TELEVISION / No bones about it

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The Independent Culture
AT THE start of Lynda La Plante and Allan Cubitt's Prime Suspect 2, we observed DCI Tennison and DS Oswalde operating well outside standard police procedure. A full report must state they were post-coital in hotel bath-robes, knee-deep in food from room service and planning a frontal assault on the mini-bar. Oddly, given La Plante's reputation for impeccable research, here immediately was a question of plausibility: how could anybody who wasn't an oil sheik or a pop star afford to drain a hotel mini-bar?

But the question never arose. The phone rang, summoning Tennison to a garden containing a decayed murder victim. And back at the station, a sculptor recreated the victim's face from the evidence of the smashed remains. At this pivotal point, the camera circled the clay head, a poignant moment only marginally undermined by its echoing of the Lionel Richie video for 'Hello'.

It would be hard to top the first Prime Suspect for taut pacing, but PS2 comes close. Just before the second commercial break, an inspector walked in with a bag full of personal effects found buried near the corpse. What kept him? But this was the only time you could accuse the drama of witholding the evidence.

In fact, if the writing was guilty of anything, it was forcing the issue. Sexism occupied PS1, but it blew in and out of the plot. The central matter of PS2 is racism and it rides higher in the script - to the extent of using a public meeting scene in order to work some straight doctrine into the script. Someone calls out, 'Is it possible to expect justice in this country if you are a person of colour?' Luckily the answer isn't expressed as baldly as the question.

The work-obsessed cop with the sadly evacuated private life is now a cliche of the genre, but Helen Mirren's Tennison comes good again, precisely by treating her condition as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. Her lines are caught up in the dialogue's kick and rush, just like everybody else's. And the drama never sentimentalises the stress she's under: you catch her in the station washroom looking momentarily peeved at her white-washed reflection, or lying down on her bed fully dressed, but the camera doesn't hang about and crave your sympathy.

Around her are a clutch of coppers on the edge of parody; or maybe not. The actor putting the 'Burk' in DI Burkin is Craig Fairbrass, who brings the character briskly home by deploying a haircut from which fashion fled in horror during the late 1970s and a jaw which hangs open like the tailgate on a removal van. A series of pithy Burkinisms suggested his belief that racial tension would best be eased by random arrests. No way was Prime Suspect 2 going to let him get away with that, even as locker-room banter. When Burkin cut up rough with Tennison, she got the last word, slapping down his hysteria with some liberal reasoning. Liberal reasoning in a police station? Just here you felt the drama straying from the real.

The dialogue, though, never slipped. It is threaded through with irrelevancies. An inspector examining two badly rotted trainers in a plastic tray said, 'I've got a pair of those - not cheap.' Back in the interrogation room, he was still going on about them. 'You wouldn't wear them for tennis: they'd do your ankles in.' The density of Prime Suspect 2 lies in its not, as police dramas generally do, offering the illusion of miraculously concerted effort. Instead we get a burble of distracted interests through which the investigation somehow picks its way, pulling you with it, all the way to part two tonight.

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