Writing Prime Suspect 1973

Below is a piece I wrote for Broadcast Magazine in Feb 2017 which, for very boring reasons, never got published. I recently found it on my hard drive and thought I’d post it here. So at least it got published somewhere, even if it’s only this site, which is mainly read by me, my wife and the persistent hacker bots who visit hundreds of times each day. I assume it’s the content that makes them leave, not the security.

Prime Suspect

Writing Prime Suspect 1973” – originally written 1st Feb 2017.

It started with a phone call. It always starts with a phone call. A voice asking me if I’d ever watched Prime Suspect. Of course, I had. Many, many times.

25 years ago, when the first series aired, I would rush home to catch it. Since then, in the same way that a dancer watches and rewatches expert choreography to learn complex routines, I have watched and rewatched Prime Suspect over and over.

The voice on the phone asked about Lynda La Plante’s bestseller “Tennison”. Had I read it? Months before, I had bought the hardback and devoured it over a weekend, like I have so many of Lynda’s books. I am a huge fan. So yes, I had read it.

I had paced down the corridors of Hackney nick, I had smelled the stale sweat of the locker room and the grease of the cafeteria. I had stood with DI Bradfield over the body of Julie Ann Collins, I had watched DS Gibbs interrogate suspects like he wanted to tear them apart, I had joked with DC Edwards, I had witnessed the gradual, painful implosion of the Bentley family and I had walked side by side with a 22-year-old police officer – WPC 517, Jane Tennison – as she battled the sexism of a 1970s police station, fell head over heels in love and became involved in her first murder investigation.

The voice on the phone asked how I felt about adapting it into a six-part series for ITV. I picked myself up off the floor.

“Prime Suspect”. “Jane Tennison”. Those words carry a lot of weight. But as I dipped my toe into the prequel, one thing I wanted to avoid was mimicking the original. This couldn’t be a homage. This wasn’t an origin story. This wasn’t Supercop: The Early Years. This was an opportunity to do something new, to carve out a new path, a new world and more importantly, a new Jane Tennison.

Prime Suspect 1973
Prime Suspect 1973

The first step on that path was coming up with a back story for Jane, digging under her skin to find out what drove this progressive young woman from Maida Vale to join the chauvinistic surroundings of a police station in Hackney. That back story breathed life into the young Jane.

A probationary WPC when we first meet her, Jane’s still finding her voice and making mistakes, but over the course of the six episodes, she will leave us in no doubt that the blood pumping through her veins is the same blood that will, decades hence, fuel the formidable Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison.

With the other characters in Prime Suspect 1973, my one rule was simple: they all had to be someone we would enjoy spending time with, no matter how monstrous their deeds. In short, I wanted to write parts that actors would love to play.

Here’s where I try to express in writing how lucky and proud I am to have passed the baton to such an amazing cast. I can’t think of a better young Jane Tennison than Stefanie Martini, who strikes the perfect balance of naivety and grit. And she’s joined by a wonderful ensemble cast led by Sam Reid, Blake Harrison, Alun Armstrong and Ruth Sheen, all bringing their best game to the table.

They’ve been matched in ambition and achievement by director David Caffrey and an incredible crew, who together have captured 1973 Hackney with such authenticity that it feels like peering through a window into a different time and place.

1973 was a changing world: post-Watergate, the innocence of the 60s a receding memory and with rising inflation forcing economic change that would define the decade. It’s the perfect backdrop for a crime story which, at its heart, is about the loss of innocence.

What a ride it’s been. I’ve loved spending time with these characters and hearing them tell their stories, from that initial phone call right through to sitting in the edit suite as the credits rolled on the final episode. For 25 years, all I’ve wanted to do was write a love letter to the crime drama I grew up watching. How lucky to have been given the chance.

I hope WPC 517 Jane Tennison will please and thrill existing Prime Suspect fans and bring many new ones into the fold.

Above all, I hope Dame Helen Mirren enjoys it.

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