner – who is in for a cut – isn’t impressed.

 

At prison visiting time, forlorn and crippled David Bentley (Jay Taylor) asks dad (Alun Armstrong) for a bigger cut of the crime’s proceeds – we don’t know why. But Bentley pere et fils are overheard by a Whiteley henchman, whom Bentley senior later shivs with a sharpened spoon to stop him squealing to Whiteley. In these pre-drone, pre-mobile days, sneaking in metal cutlery to weaponise in prison must have seemed a big ‘win’. Sadly, the guy isn’t hurt enough to be intimidated and Whiteley (Dorian Lough) again threatens Bentley’s family.

To establish that DI Bradfield (Sam Reid) is a bit fish-out-of-water with his troops, he tries a lame chat about music while staking out Darren Clark with Gibbs, who is agitating over being late for a gig.

Do you do Beatles?’” asks Bradfield.

Bolan, Quo, Slade, Kinks – no bloody Beatles, no.”

If nothing else, Tennison (Stefanie Martini) is learning from Bradfield how to booze like a TV detective with a crash-course in drunken introspection at a dive with décor too dingy even for the decade that interior design forgot. Both squiffy, they snog outside the section house. Word spreads around the station about this tryst. The desk sergeant thinks the only reason Tennison joined the force is to find herself a husband. “You could do worse,” he says.

When Bradfield and Tennison attend Julie Ann’s wake at the Collinses home after the funeral, Tennison realises that George (Geoffrey Streatfeild) has lied about not seeing his daughter for months. A note by the phone reveals he had spoken to her the day she was seen leaving hospital in the red Jaguar – then she finds the Jag under a tarpaulin in the family’s garage. And why hasn’t George told Bradfield about Eddie’s visit to the family home? Well, we now know that poor Eddie won’t be forming any further part of the investigation – or indeed breathing.

Have the red fibres on Julie Ann’s body come from carpet in her dad’s car? The squad turns up mob-handed with a warrant to search the house, and finds a bloodstained mattress in a bedroom that is practically a fortress. The Collins family is decidedly shifty. Fatherly outrage gives us one theory about why Eddie has ended up in the river. Could it really be that simple?

There’s a laboured touch of the French Connection during the car chase in a multistorey car park to catch Darren Clark. But he, like Popeye Doyle’s quarry, is a bad guy who ultimately isn’t a big player in the grand scheme of things.

We almost wish he hadn’t been apprehended because it is a cue for some of the worst acting and most risible dialogue since the 1970s. It is channelling the type of hackneyed banter first heard in The Sweeney, but then it was a) new to viewers, and b) delivered by actors able to transcend the odd dodgy line.

You’ve got nothing on me”

He’s done a runner”

I didn’t put that there” – “Who did then – the Tooth Fairy?”

It is as if the writers have Googled 20 top 1970 TV clichés and shoehorned them all into the script.

Actually, we wish we could hear a lot more of the cracking early 70s soundtrack – Thunderclap Newman’s Something In The Air, Street Life by Roxy Music, and Demon’s Eye by Deep Purple still sound great.

By the second episode we might have expected these characters to bed in, but it just isn’t happening. Reid as Bradfield has an uncertain accent (often eliding from his native Aussie accent to an indeterminate Cockerney) and looks as though he’s in acting in a different show from everyone else. Martini is an engaging enough presence here, but for all her sparky attitude, she isn’t Mirren (but then neither was Mirren at her age). There is obviously an attempt to engineer a frowned-upon romantic frisson between Tennison and her older guv’nor, but as there is only a four-year age gap between the actors this isn’t coming off. Not only that, it is also holding up the plot (such as it is). The Bradfield role demands someone older with the kind of gravitas John Benfield brought to the part of DSI Michael Kernan in the original series.

We’ve said it before and we’re saying it again; it is hardly ever a good idea to re-envision a TV classic; such series are classic for the reason that they captured a spiritual characteristic of an age. The ineffable joy of watching Helen Mirren define the role cannot be recreated – it is akin to catching the smell of Chanel No.5 in a bucket.

ITV keeps returning to the rapidly drying well of prequels and retreads. With Endeavour it has got away with it so far because, being set in Oxford, it is National Trust-style TV that sells all over the world. It even does new stuff that feels old; Cagney & Lacey homage Scott & Bailey has garnered goodwill thus far purely because of the skill and likeability of its two lead actors.

Martini could be luminous and deserves better than this because it is tough to see exactly who this is aimed at. For viewers over 40 it will be an irrelevance because they’ve probably seen the originals – for those under 30 (who aren’t watching anyway) it looks as dated as Tudor times.

Retro has to be stylish and outlandishly clever to work – we have already referenced Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes as a shining example.

In trying to capture the drab beige, post-modern palette of the early Seventies, the technical presentation of this production is also retro-revival gone mad. So tightly is much of it framed from static two-camera angles that it might as well be in 4:3 aspect ratio. Consequently, it looks about as archaic as my gran’s avocado bathroom suite. And it is far too claustrophobic and stage-bound. Again, compare and contrast with old episodes of The Sweeney – shot on film stock, all at real locations and with a pace and vibrancy this series severely lacks.

If staid is the effect producers were going for they are doing the story a disservice. We don’t mind brown-and-yellow wallpaper, but British TV’s been in 16:9 since about July 2000 so the action could have been opened up a bit more to show that we didn’t actually live in sepia-tinted 4:3 in the late 20th century, guys.

Deborah Shrewsbury
@shrewdkitty

For our episode one review go here

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11 thoughts on “Review: Prime Suspect 1973 (S1 E2/6), Thursday 9th March, ITV

  1. Seija

    Sorry Brits but I was bored out of my skull last night while watching the 2nd ep of PS ’73. All the right visual and audible elements are there: the cars, the clothes, the music, the locations, and so on. But that is all there is. Where is the focus of the story? Where is the action? The suspense? Who is actually the main character that we are supposed to root for – so far it hasn’t been Jane Tennison? Why doesn’t the story advance? Too many questions and too few turns of the plot.

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  2. PKCox

    Entertaining and informative review, I appreciate the humor, but sad to see the show isn’t making it. Wonder if it will ever get to America? I’d at least like to see the 70’s milleu, as I was a kid back then and Britain and America seems to have had the same color schemes, looks and a good bit of the music.

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    • Dear PKCOX,
      I am pretty sure that BBC America will air it at some point – purely because it is a prequel to the series that solidified the international reputation of Brit goddess Dame Helen Mirren.
      I might have majored on the criticism, but that is partly because both on the big screen and network TV there is a dearth of new ideas and far too much emphasis on mining the past for material – cf. Star Wars, where recent incarnations have just told exactly the same story again, but not as well.
      Sometimes borrowing works magnificently. For example, House Of Cards on Netflix has made an admirable job of totally reimagining a brilliant BBC series by opening it out and going in an entirely different direction. Kevin Spacey’s drama has something to say about this era.
      Compare this with the unsuccessful US remakes of both Broadchurch and Life On Mars, which brought nothing new to the party.
      British TV can be as novel and clever as the stuff now showing on US online services – Happy Valley, Unforgotten, and Line of Duty are cases in point. Just don’t be lazy.

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      • PKCox

        I agree, Deborah. British TV is some of the best, but it sometimes falls prey to formula as much as US TV (well, maybe not AS much). I cringed when I heard about Endeavor, but that isn’t too bad. The American Office wasn’t nearly as good as the British Office. I think American television needs to give audiences a chance to expand their horizons and show more original British shows and not just copy them. But as you say, House of Cards was an exception. Quality of the actors can make a show shine, and in my opinion, Britain often has us beat there.

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  3. A big part of the problem of series not crossing the pond is that traditionally British TV is the vision of a single controlling mind or writing duos with a delineated timespan – The Office is a perfect case in point.

    The tradition in US TV is for committee writing – so, say, Friends went on for 10 years and The Simpsons can go on until the crack of doom. Also, US TV is far more beholden to the ratings and advertisers that series can be cancelled mid-season, whereas cable shows and the licence-funded BBC model can respond to viewership far more (although these days, that is not so often the case at the Beeb with its straitened finances).

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    • PKCox

      Yes- the quality usually goes down after 10 years too! Writing by committee – I never thought of that. I guess I prefer a more tightly controlled vision and clarity. Your point about advertisers is so true, and why there are more sequels and less original vision. We do have that in the US, but with advertisers driving the train, it is more rare here than in Britain. I’d rather have a quality show run 3 or 4 years than see a good show decline because it’s flogged for advertisers. Happy Days and jumping the shark come to mind, but there are other, less famous examples!

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      • Cable has given American series the option of getting it totally right in terms of quality, vision and longevity. My favourite TV series ever, bar none, is The Larry Sanders Show, an early HBO show – total perfection in every aspect of writing, casting and production. It has influenced the course of TV comedy since.

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      • PKCox

        Sadly, I don’t pay for any of the the premium channels that produce their own shows. I plow that money into DVDs of my favorite British and international television- but if I did, it would be HBO.

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  4. Cable has given American series the option of getting it totally right in terms of quality, vision and longevity. My favourite TV series ever, bar none, is The Larry Sanders Show, an early HBO show – total perfection in every aspect of writing, casting and production. It has influenced the course of TV comedy since.

    Like

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