Of course, you all got the clue in the last one, right? You know, “Deep Thought”? The computer from “The HitchHiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”. Played, in the 2005 film, of course, by Helen Mirren. Her other big roles have included Queen Elizabeth II… and Detective Chief Inspector (later Detective Superintendent) Jane Tennison in the series “Prime Suspect”.
Prime Suspect is renowned for its gritty realism, its accurate depiction of policing techniques, its treatment of Tennison as a hard-boiled character who regards her femininity as more of a hindrance than an asset… and for the sheer quality of its writing and directing.
Unlike others in this series, Prime Suspect didn’t follow the usual pattern of having a series of several episodes, each one an individual case (with the exception of season 4, which followed exactly that path). Instead, each series was a single case, usually divided into two parts, with the whole thing running for three and a half hours.
Its influence on modern detective series has been profound – “The Closer“, for example, was directly inspired by it. Ironically, were it British, “The Closer” would be a better fit for Columbo (in my opinion) simply because the focus of the show is a little bit different. Prime Suspect, you see, doesn’t compromise. (And, incidentally, “The Closer” is an order of magnitude better than the US remake of Prime Suspect…)
Tennison’s life is a mess. She drinks too much, smokes too much, and doesn’t really spend time keeping up with people. Her life pretty much revolves around her job and everything else is secondary to that. Or perhaps it might be better to say that it doesn’t really interest her as much as police work does. But despite that, she’s a sympathetic character, and that’s as much due to Mirren’s excellent performance as it is Lynda LaPlante’s creation of the series and writing (you could also check out “Trial And Retribution“, which is also by her, and extremely good… but out of scope here.)
I’d recommend Prime Suspect if you want some seriously good police viewing – it’s probably some of the best television to come out of Britain in the last thirty years. But… is it Columbo vision?
Ahead Of The Game: For all that Tennison is a good detective, and backed up by a good team, this is still routine policework. There’s rarely any Columbo-style leaps where he knows long before the evidence arrives. Score: 5/10
Car: A white one. With “Police” written on it. Score: 1/10
Catchphrases and Ambience: Not much. Gritty, violent, realistic. Definitely not Sunday afternoon viewing, but good for a late night. Score: 2/10
Investigative Style: At the risk of repeating myself, this is solid, old-fashioned police work, red in tooth and claw. Score: 3/10
Personality: Despite her aggressive side, Tennison is actually a likeable character – like Columbo, we can empathise with the dysfunctional lifestyle and the work-consumes-all focus of the character. Even if that’s not us, we all know people who are like that. Score: 6/10
Sidekick: Tennison has less of a sidekick, more of a team. As a result, we’re into a kind of grey area… there are moments though, that kind of resemble the relationship between Columbo and Dog… or at least give you that kind of feeling. Score: 3/10
Violence: Like The Sweeney, I’m going to give this a low score, simply because there’s a lot more onscreen violence. If some of the Columbo episodes didn’t get shown “edited for violence” on British TV however, this would be a zero. Score: 1/10
OK… that’s not a right lot. Where does it come in the table?
- A Touch Of Frost – 48.5 points
- Inspector Morse – 48 points
- The Avengers – 45 points
- Randall and Hopkirk (deceased) – 40 points
- Lovejoy – 39 points
- Racing Game – 30 points
- Bergerac – 29 points
- The Sweeney – 29 points
- Dixon Of Dock Green – 28 points
- Prime Suspect – 21 points
For the first time, the table feels a bit wrong. Generally speaking there’s been a pretty strong correlation between the quality of the program and the fit to Columbo. That’s pretty much as it should be – there are few that would argue that Columbo is, without doubt, one of the finest television series of all time, barring a few dodgy and (in the case of “Dagger Of The Mind”, nigh on unwatchable) episodes.
However here we have something that, were we ranking the chart by quality, would be right at the top of the charts. Absolutely up there, no contest – in fact the margin between Frost, Morse and Prime Suspect would be so slim you couldn’t choose between them.
But this isn’t a beauty contest – it’s an exploration exercise to see whether there is a series that can, in all honesty, be called “The British Columbo”.
Looking back at some of the rankings, I can see that maybe I’ve been a little bit generous on some of the shows, and in other cases, perhaps a bit harsh. But to be honest, in terms of a fit for how “Columbo-esque” a programme is, this leaderboard does feel right.
But there are plenty more to go. Plenty more. Next time – you never know – we might be on the street where you live…