Helen Mirren is finally burying Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison.
But the irascible Scotland Yard detective of PBS’ “Prime Suspect,” as gifted as she is damaged, will by no means go quietly into that good night.
Pushing 60 and on the brink of retirement, she has one last case. A 14-year-old girl—gifted, happy, from a good family—goes missing and is eventually found dead. And Tennison is also breaking apart. Her father, Arnold Tennison (Frank Finlay), is dying. And Jane is terrified, though she’d never let on, of leaving the only life she has ever known. Faced with prospect of becoming utterly unmoored by her father’s death and her own retirement, she has embarked on a downward spiral with gusto: drinking herself into amnesiac stupors.
It is a particularly dark chapter in the “Prime Suspect” canon.
“I think this one’s a tough one,” says Mirren. “Absolutely.”
“Life isn’t always wonderful and optimistic and gorgeous is it? `Prime Suspect’ has tried never to veer away from truths and realities in life. I think the police live in a very, very difficult world. They’re the ones that go when everything has gone horribly wrong. They deal with extremes of emotion and extremes of despair. A lot of them do become drug addicts. A lot of them do become alcoholics. A lot don’t have personal lives.”
The four-hour “Prime Suspect: The Final Act” begins Sunday at 9 p.m. EST on PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre” and concludes Nov. 19.
When it premiered on PBS in 1992, “Prime Suspect” was utterly unique. A year before “NYPD Blue” and almost a decade before “CSI,” “Prime Suspect’s” forte was and remains gritty realism and an unsparing look at the ugly side of human nature, in the cops as well as the criminals. With its grisly depictions of the dead, the show also unleashed the macabre so common in today’s police procedurals. Its impact on PBS was profound.
“I think that, very nearly single-handedly, `Prime Suspect’ took us from frock coats and crinolines to a policewoman’s uniform,” says executive producer Rebecca Eaton. “It was so much a departure from what we had been doing, and that kind of single-handedly expanded our world from classic literature and classic detective stories like Sherlock Holmes to the world of contemporary made-for-television drama (like “Second Sight” with Clive Owen and “Touching Evil” with Robson Green), and it was a woman whodunit.”
Indeed, to have a woman mucking around in all that filth was a tad shocking. But it is what drew Mirren to the part.
“Certainly when I first did `Prime Suspect,’” she says, “it was very questionable to have a woman in a role like that.
“But it was a great role. It was a woman driving the story. She was the central character. She drove the drama and that’s pretty rare in female roles. So I didn’t care what she did, as long as she was driving the story.”
Mirren was all but unknown to mainstream American audiences before “Prime Suspect.” A theater actress in her native England, she had forged a reputation for disrobing in a slew of films, including “Caligula,” “The Long Good Friday” and “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.” She was naked again in 2003’s “Calendar Girls,” but that was more a wink to her reputation. Now that she’s 61, Mirren’s assets remain mostly hidden, currently under the frumpy garb of Elizabeth II in “The Queen.” And it very well could be the role that lands her an Oscar.
“No matter what kind of costume you put Helen in,” says Eaton, “she’s a very feminine woman. There is a delicacy to her. I think that contrast of that delicacy, that sort of fine quality against the horrific crime, the brutality the ugliness that (Tennison) deals with makes (“Prime Suspect”) unique.”
Mirren put Jane Tennison out to pasture after the sixth “Prime Suspect,” which aired here in 2004.
“I wanted to put some distance between myself and the character,” she says. “It wasn’t as if I hadn’t done many other things. But the series was so successful that I was becoming very identified with the character.
“If I was hit by bus I felt like the headline would say, `Jane Tennison hit by a bus.’ I didn’t want that to be the headline of my obituary.”
Eaton laughs when she hears Mirren’s ghastly joke.
“That’s Helen,” she says. “She’s very tough. But there is a gentleness to her. I think the gentleness is linked to her vulnerability. In the end that’s the sexiest thing of all.”