Perhaps that is why it’s thrilling to see so many British police and crime dramas featuring strong, complex female leads. Shows in this genre are popular for many reasons, among them are intense storylines and lightning-quick plotting, but I confess that I watch these programs for the characters. There’s nothing I love more than a woman in law enforcement who is masterful at enforcing the law—society’s, her own, or both.
One of the most important female leads in British TV police-drama is the über-female detective Jane Tennison, as portrayed by Helen Mirren, in Prime Suspect. This ITV classic ran for seven seasons and saw its protagonist square off (quite effectively) against criminal types, as well as against the old boys’ club of the Metropolitan Police and her often condescending male co-workers. Series creator and writer, Lynda La Plante, has said that she based Tennison’s character on a DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) who “gained extraordinary respect from her male colleagues because she ate, slept, and breathed the job.” Tennison engages in several romantic liaisons throughout the series, typically with colleagues, but in the end, her ambition and dedication to solving her cases proves more important to her than carving out a work/life balance.
Now is the time to binge-watch all fifteen episodes of Prime Suspect, as ITV has produced a prequel for the show, entitled Prime Suspect: Tennison, set in the 1970s, airing on Masterpiece Theatre in the U.S. in 2017. Although the new series will likely be watchable on its own, knowing the relentless detective that Tennison becomes should make watching the development of the young Tennison even more satisfying.
Prime Suspect is one of the most well-known British police dramas around, but another outing by Lynda La Plante, entitled Above Suspicion, based on her book of the same name, also features a notable female character, rookie DC (Detective Constable) Anna Travis (Kelly Reilly). Thrown into the deep end on her first case, searching for a serial killer, Travis is determined to show everyone around her, especially the men and particularly her supervising officer, that she has the detective chops necessary to survive. Above Suspicion ran for four seasons, a total of eleven episodes; though not as trailblazing as Prime Suspect, it does offer a strong cast and a female protagonist who wants to succeed but also obviously wants a personal life and love.
The most direct descendant to Mirren’s Tennison in recent British television has been Gillian Anderson’s riveting Metropolitan Police superintendent Stella Gibson in the crime/serial-killer drama The Fall. Gibson’s power is displayed by aggression in her personal and sexual relationships. When grilled by the Northern Irish Internal Affairs-type investigator about a one-night stand she had with a fellow police officer, her reply is simple but perfect: “Man fucks woman. Subject, man; verb, fucks; object, woman. That’s okay. Woman fucks man. Woman, subject; man, object . . . that’s not so comfortable for you, is it?”
Although The Fall focuses on the crimes and increasing confidence of the killer, much of the drama and the undeniable pleasure of watching this program is derived from watching Gibson be completely badass. She stares down a threatening gang of men in an unstable Belfast neighborhood . . . then turns her back on them as she walks to her car. When a colleague with whom she previously shared a physical relationship tries to rekindle that relationship against her will, she employs a self-defense move that stops him in his tracks. And she does all this while simultaneously employing every tool in her arsenal to unmask and provoke her serial-killing quarry.
The detective who Brenda Blethyn plays in the criminally underrated drama Vera seems, at first glance, to be Stella Gibson’s polar opposite. Unfussy in appearance and seemingly random in her methods, DCI Vera Stanhope nonetheless possesses a mind that is always thinking through the crimes she is investigating. She, too, has her own demons, particularly those surrounding her relationship with her recently deceased father, but however unwilling she may be to investigate her own feelings and motives, her most valuable skill is her understanding of others’ all-too-human natures. Of note in this series is her working relationship with her DS; she attempts to keep a distance and primarily use him as her physical enforcer, but over the course of the first four seasons—the DC leaves the final two seasons—he serves to keep Vera grounded and provides an emotional connection that she clearly hadn’t realized she needed.
Another recent program highlights the difficulties many female officers still have: trying to reconcile their personal lives with their jobs. Perhaps the most blatantly conflicted of these is Catherine Cawood, the Yorkshire policewoman at the heart of the series Happy Valley. Focusing on a rural setting beset by drugs and violence, Happy Valley is anything but happy (or idyllic). And Cawood, the world-weary but vulnerable cop played by the perfectly expressive Sarah Lancashire, understands better than most the problems of those whom she is policing. Or, in her own words: “I’m forty-seven, I’m divorced, I live with my sister who’s a recovering heroin addict, I’ve two grown-up children, one dead, one who doesn’t speak to me, and a grandson.” Cawood may have issues, but she’s nobody’s fool. The violence in this series is gut-wrenching to watch, but viewers are compelled to follow how she manages to do her job, help save a kidnapping victim, and keep tabs on the drug dealer recently released from prison who she believes raped and impregnated her daughter. She is less a Yorkshire police officer than she is a force of nature.
Many of the programs discussed thus far represent women detectives as decidedly “lone wolf” types, but two other police procedurals showcase partnerships between policewomen. The drama in these programs is driven nearly as much by their collaborative work and sharing of personal details as by the crimes being committed and solved. When creating her “feminist” cop-buddy show Scott & Bailey, writer Sally Wainwright, like La Plante, was inspired by a real detective: Greater Manchester Police Detective Inspector Diane Taylor. Wainwright’s consultations with Taylor (who, tragically, died in 2016 at the age of 55) helped make the show more realistic and enabled Wainwright to let her stars—Suranne Jones as Rachel Bailey and Lesley Sharp as Janet Scott—be tough and talented investigators, as well as friends and characters with vulnerabilities, often stemming from their complicated personal lives. Viewers may get frustrated with Bailey for leaking details of her current investigation to her boyfriend, who breaches professional ethics, but they can still relate to the impulse: Even police officers want to talk about their work. Her counterpart, Janet Scott, also gets into ethical scrapes; most notably one in a later season when she wants to protect her daughter from a criminal charge. Anyone with a family can understand that conflict of interest.
A slight digression here to note that both Happy Valley and Scott & Bailey were created and are written by Sally Wainwright, which is, quite frankly, amazing. Not only are the characters she creates strong, driven women, clearly Wainwright herself knows her way around a demanding work schedule.
Although its run was much shorter than Scott & Bailey’s, the crime series Murder in Suburbia also focuses on the interplay between main characters and the crimes being solved. The show is lighter in tone than any other program on this list, perhaps owing to its suburban London setting, and it also features more lighthearted banter, such as between the more cerebral Kate Ashurst (Caroline Katz) and her partner in detection, Emma Scribbins (Lisa Faulkner), who operates more on her hunches. Their work together means they always get their suspect, but meanwhile, what viewers get is witty repartee that says as much about the modern pool of dating prospects as it does about crime-solving methods.
Strong women can also shine when paired with the right male partner, as is the case in the police series Line of Duty. Featuring the anti-corruption unit (AC-12) of the Metropolitan Police (analogous to internal affairs police officers in the U.S.), this series demands and rewards close attention, particularly when it is paid to the working relationship between DS Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) and her DS. The questions facing these detectives are legion: Which cops are crooked? How are the anti-corruption officers going to get them to admit to their wrongdoings? How do the anti-corruption officers themselves sometimes act unethically? The program features a female cop who is not only skilled at routine police work but also undercover work, and who can stand up under the pressure of being everyone’s least favorite co-worker. Even when a male colleague spits on her after her cover is blown, she manages to out-dignify him with a simple pause and head-up exit.
So, yeah: Being a woman can be hard. Finding women detectives on British television who help you get in touch with your inner law-enforcement officer? That’s easy!
Sarah Cords is a reference book author, former librarian, and full-time Anglophile. She blogs about British television at The Great British TV Site.