Helen Mirren in the ''Prime'' of her career - The star of the PBS series, ''Prime Suspect'' prepares us for the next installment

By Ken Tucker
April 23, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness

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When we first get reacquainted with Helen Mirren’s Inspector Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness (premiering April 18 on PBS, check local listings), the doughty detective superintendent is getting a mandatory medical exam. She lies about her smoking habit and is pressured by the higher-ups to retire, at age 54, after 30 years of service. As you can imagine, this does not sit well with our Jane. Early on, she tells an ambitious, younger male colleague in a tone of quiet menace, ”It would be a huge miscalculation to try and undermine my authority,” and you suddenly realize that even after all these years, Mirren’s great cop character could wipe the floor with, say, The Shield’s Vic Mackey.

It’s been seven years since the last Prime Suspect, and the 58-year-old Mirren is well aware of both the enduring popularity of her character and the fact that the increasingly irrelevant PBS could sure use a boost in its ratings. (This two-part, four-hour, British-made Granada Television coproduction will air here as a Masterpiece Theatre entry.) ”Granada every year have come to me and said, ‘Any time you’re ready, Helen,’ but I wasn’t ready,” said Mirren recently. ”I got on board, I must admit, rather grumpily. I remember feeling bad about myself; I thought I was going backward. I didn’t want to be run over by a bus and have the headline say ‘Prime Suspect Star Dies.’ I wanted it to say ‘Actress Dies,’ or ‘Boring Old Bitch Dies.’ Just not ‘Jane Tennison.”’

To that end, Mirren has spent the last seven years making movies (Gosford Park, Calendar Girls), doing a lot of London theater (starring in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Elektra was ”exhilarating but exhausting”), and a little American television, such as the Showtime projects The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (2003) and The Passion of Ayn Rand (1999). ”I was brilliant as Ayn Rand,” she crows happily. ”I saw it for the first time recently and I thought, ‘Wow, I was really good!”’

Having satisfied herself in other roles, Mirren was finally ready to return to Tennison — but not without securing a little creative control first. ”I’m involved in the choice of the story line and the director,” says Mirren. ”Prime Suspect [should] never get locked into a format — let the script and the director’s visual style dictate the look and feel of each edition of the series.” Satisfied with writer Peter Berry’s provocative story about the murder of a Bosnian Muslim woman as well as the subplot about Tennison’s feelings of middle-age discrimination, she chose Tom Hooper, who’d done a dandy Daniel Deronda for PBS in 2003. Prime Suspect 6 is gritty stuff. ”Making one of these is always arduous; long hours in very nasty places. I could do a good guidebook of all the morgues in Manchester and London.”

This installment is also sprinkled with four-letter words that’ll get bleeped in this post — Janet Jackson era. Mirren is blunt: ”If it’s bleeped or not it won’t make any f — -ing difference! It won’t ruin the drama…. But the thing about America — so what if network television is so silly and uptight? It’s silly and uptight as far as we are concerned: a little group of us gathered in New York, a little group of us in Los Angeles. Arty-farty people. At one’s peril as a producer, don’t forget the mass of Americans, who are wonderful. They might be shocked at a breast, but they’re also the people who get up at four in the morning and go help get their neighbor’s car started.”

Righto. But don’t expect Mirren herself to move to the Midwest with jumper cables anytime soon. The actress, who is married to director-producer Taylor Hackford, divides her time between London and L.A., and is currently readying her next film, Shadowboxer, in which she costars with Ryan Phillippe. Does he play her son? ”No!” she says, grinning with grand theatrical triumph. ”He plays my lov-ah! Good for me!”

Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness

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