Interview: Prime Suspect 1973's Stefanie Martini

Why the breakout star is hot on the heels of Helen MirrenWhy the breakout star is hot on the heels of Helen Mirren

Stephanie Martini stars in the hit crime series prequel. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Stephanie Martini stars in the hit crime series prequel. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

Inspector Jane Tennison is undoubtedly one of TV’s most iconic roles. For almost 20 years we watched Helen Mirren’s police officer rise through the ranks as one of the first female detective chief inspectors in the Metropolitan Police. We cheered her on in the face of institutional sexism and watched as professional success came at a cost in her personal life, with failed relationships, a termination and alcoholism, yet still she solved the crime and nailed the top job of detective superintendent.

Within the remit of a police procedural that ran through seven series from 1991 to 2006 on ITV, writer Lynda La Plante tackled sexism, racism, paedophilia and prostitution, as Tennison blazed a trail for women police officers. Now Prime Suspect is back in a six-part series based on La Plante’s book, starting on Thursday.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

This time round we meet Tennison as a 22-year-old rookie constable, pounding the beat in her regulation black police shoes and facing her first murder inquiry.

Prime Suspect 1973, from left, Jessica Gunning as Kath Morgan,Tommy McDonnell as DC Hudson,Stefanie Martini as Jane Tennison, Sam Reid as DCI Len Bradfield, Joshua Hill as DC Edwards, Daniel Ezra as DC Ashton and Blake Harrison as DS Spencer Gibbs. Picture: ITV

Not easy shoes to step into, but Stefanie Martini was only one when Jane Tennison first hit our screens and she doesn’t feel the long arm of the law or even the hand of history on her shoulder as she joins a cast that includes Sam Reid (Belle, The Riot Club), Blake Harrison (Dad’s Army, The Inbetweeners), Alun Armstrong (New Tricks, Little Dorrit) and Ruth Sheen (Unforgotten).

Down the telephone line she is husky and hoarse, the legacy of a day’s interviews and filming in the rain in Manchester and London.

“Sorry if I sound like a man,” she rasps. No problem, in fact that would have come in handy back in the 1973 Hackney cop shop where we find the young Jane Tennison battling overt sexism as well as crime. Being asked to make the tea features a lot in her duties. And don’t forget the biscuits, love.

“Hopefully today women feel they can speak up about sexism,” she says. “The difference is that in 1973 they just had to go along with it. You just had to be really good at your job and not aggressively fight against it, or speak out, or you wouldn’t get what you wanted. It was just accepted as normal. I think it still happens but the way people react to sexism now has changed.”

Prime Suspect 1973, from left, Jessica Gunning as Kath Morgan,Tommy McDonnell as DC Hudson,Stefanie Martini as Jane Tennison, Sam Reid as DCI Len Bradfield, Joshua Hill as DC Edwards, Daniel Ezra as DC Ashton and Blake Harrison as DS Spencer Gibbs. Picture: ITV

She adds, “Police advisers gave us videos of police in the 1970s in Hackney and there’s a tonne of documentaries about women in the police force. A lot highlight 1973 because that’s the year women integrated into the men’s force for the first time, so there’s a lot of information out there.”

Did she find it daunting taking on the role after Helen Mirren had made it her own and won several BAFTAs for her portrayal of Jane Tennison? After all Mirren is a dame, and TV royalty, having won multiple awards, one for portraying the Queen herself.

“Knowing where Jane Tennison goes is a really interesting place to work from, but I tried not to copy anything or physically do any of the same things. I think it’s more about having an understanding of who the character is inside and letting that inform my choices.

“Obviously the past series influenced me but I think it’s really important to keep it separate and to try and take on what I know, do that research and then leave it alone. Whatever kind of settles in, settles in, and then it’s up to me to work from myself and from the script I have in front of me. Otherwise I could have got overwhelmed and weighed down and frustrated,” says the 26-year-old.

Helen Mirren has given the series her blessing which Martini welcomes, although she has never met her predecessor in the role of Tennison.

“She said she thought it was a good idea because it’s good for women to see what it was like in the police force at that time,” she says.

Prime Suspect 1973 is part of a trend for resurrecting successful shows as TV either celebrates or eats itself, depending on your point of view. Coming soon are Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement’s new Porridge, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, 25 years on, and we’ve just finished catching up with the young Morse in Endeavour, while on the big screen we’re prequel/sequel-tastic in Star Wars, Mad Max and Trainspotting. No wonder the Prime Suspect 1973 writers thought the Bafta, Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody awards winning series was ripe for a revisit.

Martini has form with prequels herself, having landed a part in Endeavour in 2012 and learnt on the job as she watched Shaun Evans play a younger incarnation of a TV ‘tec with Morse’s early days in the Oxford City Police. Evans, who admitted he’d never seen the original Morse starring John Thaw, was one of the first to congratulate Martini on winning the Tennison role.

Endeavour was my first job and I was still in my last year at RADA. I was the killer in one episode and it was a small enough part for me to find my feet and learn a lot. I didn’t know it was going to help me at the time, but seeing the way Shaun worked was really inspirational to me. The way he dealt with lots of scenes and the way his brain is ticking along really intelligently without him appearing to do a lot. I found him great to work with,” she says.

What’s striking about Prime Suspect 1973 is the way the production team has managed to recreate the 1970s: the flares and floppy collars, clunky phones and brown palette, without a kiwi fruit or sun dried tomato in sight.

“Old photographs and pictures of the fashions were useful to get a feel for that period,” she says. “I was in my police uniform most of the time but it was great seeing everyone else when they came onto the set. The facial hair was fantastic, and seeing the boys in impossibly tight flared trousers – I felt really sorry for them. Jane’s not really into fashion, but when she was at home or out and about, I got to wear something other than my uniform. There’s a fine line with a brown corduroy coat, between looking amazing and looking like a big dork, but it was great.”

Martini immersed herself in the period, thanks to the music of the time.

“When we were filming we spent every day inside this police station and with so much detail in the set decoration and the costumes, it did start to feel a little bit like I was living in that era. I had a Spotify playlist with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and that sort of stuff on it. I think the music really takes you there.”

The research has paid off with a production that has a convincing verisimilitude in its setting, as well as the pacing and feel of a 1970s cop show – a touch of The Sweeney, flashes of Z Cars.

“I think the music and the way they’ve made it look in editing, the colours and style, something about turning the saturation up, the pacing, all makes it look very 1970s,” says Martini. “And then there’s a good, complex storyline and some really great performances from the cast. I think the show’s cool and I hope a lot of people can relate to it too.”

So if Martini didn’t channel Helen Mirren, where did she get her knowledge of the 1970s?

“My parents. They told me what it was like to be growing up then. They had a different kind of freedom. And communication was different, in terms of you had to meet people at a certain time because there was no way of contacting them once you’d left your house. You’d be out for the evening and have to be back on time because you wouldn’t be constantly contactable like we are now. In the first episode, Jane Tennison’s family are worried about her working so late as a police officer, and they are right to be as they’ve no way of knowing where she was or what she was doing.”

Based in London now, Martini hails from North Somerset, so her upbringing, and that of her parents, was very different from Tennison’s Maida Vale experience. Her mother works in HR and her stepdad in business, while her dad is a construction manager. There’s no acting experience in her genes.

“I’m the first as far as I know,” she says, “but they were very supporting of my choice. Obviously it’s a scary thing for your daughter to gamble on because it’s unpredictable but they’re very proud of what I’m doing.

“I’m from a remote rural area and it’s hard to pursue a creative ambition because there aren’t always lots of people around who have experience in that area so it can seem inaccessible. If you grow up in London there are theatres and acting and it’s all around you.

“But it was nice growing up there, so safe and surrounded by nature and what really matters in life, so it keeps me very grounded.”

After youth theatre at secondary school, which was big on the performing arts, Martini was going to do illustration but was advised by a teacher that if she was keen on acting, she should give it a go.”

“I thought if it doesn’t work out, at least I tried. Once I’d made the decision that was it for me. I was able to get to Bristol where I worked with the Old Vic in a one-year project where we made up our own plays and I taught drama to children’s groups. It’s a great place for nurturing creativity.”

From Bristol, Martini won a place at RADA then in her final year landed her part in Endeavour. After that she went on to do Emerald City, a fantasy drama reworking of the Wizard of Oz story with Oliver Jackson Cohen, designer Betty Jackson’s son, which aired on the 5STAR channel. In it she plays Princess Langwidere, a vain, spoiled princess with a collection of 30 interchangeable heads, that she varies to match her mood. Head 17 is for angry days, and to be avoided.

“It was really different to a British production,” she says. “We filmed in many countries and it felt huge. We were filming in Budapest, which really got you into that idea of a fantasy, beautifully-imagined world, and it was winter, freezing, but such a beautiful city. The cast got on really well and went on lots of dinners and in my free time I would go for walks, with a big coat on, and get lost. It was stunning.”

Next up was Julian Fellowes’ ITV three-part adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, which filled TV’s Sunday night period drama slot and saw her playing 20-year-old Mary, alongside Cressida Bonas, Prince Harry’s former girlfriend.

“She’s lovely, an absolute dream. She’s done really great stuff like The Great Gatsby,” says Martini. “Doctor Thorne was magical, a lovely supportive cast, because I was very new and very fresh. In fact I’ve been lucky so far with each of the things I’ve done.”

Since filming Prime Suspect 1973 Martini has been working on Crooked House, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1940s Whodunit, currently in post production. Alongside Amanda Abbington, Glenn Close, Christina Hendricks, Gillian Anderson and Max Irons, Martini plays Sophia de Haviland.

“That was my first feature film, and having Glenn Close play my great aunt and being in scenes with Gillian Anderson and Christina Hendricks was just really inspirational. It was a beautiful period, the costumes are all amazing, and it’s nice to play a hyper feminine character, although she is very strong and demanding and knows what she wants.”

As for her next role, Martini is back in the auditioning process, while she waits for Prime Suspect 1973 to air, keen to consolidate her experience and build her career.

“I’m in that lovely period of auditioning and waiting to see what’s going to happen next. It sounds scary but it’s also good. It’s all happened quite fast for me and I’ve worked from one thing to one thing to one thing, which was great and I’m very grateful, but it’s nice to get my breath back and re-route myself. I want to do as many different roles as possible, in whatever medium. I’ve no grand plans or schemes or anything. I just want to keep working through the rest of my twenties and thirties, and then keep going once there are fewer parts around.”

Now that she’s had a taste of life in a police station, is that something she’d ever be tempted to try?

“Christ no, I’d be awful,” she says. “Dreadful. I’m very different to Jane. She’s very single-minded and focused and driven in a way that’s very one-track. And she’s brave and gets herself into these situations without thinking about it because she really cares about what she does. I really care about what I do, but I’m not saving lives or finding murderers and I’m far too messy and creative to be a good police woman. I’m not nearly focused enough to be any good. Or logical enough.”

Just as well she seems to be nailing this acting thing then. Will Prime Suspect 1973 be something that opens doors in the future? Does Stefanie Martini face a future as successful as PC Tennison?

“I don’t know,” she says. “We’ll see. I’m just happy to be working. And hopefully it carries on. Fingers crossed.”

Prime Suspect 1973 starts on Thursday at 9pm on STV