From prime suspect to prime time: the rise of women detectives

Posted January 29, 2016 - Blog Posts

With a new series of Vera coming to your screens this Sunday 31st January on ITV at 8pm, we thought it was time to take a closer look at the roots of the rise of la détective. So what’s fuelling the rise of the female sleuth? Is it a fashion thing – or is the rise of the woman detective the natural successor at a time in which the old world order has crumbled?

 

DI Jane Tennison (The Prime Suspect)

When DI Jane Tennison first appeared on our screens in 1991, overnight it changed everything for women detectives in the UK. At the heart of the programme was how Tennison steeled herself to deal with the men under her command, who were outraged at having to endure the humiliation of having a female boss. The storylines were compelling and pulled no punches – but the real treat was watching Helen Mirren as her character strove in these unbearable conditions. And now she’s set to return to our screens in the form of a prequel, featuring a 22-year-old Jane Tennison, just starting out on her career in the 1970s.

 

Vera Stanhope (Vera)

Sunday 31st January at 8pm on ITV1

In her battered hat and disheveled coat, Vera Stanhope, played by Brenda Blethyn, may bear a passing resemblance to 70s male detective Columbo. But the similarities stop there. Vera’s no gender-swapped formula TV sleuth. She’s a finely drawn, believable character, with her own frailties, grit and soul. Vera might look like she’s hit rock bottom, but she’s a detective at the top of her game – and six million viewers agree, which is why she’s returning to our screens this Sunday night for a new series.

 

Saga Norèn (The Bridge)

In The Bridge, Saga Norèn is a female Swedish detective with a twist: it’s suggested that she has Asperger’s syndrome, and she’s certainly oblivious to the norms of human interaction. But it’s her other, more forensic, qualities that make her exceptional for this line of work. And it’s this tension between her sharp, cold logical pragmatism and her total absence of emotional intelligence that makes her such a compelling character. Season 3 of the Bridge has just finished on BBC Four, but its creators aren’t ruling out a final season, so we may yet see Saga on our screens again.

Christine Cagney and Mary-Beth Lacey (Cagney & Lacey)

Deftly written and bold in its themes, Cagney & Lacey helped blaze the trail for the women detectives as far back the early 1980s. The show tackled difficult issues such as breast cancer, alcoholism and the difficulties of holding down a job while bringing up children in a way that no mainstream entertainment had ever done before. Formulaic it may have been by today’s standards, but Cagney and Lacey plays a pivotal role in the development of the female TV sleuth.

DCI Cassie Stuart (Unforgotten)

Just because a crime happened a long time ago, does it mean it affects us less? That time has somehow made it less terrible? This is the central question that Unforgotten confronts us with. And it’s an agenda that DCI Stuart, played by Nicola Walker, pushes with great passion and humanity, as she unravels long-forgotten secrets in the lives of the potential suspects in this cold case. ITV has confirmed that Nicola will be back as DCI Stuart in a second series later this year.

Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey (Scott & Bailey)

Once dubbed “the Cagney & Lacey of Manchester”, Scott & Bailey was conceived by one of its two stars, Suranne Jones, who plays detective constable Rachel Bailey, along with co-star Sally Lindsay, who takes the role of her sister. What’s particularly interesting about Scott & Bailey is that it features female characters who aren’t in some way auxiliary to husbands, lovers, children, even male colleagues. And its credibility lies in its accurate portrayal of how real police officers behave and what they’re confronted with. A new series has been given the green light and will return to ITV later this year.

Lindsay Denton (Line of Duty)

No character in Line of Duty was whiter than white – and that very much includes Lindsay Denton, the main protagonist in the second series, as portrayed by Keeley Hawes in a career-defining performance. In a masterstroke of casting (we’ve been more used to seeing her in period dramas), Hawes gives a stark performance in a story that dashes any lingering conception of a womanhood that is nurturing and fundamentally kind. Women, men… Line of Duty draws no distinction and takes no sides, which might make it the crime thriller for the current zeitgeist against which all others should be measured.

DSI Stella Gibson (The Fall)

A post-feminist creation, Stella Gibson is a woman in charge. She’s last in our list because she’s successfully completed the journey started by DI Tennison all those years ago. Stella is a woman, not in a man’s world, but in her own. And she occupies it on her own terms, doing a senior job without anything being made of it. Whereas once, male detectives put the world to rights, bringing order to chaos, we now live in a more nuanced world where we’re less certain of paternalistic authority. Stella is a new type of detective for a new age, and she’ll be back for a third series later this year.

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