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‘Prime Suspect: Tennison’: Before Helen Mirren, Prequel Explores Sexism the Detective Faced in 1970s Police Force

The three-part miniseries starring Stefanie Martini premieres Sunday on PBS.

"Prime Suspect: Tennison"

“Prime Suspect: Tennison”

PBS

Twenty-five years ago, Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) debuted on Masterpiece’s “Prime Suspect,” a show which dug into the sexism that still exists on modern police forces. Now that Mirren has retired the character, Masterpiece has dipped back into that well by turning back the clock.

Based on the book “Tennison” by author Lynda La Plante, who had created the character, “Prime Suspect: Tennison” stars Stefanie Martini (“Doctor Thorne,” “Emerald City”) as Jane Tennison, who is at this point a WPC — Woman Police Constable — in 1973. Jane is just starting out with the Metropolitan Police Force, and has to prove herself even more in a man’s world that mainly values her as a glorified secretary, who can tend to their busy tasks in between her other duties. She gets her chance with her first murder investigation into the killing of a young woman.

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“There is actually a murder mystery going on, and there is a something that Jane wanders into and kind of figures out in the course of this story, but it’s also Jane’s story,” series executive producer Rebecca Eaton said during the Television Critics Association panel for the miniseries. “Jane, we are now learning … is actually quite posh. She’s from a very middle class, maybe even slightly upper middle class family, and she is assigned to a Hackney police station. And that was, in 1973, a really tough part of town.”

Watch a trailer for “Prime Suspect: Tennison” below:

Sam Reid, who plays Detective Inspector Len Bradfield, added, “This is a story of what creates the Jane Tennison that we know from the original ‘Prime Suspect,’ and Len Bradfield, I think, played a big part in creating that person. There are complications particularly that arise with Stefanie’s and my character that jeopardize her strength as a detective with potential romantic twists, with the male detectives in the office looking down on her, using her as an office cleaner, not listening to her, and checking her out when she could say some very valuable points. So that is definitely the world in which we’re trying to explore in the show, is what was it like in that period of time.”

Because of this feminist theme, it’s no accident that Jane’s first case is about a murdered girl. But her devotion to the case reveals that her own family was traditional to the point of not understanding why she’s devoted such time to the job.

“Because it matters,” says Jane. “When we find the person that killed that girl, it will matter.”

Stefanie Martini, "Prime Suspect: Tennison"

Stefanie Martini, “Prime Suspect: Tennison”

ITV/PBS

Sadly, her privileged family would much prefer Jane to be concerned with things like the horrific bridesmaid’s dress she’ll be wearing to her sister’s wedding.

“You get a lot more information in this about her parents, her sister, what they think of her joining the police,” said Eaton. “They don’t support it. They don’t think it’s a good idea. They don’t understand it.”

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Despite this lack of support at work and at home, this younger Jane is optimistic and endures these inequities without complaint. She’s also fresh and untried and has yet to develop some of the bad habits we’re more familiar with in Mirren’s take on the character. In one scene at a bar, she clearly doesn’t know what to order and just asks for the same as a colleague’s. Her facial expression when she sips reveals how novel the experience is.

"Prime Suspect: Tennison"

“Prime Suspect: Tennison”

ITV/PBS

“It’s exciting,” said Martini. “The contrast is quite funny, because she’s so naive and so eager and so keen and wide-eyed and all of that, which is so completely different. She, I think, cares a lot about what she does and just jumps into things with eagerness and not really that much thought to the consequences, and I think I’m probably quite similar to that.”

The miniseries also takes pains to create the 1970s backdrop for Jane’s world, ranging from the soundtrack that features acts like The Animals and Petula Clark, to the buildings and sets themselves. The production couldn’t shoot in Hackney itself since it had changed drastically from how it was in the 1970s, but other areas were easily subbed in for it.

“They built this amazing ’70s police station inside an empty department store in Uxbridge. We spent most of our time there,” said Martini. “The best thing about London is that there are still 18th Century streets that you can still use as a 1970s set location, because that existed in that period of time as well.”

Reid added, “There’s nowhere, really, in the world you can have a building built in 1010 next to a building built in 2015. Yeah. There’s a lot of period buildings that we managed to use and locations that didn’t require much set dressings at all. The mortuary that we used for the autopsy scenes is a completely untouched, abandoned mortuary, which was terrifying to shoot in, but completely untouched from that period. So we just walked into a fully functional mortuary. Well, it was abandoned, but all the drawers opened.”

And of course, the 1970s fashions were alive and well on set with the sideburns, tight trousers and more subdued color palette. Take a look at a behind-the-scenes featurette below:

“Prime Suspect: Tennison” airs the first of its three parts on Sunday at 10 p.m. on PBS.

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