helen mirren

Best of British Crime TV: Cracker, Prime Suspect, The Singing Detective

Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect | WGBH

Every now and then, there is a successful American remake of a British show. The Office springs to mind as a prime example. More often, though, attempts to reimagine a British show for America falls flat. Check out these three superb original British Crime Classics and indulge your inner Anglophile.

CRACKER (1993-1996)

Cracker, Robbie ColtraneThe British original features Robbie Coltraine (Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, From Hell) as flawed psychological profiler, Dr Eddie ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald. Fitz is overweight, he drinks, he smokes, he has a potentially ruinous gambling habit, and he cheats on his long-suffering wife, played by Barbara Flynn (Cranford, The Forsyte Saga). Despite all of that, you’ll love him. And you KNOW that a man like Fitz has a deeper understanding of the darkness in men’s hearts than the lily-white, never-battled-any-demons profilers often seen in crime shows.

Other memorable cast members include Geraldine Somerville (Lily Potter in the Harry Potter movies, Julian Fellowes’ Titanic) as his police partner DS Jane Penhaligon and Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who, The Shadow Line) as DCI Bilborough. In some episodes you’ll also see Robert Carlyle (Once Upon a Time, Trainspotting, SGU Stargate Universe), Samantha Morton (John Carter, Minority Report), Jim Carter (Downton Abbey, Shakespeare in Love), John Simm (Life on Mars, Doctor Who), Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones, Safe House) among other familiar faces.

Cracker racked up 20 awards including a slew of BAFTAs and Edgars. The short-lived American version, which only lasted one season, starred Richard Pastorelli (Murphy Brown, Dances with Wolves).

PRIME SUSPECT (1991-1996, 2003-2006)

Prime Suspect DVD CollectionOne of Time‘s Best Television Shows of All Times, Prime Suspect shouldn’t be missed. Gritty and dark, the show stars Oscar-winner Helen Mirren (The Queen, Gosford Park) as Jane Tennison, perhaps her most memorable character. Tennison battles to make her way in the man’s world of Scotland Yard, but moving up the ranks takes its toll. Tennison has her struggles, especially with alcohol and maintaining personal relationships, but stays hot on the trail of the killers.

Over the seasons, many notable British actors appear, including Oscar Award-winners Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton, Batman Begins) and Peter Capaldi (Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, In the Loop), a very young Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, Schindler’s List, The English Patient), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films, Kingdom of Heaven), Ciaran Hinds (Aberforth Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films, Munich) and James Fain (The Tudors, 24).

Multiple Prime Suspect seasons brought in Emmys, BAFTAs and Edgars. There is a current U.S. show bearing the name of Prime Suspect, but aside from the title of the show and the first name Jane for the primary character who is a cop, the U.S. show owes little or nothing to the original.


The Singing DetectiveRanking 20th on the British Film Institute‘s list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes, The Singing Detective stars Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the last six Harry Potter films, Gosford Park) as Phillip Marlow, a mystery writer who is languishes in the hospital with a debilitating disease. In his fevered state, he melds the worlds of the hospital, his hard-boiled detective novels, and his childhood in war-time England into an occasionally all-singing, all-dancing whole. Staff from the hospital end up playing multiple roles in Marlow’s head.

Other actors in the series include Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films, Vera Drake), Patrick Malahide (Game of Thrones, The Long Kiss Goodnight) and Jim Carter (Downton Abbey, Shakespeare in Love).

BAFTA wins include Michael Gambon’s award for Best Actor. The American 2003 movie version starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Mel Gibson pales in comparison to the original.

All three of these classics are available through Amazon and on Netflix.

Got a favorite British TV show? Tell us in the comments. 


7 responses to “Best of British Crime TV: Cracker, Prime Suspect, The Singing Detective”

  1. HeatherFL Avatar

    I love a good British film. Thank you for these recommendations.

  2. ruth pennebaker Avatar

    MI5 — a/k/a Spooks in the UK. My husband and I became ridiculously obsessed devotees of its nine seasons. Not for the fainthearted or weak-stomached.

  3. MyKidsEatSquid Avatar

    Just one? Right now my kids are hooked on Dr. Who. But we also LOVE Merlin–have you seen it?
    I second Mi5 too. Luther is in the same vein. And Sherlock. No way the America version (coming this Fall, I guess, can top the UK version)

  4. Jane Boursaw Avatar

    Haven’t seen Cracker or Singing Detective (had no idea the RDJ American version was based on a Brit show), but Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect is amazing. Will check out the others. 
    Another writer-friend LOVES MI5, so I’ll be looking for that one, too. Thanks for the rec, Squid and Ruth. 
    Squid – I’ve got some serious reservations about the new Americanized Sherlock this fall. Lucy Liu as Watson? That’s just not right. The Brit version is so brilliant, nothing can top it. 
    Have heard good things about Merlin and only watched a few eps. My daughter’s hooked on Dr. Who right now – but only the later ones with the younger Dr. Who. 🙂

  5. Living Large Avatar

    I can remember when British television shows and movies were considered sub-par, but now they’re some fo the best.

  6. Internet TV Software Avatar

    I haven’t seen any of these TV shows before until I checked them out on Youtube. Thanks for bringing them to my attention. BTW, two of the videos posted are no longer avialable.

  7. yuna Avatar

    I love British television shows and movies

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