Jane Tennison's single-minded determination to win justice for murder victims conflicts sharply with the politics of her high-ranking position. Now promoted to a position where she is overseeing all murder investigations in London, she can't resist taking a hands-on role investigating the brutal torture and murder of a beautiful young Bosnian refugee. But when her prime suspect turns out to be a "minor" war criminal given a new life in Britain for trading higher profile war criminals, Tennison's quest for justice becomes increasingly complicated. As the case threatens to bring an early end to her career, she faces the stark realization that she has little else left in her life.
In addition to the stellar Helen Mirren, Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness features a select group of British talent, among them Ben Miles who plays Detective Chief Inspector Simon Finch:
The character is known as a 'tick in the box.' It's an expression that comes from the way you go up the ranks in the police force. I'm one of the new breed, a graduate who goes up the ranks quite fast through all the various areas in the force. Each time I do my time in a different department, a little box gets ticked on my CV...
I'm seen by some members of the squad who have been there a long time as less committed to the job. But that's not necessarily true in reality, as I found out doing research. One of the officers I spoke to was a Detective Chief Inspector and he knows these characters very well... He said that they are not less able to do their job, but just that their level of commitment to their team is slightly less. But they are still very confident officers. So I'm just a youngster really for the type of job I do.
Tennison was instrumentally in charge of Finch's promotion; she actually got him the job as DCI. (This was Tennison's position in the last series of Prime Suspect.) Initially she's had a good relationship with him, but when she starts taking over the case and starts to elbow her way in, my nose is put out of joint. So this is a new occurrence for Finch and something that he doesn't like. Their relationship is partly about pride and personality clashes, and when they have to put those things aside in order to get on with the cases, it makes it very interesting.
Working with Helen Mirren is like playing tennis with a great tennis player or playing the trumpet with Miles Davis -- although she looks nothing like Miles Davis! It's been a learning experience, and great fun, fantastic! Helen's such a great actress; she helps you out all the time. I learned a hell of a lot by just watching her on set, how she approaches different scenes, her ideas, close ups, wide shots, her suggestions, her attention to detail...
We had an agency that arranges non-speaking TV extras, who are all ex-members of the police force, so Helen spoke to them about what they would do in similar situations. She cares very much about the detail.
We were all sent down to a station in Barnes and they gave us much advice and told us what they do on a day-to-day basis. It was fascinating... I mean, you get this image of what a police station looks like, and this one was just an ordinary, tatty office, and really quiet too. Yet some of them are dealing with the most tragic events.
The guy that was the same rank as my character showed me this chart in the incident room -- there were nine murders that they were dealing with at the same time. This was one of the things I didn't realize... and of course you don't see that in police dramas because they usually just involve one incident. He took me through each one; it hit me that this is for real. These guys are dealing with the deaths of so many peoples' daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, all their working lives... I came out of that station with so much admiration for the police.
There are a few reasons why I was excited about this part. A, because it's Prime Suspect and it's got a reputation for quality; B, it's a great script; and C, there's the backdrop of the whole thing: the Balkan conflict of the '90s and how it influenced life here. I spoke to people who were there in Yugoslavia in the early '90s. Regardless of whether you actually use it in the show, the knowledge that you get influences the scenes.
Peter Berry, who worked as a film editor, producer and director before becoming a screenwriter, wrote the script for Prime Suspect 6:
The idea for the story came from a conversation that I had with my father three or four years ago. It was the first time we talked about the experience he had going into the Belsen concentration camp. This very quiet conversation we had became the initial germ of this project. I gave this story to Jane Tennison and her father. His history and the energy between a father and a daughter propels her to solve a crime about a recent atrocity in Bosnia. So that's how it started; it was very personal.
I did a lot of research. The whole thing took about 6 months, with the research being about 3 months. Meeting with the Metropolitan Police, murder squads, doing a lot of reading, talking to journalists, talking to people that have been in Bosnia, people affected by the war, and then just building up a story and playing around with it... The way I work -- I really need to know a story before I write about it and the first two hours took about seventeen hours to write, and the second two hours took about eighteen hours to write. It was a very short writing period but a long build-up to it.
I am fascinated by how the police work, so it was very easy to immerse myself. The thing for me is that I wanted it to be authentic; we didn't just want another police drama. I, as well as the production team, wanted it to be more emotional and political. So that's what fascinated me about the research, meeting the people who had been in that situation, spending a lot of time with them asking all kinds of questions, so they shaped the production quite a lot. It was very important.
I got to know Jane Tennison by watching all the episodes over again and I was amazed at how well they stand up. I think Lynda La Plante created a wonderful character. But what really hooked me was Tennison's determination and resilience and that's what I wanted to celebrate with the writing. I think what's good about Prime Suspect is how Helen Mirren owns the character so strongly -- you're not trying to write scenes for an actress who can't carry it off. Nobody else could play Jane Tennison.
Helen is also extremely courageous because Jane Tennison has been away from television for seven years, so of course she was seven years older and what was great about Helen was her honesty. I didn't have to pretend that she was mid-forties. We could actually take the story right up to the wire and say that we are dealing with a fifty-four year old woman who's had to undergo a medical exam, and is having people say that she is too old for the job... then use her strength to prove them all wrong. That was great, it helped to get inside the character but it also made me more involved with Helen as an actress who really wants to work with her character and play with it.
That moment in the script when Tennison is talking to the victim's sister really stands out for me... That relationship is very important. We actually understand what it's like to be an immigrant in this country. And the scene between Tennison and her father is great as it is the seed of the whole story. But on the whole, I love just watching this character grow and seeing this person just never give in.
It's a great character -- I had a starting point already. It was just a bonus knowing that Helen Mirren was playing this character and knowing it's going to get made. It was a win-win situation all the way.