[NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Prime Suspect, Season 7)
A few years back, I saw Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie having some sort of sit-down chat on C-Span and, among various other topics, they fell to discussing British vs. American politics. One thing that struck them in particular was the phony lip-service American politicians are forced to pay to religious belief.
In England, they both agreed, such cow-towing never even crosses any politician’s mind.
I don’t recall either man mentioning why he nonetheless so much preferred living in America, but I do remember thinking they needn’t worry.
Being no fan of phony lip-service (to religion or anything else), I’ll still bet that when America is sufficiently like their England, there won’t be an America.
And there won’t be an England.
If a British television series like Prime Suspect was all anyone knew of England (and bear in mind that, for many of us, it is precisely that), then it would be logical to conclude that England, as either a meaningful historical identity or a sustainable political-economy, has already vanished.
The show ran in seven different, not-always-consecutive, seasons between 1991 and 2006. It was groundbreaking in all kinds of ways with its hyper-emphasis on forensics, emphasis on teamwork as opposed to the brilliance of a single detective, realistically gruesome corpses, the persistent elongation of the good old-fashioned mono-syllabic word “shit” into anywhere from and two to five syllables (though in one instance, I heard a s-s-s-s-s-s-hit, which I take to be seven), and, of course, an admirable but genuinely prickly female detective at the center.
Except for a handful of episodes, I didn’t see the show when it aired. By the time I became aware of it in the mid-nineties, the I’ll-wait-for-it-on-video mode was already prevailing at my house. When I first gathered up the whole series and watched it several years ago I thought it was a genuinely great series (“great” being an honorific I rarely find applicable to any TV series as a whole, though I frequently find individual aspects I like), but I didn’t think much about its possible socio-political import beyond the obvious (but, alas, necessary) feminist point that “women could do the job as good as men.”
Based on the DVD commentary and what I’ve been able to find on-line, I’m not sure the makers thought much beyond that either. And, of course, I have no idea what England was/is really like, circa 1991, 2006, or today. But I do know what the collapse of culture and politics in America feels like and, what with so many of their intellectuals preferring it here (a reverse of the old days when, if we produced a Henry James, he was likely to head straight over there and stay for a lifetime), I assume England really might be in worse shape than we are.
Certainly Helen Mirren’s DCI Jane Tennison begins the series in the familiar position (amidst all the then unfamiliar “realities” I mentioned above) of defending civilization from the monsters. And certainly there are monsters throughout the fifteen-year-run.
But, perhaps because, for entirely whimsical reasons, I watched seasons six through one in reverse order this time around, saving seven for the last, I was struck by England’s absence.
The upper classes with whom we Americans, at least, associate royalty and posh affluence (anything from Buckingham Palace to Downton Abbey), is barely glimpsed. But the middle class (presumably filled with all those Austen and Dickens and LeCarre readers) is even less in evidence. If not for occasional forays into Tennison’s private life it would be completely missing.
Essentially, then, and more so as the series progresses, Jane Tennison is defending an England no longer worth defending. The world of the series looks, sounds and most significantly, feels, like a police state which is kept from complete savagery only by the still barely perceptible presence of a liberal, common law, tradition.
It’s an England overrun by slums at the low end, and deep-set corruption at the high end. Nothing feels permanent, or even multi-generational. And by nothing, I mean nothing–not just buildings or roads or hairstyles or belief systems are decaying or putting up false fronts, but order itself.
What we have is a fifteen-year run through a nation that will produce no more glory. No more Shakespeares or MIltons. No Austens or Brontes. No Gladstones or Churchills. No Beatles or Stones.
Hell, no Clash or Sex Pistols.
Even they had to have something more than a black hole to rail against.
But, perhaps more to the point, this is an England that will produce no more Jane Tennisons.
In case anyone had kept such faith as the show permits (that is, in case anyone might assume my reading is, as the Brits say, daft), the final season gives us a younger version of Tennison herself. We don’t need to guess at this. She says as much herself and more than once.
It’s so much a younger version of herself (presented by the fresh-faced presence of Laura Greenwood), that, for once, and on the verge of her own retirement, she’s blinded to the sort of reality that she’s made a career of shoving in other people’s faces.
They’re bound together by intelligence, slash-n-bob haircuts, black coats worn as protection against the ever falling rain, a love of art, a deep-seated rebellious streak.
Somebody’s record collection.
Whether that last is Tennison’s, her dying father’s or some mixture of both is unclear, but it yields, for a start, Mirren’s lonely Jane dancing to Dusty Springfield’s “Stay Awhile” and, for a finish, a matched, bracketing sequence of Greenwood’s lonely Penny dancing to something else but clearly lost in the same past.
Of course, it’s really just Tennison’s past, a remnant of the middle class/middlebrow world her middle class/middlebrow father provided for her to rebel against, and perhaps flee from, by becoming the top-flight detective she wanted for herself instead of the artist her father, who we know from an earlier season was a liberator of Nazi death camps, wanted for her.
Penny’s a product of the new middle class. Her dad’s a statutory rapist who slept with one of her friends. By the time she’s dancing to the old records in Tennison’s dad’s house, she’s already a murderess and working up to a second try. She’s completely lost and, in the environment the series has built, not just in the final season (when Tennison is ravaged by alcoholism and so separated from any semblance of a normal life that she can’t even be in the same room with her surviving relatives without making an ass of herself, the last vestiges of middle class civility having been erased by her own choices), but in the entire corrosive atmosphere built up over a decade and a half, that primitivism is getting back its own and fresh-faced murder feels at least as natural as anything else.
This is an England where the air is permanently poisoned. And, long before the “reveal,” you can see and feel the inevitability of it all.
You don’t need plot-points or exegesis or the best role the actress of the age–definer of the wild child, the gangster’s moll, Morgana Le Fay, the first Elizabeth, the second Elizabeth–is ever likely to have, to know there’s no more England.
You just need to look, long before the aforementioned reveal, at the body language of the girl who will never have anything to defend.
Yes, by all means. Let’s be more like England.