UK Actress | Born Helen Mironoff in Hammersmith, London, England, 26 July 1945
Helen Mirren is probably best known to American television audiences as Inspector Jane Tennison, the complicated and obsessive homicide and vice detective of Prime Suspect. But Mirren, who began her acting career playing Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth in Royal Shakespeare Company productions of the 1960s and 1970s, has appeared in over thirty productions for British, Australian, and American television. These have included film or taped versions of Royal Shakespeare productions, original television plays and dramatic adaptations of literary classics (e.g., the BBC’s serialization of Balzac’s Cousin Bette, which eventually appeared on American PBS’s Masterpiece Theater) produced by Grenada, Thames, and other companies for the BBC, ITV, and Channel Four in Britain, and such American television series as Twilight Zone (the 1980s version) and The Hidden Room (Lifetime cable production). The British stage training Mirren received in her teens and twenties encouraged her embracement of diverse roles and risky projects on stage, television, and screen (including a couple of notorious X-rated European art films). As with many such classically trained British actors, her breath-taking acting range and frequent appearances in every dramatic media made stardom elusive.
Prime Suspect, first aired on British television in 1991, finally made this 25 year acting veteran an important international star. When it was broadcast on the American PBS series Mystery! in 1992, it became that show’s highest rated program, won an Emmy, and made Mirren, according to some television journalists and executives, PBS’s “pinup woman” of the decade. Three Prime Suspect miniseries have followed and the American film company Universal is working with Britain’s Grenada Productions on a theatrical film featuring Inspector Tennison (rumors are that Mirren is considered too old to attract a wide audience to film, so another actress will probably be cast).
Critical consensus attributes the success of the television series to the collaboration of Mirren and writer Lynda LaPlante, who created Jane Tennison as a composite of several female police detectives she interviewed. LaPlante did not want to compromise their integrity by making Tennison’s character too “soft,” so she considered casting critical to the success of her vision of the character and these professional women. LaPlante found Mirren had the kind of presence and “great weight” she believed crucial to the character: “[Mirren’s] not physically heavy, but she has a strength inside her that is unusual. . . There’s a stillness to her, a great tension and intelligence in her face.”
Mirren has claimed that she likes Tennison because she is “unlikeable.” The complexity of Mirren’s performance resides in how she conveys this unlikeability while still making us sympathetic to Tennison’s ideals and vulnerability. The character is clearly discriminated against because of her sex–and she knows it–but her own behaviour, especially in personal relationships is not beyond reproach. The tension LaPlante admires in Mirren’s face also permeates the stiff posture Mirren adopts for the character, the quick pace of her walk, the intense drags she takes on a cigarette, the determination of her gum-chewing. Tennison, that unlikeable sympathetic character is given life in Mirren’s world-weary eyes, which do not betray emotion to her colleagues–except when she lashes out in often justifiable anger. But in private, the eyes express the losses suffered by a successful woman in a masculine public sphere. Although American and British television made strides in the 1980s and 1990s in depicting strong, complex women in law enforcement, for many viewers and critics, Mirren’s performance finally enabled “a real contemporary woman [to break] through the skin of television’s complacency.”
Mirren’s stock is now higher than ever thanks to her double roles as Queen Elizabeth the first in Eliabeth I (for which she won an Emmy and for playing Queen Elizabeth the second in The Queen (for which she won an Oscar). -Mary Desjardins
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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