Suppose the two canniest female sleuths now on television are Angela Lansbury of Murder, She Wrote and Helen Mirren, another splendid British actress, who plays Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the “Prime Suspect” stories that air on Public Broadcasting’s Mystery! program. But Ms. Mirren doesn’t see any real similarity. “This is so different from the Angela Lansbury series,” she said. “The reason for that show’s success is Angela. The reason for our success is that die shows are extremely hard-hitting, gritty, powerful stuff. Not at all for me squeamish, not very ladylike. Her show is like that very admirable Columbo series, in that it has no basis in reality. Ours is total reality.” The next Detective Tennison adventure, a four-parter called “Prime Suspect 3,” debuts on U.S. television later this month. This time, her beat is the district of Soho one of the more colorful, if unsavory, of London’s neighborhoods. “One of my movie industry friends calls Soho ‘sex, films and food,'” said Helen. “All the big American film companies have their headquarters there. There are some of the best restaurants in town and the hub of London nightlife. And there’s the sex industry in the case of this story, a particularly disgusting industry, that of the child prostitutes, both male and female, and the adults who come into Soho in search of them.”
Helen hadn’t yet seen a final cut of “Prime Suspect 3,” but she told me, “it was an enormous success in England.” Do real cops like her portrayal of a detective and her show’s “reality”? ‘They enjoy the spirit of it, yes,” Helen said. “But police, like everyone else, like to see glamorous images of themselves. Like the Miami Vice series, all those handsome men. We deal with absolute reality, even police corruption and criticism of the police.” And does that evoke angry questions in the House of Commons? “No,” she said. “English TV is a lot more liberal. We can do things that would be considered more scandalous than what you show on U.S. television.” Helen knows both countries pretty well by now, maintaining a home in the Hollywood Hills and an appartment in central London. The Sunday Times of London recently had done a profile of Helen (which she claimed not to have read, only skimmed), reporting that she has a fear of flying. Does she? “Flying I don’t particularly enjoy,” she admitted, “but I do it since I must, living in London and Los Angeles. I like the small planes. I don’t mind them. I find them fun. But the big ones…”
This sort of transatlantic existence requires certain adjustments. For example, she has two agents one a Yank, one a Brit, although she’s still a British subject. What of the published rumor that she might soon be made a Dame on the Queen’s honor list, the equivalent of a gentleman’s knighthood? “Oh, no,” Helen said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be a Dame.” For some years now, Helen has had a serious and continuing relationship with the American director Taylor Hack ford, who made An Officer and a Gentleman, Things still going well there? “Oh, yes,” she said. Is he still bearded? “Oh, yes.” Does he critique your work? “Oh, no.” Diana Rigg is the host of the PBS Mystery! series, but Helen said, “Our paths don’t cross. We worked together a long time ago, when we were very young, and then once more recently. I like her very much.” When she’s not playing detective, Helen can be seen in an upcoming movie retelling of Hamlet, as his mother. Earlier this year in London, she co-starred with John Hurt in a Turgenev play. One unfortunate note; The “Prime Suspect” stories have been such hits on TV, Hollywood has been nosing around and may do a film starring as Detective Jane Tennison not our Helen but Meryl Streep or Michelle Pfeiffer. They’re both smashing actresses, and Helen isn’t complaining but I am. Why, you might as well have those actresses doing Angela in a film version of Murder, She Wrote. It’s scandalous.