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‘The great thing about it is it’s raw’ – Zoë discusses Prime Suspect at the BFI

21 September 2021 20:24

The British Film Institute in London celebrated Prime Suspect I’s 30th anniversary on 19 September. A screening of the highly acclaimed ITV series, which paved the way for other gritty, female-led detective dramas, was followed by a very special Q&A: Lynda La Plante, Zoë Wanamaker and John Bowe in Conversation. The interviewer was TV and film expert Matthew Sweet. You can see photos taken just before the event on Zimbio.

Dozens of Prime Suspect fans listened to the drama’s creator, La Plante, having a lively, entertaining chat about the show alongside two of its stars. John Bowe portrayed the original ‘prime suspect’, George Marlow, with Zoë as his partner, Moyra Henson. In charge of her first murder case, Helen Mirren’s DCI Jane Tennison suspects Marlow, an apparently ordinary man, is guilty of a series of terrible crimes. Brittle Moyra won’t hear anything said against him and tries to obstruct the police investigation at every turn.

Brilliant drama is timeless – La Plante, reflecting on Prime Suspect I, emphasised how proud she feels that ‘with very few tweaks, it could stand up today’. The mobile phones would just need to be smaller if the programme was being filmed now, joked Bowe.

Female characters inspired by real women

Although working in the US prevented Mirren from attending the Q&A, she appeared in a short, pre-recorded video, during which she spoke about Prime Suspect I as a major turning point in her career. Echoing La Plante’s sentiments about the programme, Mirren remarked that ‘it reverberates to this day’. Prime Suspect’s power lies in the fact that it’s ‘absolutely revolutionary’. It paints an authentic, uncompromising, never-seen-before portrait of a talented female detective who’s determined to succeed in the male-dominated world of 1990s police work. Zoë suggested that Prime Suspect highlights the ‘power and strength’ women possess.

La Plante was able to write incredibly accurately about the treatment of women in the police at the time and the pressure of running a murder investigation because of her willingness to ‘go to ground’ for her research. For Prime Suspect, she attended a post-mortem, became a fly-on-the-wall in a busy police incident room, spoke to the victims of crime, and interviewed prisoners. La Plante pointed out that ‘almost everything’ about Tennison was inspired by the experiences of Jackie Malton, who worked as a DCI with the Metropolitan Police and is now a police drama story consultant. La Plante knew TV executives wanted a crime drama with a female main character, so that’s what she wrote. The show’s title came to her in a flash of inspiration – ‘like manna from heaven’, she said.

Zoë also did some unusual research for the programme, as she explained during the Q&A. La Plante advised her to watch, from a discreet distance, a woman working at a department store make-up counter. Little did the store’s customers know that the woman serving them hadn’t been honest with the police about her partner’s actions. Hiding behind the rows of stockings for sale, Zoë was keen to see how this real-life Moyra behaved, how she moved, and shape her performance accordingly. Zoë found Moyra ‘very interesting’ and felt ‘very lucky’ to play her.

Key moments in Prime Suspect’s plot

Several clips from Prime Suspect I were shown during the Q&A, including the crucial scene featuring Tennison’s interview with Moyra. Up until that point, Zoë’s character hasn’t budged an inch; she’s remained fiercely loyal to Marlow. But suddenly, Moyra catches sight of the horrifying photos of the victims – photos she’d previously refused to look at. Her bolshiness vanishes. She’s rigid, her voice barely above a whisper. She tells the truth, finally, and then breaks down. As Zoë said of the show, ‘the great thing about it is it’s raw’ – and it doesn’t get rawer than that scene.

For La Plante, Marlow telling Moyra how he discovered, as a boy, that his glamourous mother was bald is another key scene. Moyra can’t help herself – she bursts out laughing at the thought of Doris Marlow’s wig being carried away on a gust of wind in front of all of her son’s friends. 'Just goes to show you the Rita Hayworth of Warrington was really Yul Brynner in disguise,' quips Moyra. For a second or two, Marlow looks at his girlfriend darkly – and at this point, La Plante noted, the audience sees ‘a glimmer’ of something potentially very unpleasant beneath his unassuming demeanour.

Working with actors from Zoë’s RSC days

Everyone agreed that when you’re cast in such an emotive drama, it helps enormously if you already know some of the other actors and have a rapport with them. Fortunately, Zoë had met Mirren and Bowe when all three were members of the Royal Shakespeare Company during the late 1970s and early 80s. Despite the distressing storyline, making Prime Suspect I was a positive experience, because she was working with people she knew and liked; Zoë had ‘a good time’.

What’s more, the show was produced by Granada Television, which she was familiar with, having appeared in a number of its other shows early in her career (including 1973 comedy-drama Lorna and Ted, which gave Zoë her first leading role on TV). She recalled that Granada was well-known for showcasing new writing. La Plante emphasised that Prime Suspect I’s director, Christopher Menaul, is amazingly talented. She felt confident her script was in safe hands.

Prime Suspect has lost none of its power

Zoë made clear that the fact La Plante had herself acted on TV for many years before writing Prime Suspect I (they both appeared in the 1988 TV version of classic play Once in a Lifetime) was helpful. It meant the writer had an innate understanding of how actors approach scripts and what they’re looking for in them.

Bowe emphasised that he’d been blown away by the script and the character of Marlow. Zoë praised the writing too, as well as the camerawork and lighting, which contributed so much to the drama’s almost unbearably tense, grim atmosphere. When she played Moyra, she was struck by how new and fresh the pioneering show was. 30 years on, Prime Suspect I remains, in Zoë’s words, ‘a great piece of work’.

Q&A photo is by @kevinknapman on Twitter

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