British actress Helen Mirren’s role as no-nonsense police detective Jane Tennison in the hard-hitting drama, Prime Suspect, has been described as one of television’s most significant characters ever.
The iconic actress played Detective Chief Inspector Tennison in the ITV drama for seven series, starting in 1991. She won the BAFTA award for best actress in 1992 for her role as the woman who had worked her way up through the ranks in the male-dominated environment of the Metropolitan Police.
The multi-award winning series follows Tennison’s career at Southampton Row police station. She continually battles to survive and win the support of her boss, Detective Chief Superintendent Mike Kernan, played by John Benfield.
However, some of her male colleagues seem determined to see her fail and the rife sexism makes her life difficult. It’s hard enough fighting crime and apprehending the criminals, without battling her own workmates – and this just goes to show how tough Tennison really is.
Mirren, now 72, was born in Hammersmith in 1945. She came from a talented family, as her father played viola with the London Philharmonic Orchestra before World War II.
The second of three siblings, Mirren started acting at Hamlet Court primary school, in Westcliff-on-Sea, winning a leading role in Hansel and Gretel. After attending the New College of Speech and Drama in London, she successfully auditioned for the National Youth Theatre at 18.
Her first major stage role was as Cleopatra at the Old Vic in the NYT production when she was 20. Her work in the 1960s was in the theatre and she went on to join the Royal Shakespeare Company, taking part in productions such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It and All’s Well That Ends Well.
She also appeared in the West End, earning the Plays and Players Best Actress award from the London critics in 1976 for her role as rock star Maggie in the musical, Teeth ‘n’ Smiles. Mirren went on to appear in a multitude of theatrical shows, making her Broadway debut in the 1995 play, A Month in the Country.
Films and TV
Mirren has also starred in many critically-acclaimed movies, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, O Lucky Man, Gosford Park, Calendar Girls, The Long Good Friday, The Mosquito Coast, Brighton Rock and the Madness of King George, to name but a few.
She is also famous for portraying royals, having played three British queens in different films and TV series. She starred as Queen Elizabeth I in the 2005 television series Elizabeth I, she played Queen Elizabeth II in the 2006 movie The Queen, and she portrayed King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, in The Madness of King George in 1994.
The highly acclaimed actress has an equally distinguished television career, including her leading role in the mini-series, Painted Lady, as Maggie Sheridan, who is an ex-singer who travels the world in the guise of a countess – while really, she’s a shady art dealer.
The series that really resonated with fans and critics alike was Prime Suspect, created by Lynda La Plante. Detailing Tennison’s long battle to achieve the rank of Detective Superintendent, while confronting the sexism that continually challenges her efforts, there were seven series in total – concluding in October 2006.
The series was praised for its gritty realism. Sexism was rife in the force in the 1970s, when women were first starting to join in larger numbers. The Equality and Human Rights Commission report of 2009 branded the Metropolitan Police as “institutionally racist”.
It described what it called “canteen culture” of sexism, racism and hard drinking, in a profession dominated largely by white, middle-aged men, who had “old-fashioned work practices”.
In the series, Tennison never let this attitude hold her back. The first series featured the sexism as a sub-plot in itself, depicting it as holding back her investigations. The theme was played down more in subsequent series.
The success of Prime Suspect led to a prequel – Prime Suspect 1973, detailing Tennison’s early years in the police force from the age of 22. Mirren had set the bar high in her portrayal of the tough detective and was a hard act to follow for Stefanie Martini, who played the young officer.
The series made its debut on ITV in March 2017, comprising six episodes. It was set in Hackney and depicted Tennison becoming a WPC for the first time, in an era when more women were gradually being integrated into the police force.
Under the guidance of her superior officer, Detective Inspector Len Bradfield (played by Sam Reid), the inexperienced Tennison investigates the murder of a teenage runaway, Julie-Ann Collins.
Despite high viewing figures, ITV confirmed in June 2017 that the series wouldn’t be recommissioned. This was believed to be down to creative differences between the broadcasting company and the writer, Lynda La Plante.
In the United States, police drama series The Closer, depicting the career of Los Angeles’ Deputy Chief of Police Brenda Leigh Johnson (played by Kyra Sedgwick), was said to be modelled on Prime Suspect. The series ran from 2005 until 2012 and Sedgwick noted that the show “owed a debt” to Prime Suspect, although it wasn’t a direct remake of the British series.
Mirren is set to star in the 2019 thriller by Bill Condon, The Good Liar, as Betty McLeish – a woman who meets a seasoned conman online. The movie is currently in the post-production stage.
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