Shiny Shelf


Prime Suspect: The Last Witness

By Mark Clapham on 15 November 2003

Seven years have passed since the last ‘Prime Suspect’, and Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison is still as obstinate, clever and compassionate as before.

After the Manchester excursion of ‘Prime Suspect 5′, Tennison is back in London, heading a large murder squad dealing with numerous cases. She’s facing the prospect of early retirement, and has ambitious underlings snapping at her heels. When the body of a youngt Bosnian woman is found, with evidence of torture, Tennison takes personal charge of the case. Her investigation leads her to one, possibly two, Serbian war criminals eager to silence the last witness to a massacre a decade before.

The ‘Prime Suspect’ series had had an odd, fractured evolution. Lynda La Plante’s original is still the best, with its parallels between two kinds of forgotten women – those passed over in favour of men in the working world, and those used by men in the sex trade. In that first serial it was the connection that Tennison made with the prostitute victims, the need she had to defend these neglected and ignored victims, that gave the story its moral drive. Follow-up stories were less successful, lacking that strength of purpose. ‘Prime Suspect 3′ came closest to recapturing the spirit of the original, with Tennison investigating murdered rent boys and uncovering a paedophile ring at the highest levels of power. Other installments lacked that conflict with the obstructive, patriarchal, authorities and by the fifth serial it was pretty much just another ITV cop franchise.

Well, the long absence has gone a long way to revive the series – ‘The Last Witness’ represents a return to the core strengths of the series. The use of recent war crimes as a basis for the story gives the killing of the witnesses greater, more tragic implications – these are serious incidents that demand justice. That many of the characters are immigrants, often illegal ones, opens up areas of storytelling and contemporary interest other dramas have neglected. There’s a tangible sense of dipping into an unknown world parallel with our own, going behind the public face of modern London into the service corridors and underpasses, a world where labour, and sometimes life, is cheap.

Peter Berry’s script is taut and clever, evading cliches or comfortable resolutions, finding resonanances between the characters and plotlines. The story is littered with neat bits of visual storytelling that director Tom Hooper picks up and runs with – the opening to the second episode is particularly brilliant, using CCTV footage to hauntingly recap the end of the first part. The quality of direction and lighting is shockingly high – especially in the cheap overlit video world of British TV – with some genuine visual flair on display.

Both Berry and Hooper are confident enough to let Mirren’s performance carry the day a lot of the time, with little need for extraneous dialogue. Mirren is an actress who can say more about a character by the way she smokes a cigarette than most actors can in an hour of screen time, and Tennison seems a revived presence since her last appearance. While this is Mirren’s show, the rest of the cast are excellent, including ‘Coupling’ star Ben Miles, the ever-brilliant Robert Pugh, and Liam Cunningham as a journalist ex of Tennison’s who reported on the Bosnian war. Of special note is Frank Finlay in a pivotal cameo as Tennison’s father, who has an anecdote to impart that strikes right to the heart of the story.

British TV drama is usually easily divided into the glossy, intelligent stuff (of which there is little), the efficient middlebrow genre efforts, and populist drivel. Well, here’s a populist genre piece that’s also well made, well acted and intelligent, and also says some worthwhile things about contemporary Britain. ‘The Last Witness’ is not just a very welcome return for one of TV’s most compelling characters, but a brief burst of spring in the long winter of recent British TV drama. If this standard can be kept up, then another encore for Jane Tennison would be more than welcome.

Buy all of the previous ‘Prime Suspect’ serials at Blackstar.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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