LOVERS of Lynda La Plante’s top-rated ITV drama Prime Suspect, which starred Helen Mirren as the hard-bitten, demon-ridden Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison will be delighted to know that 2016 will bring a six-part prequel series called Tennison to our screens.
It will see the 22-year-old Jane starting her police career with the Metropolitan Police in Hackney in the 1970s, operating in a world where the service is institutionally chauvinistic and there are more than a few bent coppers.
Well-read and well-connected though writers like La Plante are, they often also rely on the services of former professional policemen and detectives to help give their work that ring of authenticity.
After a 30-year career with the Met, much of that time spent in the murder squad and crime scene investigation, Callum Sutherland retired early and has since become a consultant to writers of crime fiction and TV dramas. He’s also vice-president of the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences.
He advises Lynda La Plante and assists in the research, storylines and writing of police, forensic and pathology scenes for her books and TV adaptations.
With fast-moving CSI-style dramas saturating our screens and shows like Silent Witness portraying pathologists leading murder investigations, has TV drama strayed too far from the truth?
“Some of the details in the US CSI series is over-the-top,” says Sutherland. “The equipment used is real, but what they do with it and conclusions they draw are not.
“For instance, there was a murder investigation in which the body had spittle in the throat which contained traces of concrete. It was concluded that they must have been near the scene when the Twin Towers came down in Manhattan on 9/11, and therefore they were from New York.
“Really, they could have lived near any building site...but in the drama, the information was just used to move the action from A to B. On Silent Witness, it looks as though the pathologist turns up to every suspicious death and seems to lead the investigation. I’ve rarely seen a pathologist at the murder scene.”
As with many crime dramas, in La Plante’s screenplays toxicology reports are completed with uncanny speed, but Sutherland believes that while certain timescales are reduced to provide pace, nothing of more crucial importance is sacrificed.
“Lynda does a lot of research herself, but if I say to her ‘Really, that would never happen’, then she accepts it.”
Among Sutherland’s own crime series favourites (apart from La Plante’s, naturally) are US shows True Detective and The Wire (starring Brit actors Dominic West and Idris Elba). “In The Wire, in particular, the characters are real, the jokes are real - it has a truth about it, and that’s down to being written by an ex-murder squad detective and former crime journalist.”
Like the fictional Jane Tennison, Callum Sutherland cut his teeth in Hackney before working his way up to the murder squad then crime scene investigation, where he found his niche. He admits the macabre side of the work does have an emotional effect.
“At the time, you are thinking ‘what does this crime scene tell me?”’, thinking laterally and trying to put yourself in the head of the killer, to figure out the who, how, what, where and why. It’s only later that it weighs heavily on your mind.
Some of the most challenging days of his career were spent on the identification of victims after the Paddington rail crash and 7/7 terrorist bombings in London in 2005.
Sutherland says that while detectives and scientists have expensive technology to help crack cases, some older investigative techniques still come up trumps. A case in point is the use of fibres found at the crime scene.
“Yes, you still get cases where the killer is very careful and there is no blood, no DNA, no fingerprints - but a fibre from an overall they wore provides the vital evidence.”
It’s easy to see where the satisfaction lies in his second career. “In lots of ways, it’s like being a detective again.”
Callum Sutherland is one of three expert speakers in the opening event of the Berwins Salon North autumn series Crime, Punishment and Retribution, which takes place at Harrogate’s Crown Hotel, on Friday September 25 at 7.30pm. It also features criminologist Diana Bretherick and cultural historian Olivia Williams.
Info and tickets 01423 562303 or at www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com