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The real Jane Tennison reveals ugly truth behind TV police drama Prime Suspect

Jackie Malton says she has always been attracted to the ‘dark side’ of people.
Jackie Malton says she has always been attracted to the ‘dark side’ of people. Photograph: PinPep/Rex/Shutterstock

When Jackie Malton joined the police in 1970, she discovered that her nickname was “Cocky Chops”, and was told that she was only gay because she hadn’t yet met the right man. She could hardly have imagined that one day she would become the model for a hit television drama series.

A friend who had retired from the Metropolitan police introduced Malton to Lynda La Plante in 1990 when the writer was in the process of creating Prime Suspect with a female character as the lead detective. The two women met at La Plante’s house in south-west London. “She showed me the script. I said ‘it’s great and it’s a great title’.”

One part that did not ring true was what it was really like for a woman in a senior role in the police. Malton introduced La Plante to many of her colleagues, both men and women, and told her of her own grim experiences with the man who would become the notorious Sergeant Bill Otley in the drama.

Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison, the character based on Malton, would run for seven series between 1991 and 2006, win multiple Bafta and Emmy awards and be shown to acclaim around the world. “It’s been the subject of academic books, I’ve been invited to go to America to talk about it on PBS,” Malton said. “It’s all been amazing.”

How all this has come to pass she recounts in her memoir launched last week, The Real Prime Suspect, and explains further at her home in a village in Surrey, far from the grimy pavements she once crossed at speed to arrest armed robbers as a member of the Flying Squad.

Hers is a remarkable story. She grew up in Leicester, one of three children of a peripatetic newspaper man– who wept when she told him she was gay – and a troubled, mother. She originally wanted to be a probation officer – and had a brief notion of becoming a nun – but life in the police beckoned.

Even as a police cadet, she shone, unmasking a fishy conman character in the care home to which she had been assigned.

Progress was swift. As were the shocks. She got used to the “banter”, but even that did not prepare her for her initiation into Leicester CID. “Two officers grabbed my arms while a third put his hands up my skirt, pulled down my pants and stamped my bottom with the CID ink stamp – all as four or five other men from the team looked on.” Only the women joining the squad were subjected to this humiliation.

Helen Mirren, as DCI Jane Tennison, with Ian Fitzgibbon, as DC Jones, in Prime Suspect.
Helen Mirren, as DCI Jane Tennison, with Ian Fitzgibbon, as DC Jones, in Prime Suspect. Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

When she moved to the Met, she encountered much of the same behaviour, and her nickname changed to “the tart”. This was how she was greeted when introduced to her new colleague, “Phil”, on the Flying Squad: “Why don’t you fuck off, you cunt, I’m not working with a woman.”

Phil was portrayed in fictional form in Prime Suspect as Sgt Otley. Did Phil’s colleagues back him up when he behaved like that? “On a one-to-one, they would sympathise with me,” she says, “but in company it was tribal.”

One of the many chilling passages in the book is about her decision to report a colleague for corruption, which would lead to his prosecution and a jail sentence. When she entered the canteen after it became known that she was the officer who named him, her colleagues walked out to make their disapproval clear. Would that happen today? “You would be far more supported now. But it still takes courage to report someone. I do worry sometimes about officers being too scared to rock the boat in case they might be ostracised.”

Earlier this year, the Met’s first female commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, whom Malton admires, resigned. A few months later, the Met was placed in “special measures” following a series of scandals, some of them stretching back for many years. “When you put up those macho adverts to attract people into the police, there will inevitably be a number of people joining to be adrenaline-pumping and action-oriented. Part of the police’s job is that kind of action, but most of it isn’t.

“Somehow, some of these cultures have now gone underground into WhatsApp groups. Wayne Couzens [the officer jailed for life for murdering Sarah Everard] was known as ‘the rapist’. Why did he have that reputation? It can only be from what he says to his colleagues, what people call ‘banter’.

“When I joined, there was misogyny, racism, homophobia. Fast forward to 2022 and the commissioner losing her job on the basis of the same – misogyny, racism and homophobia. There have been seven commissioners in that time, and yet she’s the one to go,” Malton notes.

“They are judged extremely harshly,” she says of the police today, who she thinks are unfairly singled out for criticism. “How effective have the police and crime commissioners been? Who measures them? Most of them are Conservative so where is their true loyalty? To the public they represent or their political party? I don’t know what they bring to the table. Why aren’t they being held responsible for the chronically low detection rates, which are embarrassing – my detection rates were 25 per cent!

“But I feel now that the police have lost their connection with the public, not least because half the police stations in the country have been sold off. Almost all the ones I worked in have gone.”

Jackie Malton as a young officer
Jackie Malton joined the police in 1970. Photograph: Jackie Malton

Of politicians who have had criminal justice responsibilities, Malton is scathing: “Theresa May definitely damaged the police with her negativity… Only Michael Gove and Rory Stewart stand out because they were interested in change.”

On homophobia within the service, she believes attitudes have changed. She recalls being involved in 1993 in the hunt for Colin Ireland, the serial killer of gay men, who picked up men in the Coleherne, the gay pub in Earl’s Court. “I said ‘use the Gay Police Association to put men in undercover in the Coleherne because it is a world that a straight officer might not understand’. The officer to whom I suggested it said: ‘I wouldn’t do that, they’d just be interested in scoring.’ I said ‘Sorry? They are police officers who happen to be gay’.”

It was a slow process to change attitudes, she says, noting that when the Black Police Association was formed, a Police Federation spokesman pronounced in all seriousness that there was a fear that white heterosexual police officers were “an endangered species”.

In the heavy-drinking and high-pressure world of the police, she soon found that large gin and tonics eased the strain – but took an increasingly heavy toll. “I went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 1992 and I will go to one tomorrow evening. I was sick and tired of myself, and I knew there was something better inside but I couldn’t access it. I had every self-help book on my shelves but I was using gin and tonics to numb myself. I thought: I cannot live like this.”

She pays tribute to AA for turning her life around, and 16 years ago she volunteered to work with addicts in prison, which she still does every week. “I’ve always been attracted to the dark side, attracted to why people do the things they do,” she says, sitting in the back garden of her home in the Surrey Hills. She is the Neighbourhood Watch coordinator – “once a detective, always a detective” – but this has not stopped her from being burgled recently by thieves who sprayed her immaculate house with bleach to wipe out any traces of DNA. Burglars, like cops, adapt to life’s challenges.

“I live in beautiful Surrey, I have beautiful friends but there is nothing as rich to me as being in prison and understanding the human mind,” she says as her amiable Jackapoo, Frank, scoots through the garden.

“I was in a group in a prison yesterday and I had 27 men in a horseshoe – murderers and robbers – and at one point I just thought ‘how surreal is this?’ They were all so respectful, interested, responsive and polite. I’m an ex-cop, 71 years of age, and I’m in recovery myself, and they were talking about the difficulties they had as young men.

“Some were addicted to crime, addicted to the buzz they got from crime. They would talk about how they would be walking through the town with their wives and kids, and all the time they were doing a recce for a crime. Just the thought of it would give them this incredible buzz. They couldn’t deal with the down that came after the crime so then they would use drink or drugs to maintain the high.”

Spending time in prisons has also made her critical of the criminal justice system. “We are far too punitive as a society,” she says of the long prison sentences that are now routine. “You have to give people hope. And the parole system is so laboriously slow – decisions take months to be made.”

Vicky McClure, Martin Compston and Adrian Dunbar in Line of Duty.
Vicky McClure, Martin Compston and Adrian Dunbar in Line of Duty, one of Malton’s favourites. Photograph: World Productions/BBC One/PA

A framed copy in her hallway of Bernard Levin’s essay Quoting Shakespeare indicates someone fascinated by words and language, so why has her memoir only surfaced now? She had been approached many times in the past, “but it was only when I met Hélène [Mulholland, the former Guardian journalist who co-wrote her memoir] that I felt I would be safe with my life in her hands, and she has had the ability to capture my voice.”

La Plante’s creation had a major effect on police dramas in placing a woman officer in the foreground, and Malton has since been a consultant on The Bill and several other police series.

Her television viewing still tilts in that direction: “I like 24 Hours in Police Custody, and The Wire was one of my favourites, as is Line of Duty; in terms of police procedures it’s absolutely ridiculous – although they have police advice on it – but it’s so cleverly done. And I love Happy Valley and Unforgotten.”

She has a few regrets about her career, from not taking an offered role in the criminal intelligence department to turning down a chance to go to university; since leaving the police, she has achieved an MA from Sussex University and an MSc in addiction psychology from London South Bank University.

She also spurned the chance to be young Prince William’s bodyguard. “But I’m relieved I didn’t take that! I always had this thing about being a street cop, that’s what my career was all about.”

And yes, she would encourage people to join the police today, whether gay or straight, or black or white. She drops me off at Guildford station and tells how, when she picked me up earlier in the day, she was chatting in the station to a South African woman whose son was about to become a police officer. She gave him some advice. “I said: ‘Don’t lose yourself in an organisation. Hold on to your own morals and beliefs and don’t get swayed. Do not be afraid to be different’.”

Then the woman who has herself made a great difference to the lives of many, both within the police and the prison system, heads off home with a wave and a smile.

Police favourites

Happy Valley (2014)

Sarah Lancashire stars as Catherine Cawood, a resolute and iron-willed Halifax police sergeant coming to terms with her daughter’s suicide eight years ago. Her life is upended when the man responsible, Tommy Lee Royce, is released from prison and she unexpectedly gets involved in a new case.

Unforgotten (2015)

Nicola Walker, now starring in BBC One’s Marriage, plays the determined Detective Chief Inspector Cassandra ‘Cassie’ Stuart who leads a team of detectives unravelling historical murder cases.

Three Girls (2017)

Based on the true story about Rochdale’s child sex abuse ring in 2012, Lesley Sharp plays detective constable Maggie Oliver in BBC’s harrowing drama series. Sharp plays the former detective and whistleblower who exposed the grooming scandal. DC Oliver later resigned from Greater Manchester police after claiming the force had failed its young victims in the case. Flo Cornall

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