Prime Suspect

Prime Suspect

Prime Suspect is a British police procedural television drama series made by Granada Television for the ITV network in the 1990s and 2000s. The screenplays for the first and third serials (and the story for the second) were written by Lynda La Plante, and in 1993 she received an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for her work. The following year, Allan Cubitt's screenplay for Prime Suspect 2 brought the series a second Edgar.


Helen Mirren portrays no-nonsense female Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Jane Tennison (later promoted to Detective Superintendent), surviving and thriving in a male-dominated profession. The character was said to be based on Jackie Malton, who acted as an advisor to the authors.

The programme was part of a trend for programmes/films with women both in leading roles and holding senior authority positions. One UK television example is MIT, a spinoff from The Bill on ITV.

The first series features sexism in the workplace as a significant subplot and a barrier to the investigation. Sequels have tended to downplay this theme, relying on straight procedure or on other subplots - for example, institutional racism in Prime Suspect 2, paedophilia, child abuse, and prostitution in Prime Suspect 3. Tennison's difficulty in achieving a balance between her work and her life outside the job, and her difficulty in maintaining stable relationships, are a recurring issue within the series. At the close of Prime Suspect 3 she arranges to have her pregnancy terminated. As the series progresses, she increasingly relies upon alcohol to help her cope; this culminates in the final episode of the series in her visit to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, where she finally acknowledges and confronts her addiction.

Prime Suspect's format is multiple episodes: each case runs around 3½ hours (excluding commercials) usually aired in two parts or four parts. Prime Suspect 4 was an exception at 4½ hours in three separate cases.

The first five series were produced at a steady pace of one every eighteen months, until Helen Mirren left the role to avoid typecasting (according to a PBS interview). She returned to the character after a seven-year gap.

Prime Suspect: The Final Act was an ITV and WGBH co-production. Part one first aired (preview) in the UK on 15 October, 2006 and in the U.S. on 12 November, 2006 on the PBS program Masterpiece Theatre with Mirren starring opposite Tom Bell, Gary Lewis, Stephen Tompkinson and Laura Greenwood.


Prime Suspect

Title Air date Length IMDb
Prime Suspect Part 1: 7 April 1991, Part 2: 8 April 1991 (UK)
1992 (US)
207 min.
DCI Jane Tennison (played by Mirren) gets her first chance to lead a major murder investigation while confronting DS Bill Otley (Tom Bell) and other sexist officers on her squad who attempt to get her replaced. She eventually gets the suspect, George Marlow (John Bowe), and earns the respect of her team. This case was re-opened in Prime Suspect 4, Scent of Darkness, when similar murders occur while Marlow is in prison.

The first series had a number of well-known supporting actors, including Ralph Fiennes, Tom Wilkinson, and Zoë Wanamaker.

Prime Suspect 2

Title Air date Length IMDb
Prime Suspect 2 Part 1: 15 December 1992, Part 2: 16 December(UK)
1993 (US)
203 min.
When bodies are found in the backyard of a home in an Afro-Caribbean neighborhood of London, DCI Tennison has to tread carefully in her investigation because of the racial tension surrounding unsolved crimes in the region.

Prime Suspect 3

Title Air date Length IMDb
Prime Suspect 3 Part 1: 19 December 1993, Part 2: 20 December 1993 (UK)
1994 (US)
207 min.
Now working in the vice squad targeting Soho, DCI Tennison's investigation takes her into a child prostitution and pornography ring following the death of a rent boy. Tom Bell returns to the series as Bill Otley.

Prime Suspect 4

Title Air date Length IMDb
Prime Suspect 4, The Lost Child 30 April 1995 (UK)
1996 (US)
101 min.
Prime Suspect 4, Inner Circles 7 May 1995 (UK)
1996 (US)
102 min.
Prime Suspect 4, Scent of Darkness 15 May 1995 (UK)
1996 (US)
105 min.
Prime Suspect 4 is unique in that it was split into three separate stories. This series also promotes Tennison to Detective Superintendent.

The Lost Child: A child's death points to a convicted child molester, who has completed his prison sentence and lives with his family, keeping his dark past a secret from them. However, the man's counselor believes that he would not have done it due to his preference in victims. This episode introduces Dr. Schofield (Stuart Wilson).

Inner Circles: DSupt Tennison investigates the murder of a country club manager.

Scent of Darkness: A series of murders resembling those by George Marlow, investigated in the original Prime Suspect, have encouraged Tennison's subordinates to re-open the case, given that Marlow is stuck in prison when the new crimes took place. Tennison is reluctant however, as she is sure Marlow is guilty, but in the end she is vindicated when a prison guard who knows Marlow confesses to the crimes. Dr. Schofield returns for this episode as Tennison's love interest.

  • Emmy Award: Outstanding Lead Actress - Miniseries, (Helen Mirren)

Prime Suspect 5: Errors of Judgment

Title Air date Length IMDb
Prime Suspect 5: Errors of Judgment'' 20 October 1996 (UK)
1997 (US)
200 min.
DSupt Tennison investigates the murder of a drug dealer in Manchester and becomes determined to charge a local gang leader nicknamed "The Street" (Steven Mackintosh) with the crime.

Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness

Title Air date Length IMDb
Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness Part 1: 9 November 2003, Part 2: 10 November 2003 (UK)
2004 (US)
200 min.
DSupt Tennison, under pressure to retire, investigates the murder of a Bosnian refugee and ends up digging into the past war crimes of recent immigrants.

Prime Suspect: The Final Act

Title Air date Length IMDb
Prime Suspect: The Final Act Part 1: 15 October 2006, Part 2: 22 October 2006 (UK)
Part 1: 12 November 2006, Part 2: 19 November 2006 (US)
200 min.

While dealing with her alcoholism and the death of her father (Frank Finlay) Tennison solves the case of a murdered teenage girl before retiring.

  • BAFTA TV Award: Best Original TV Music, (Nicholas Hooper)
  • Emmy Award: Outstanding Lead Actress - Miniseries or Movie (Helen Mirren)
  • Emmy Award: Outstanding Writing - Miniseries or Movie
  • Emmy Award: Outstanding Directing - Miniseries or Movie


In 1997 a short spoof episode, Prime Cracker, was produced for the BBC's biennial Red Nose Day charity telethon in aid of Comic Relief. A crossover with ITV stablemate crime drama Cracker, the spoof starred Mirren and Cracker lead Robbie Coltrane as their characters from the respective series, sending-up the perceived ultra seriousness of both shows.

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