REVEALED: The hard-as-nails cop behind Prime Suspect

One day in early 1990, I arrived at a stunning home in South-West London to be greeted by a striking, petite woman with a fabulous smile and a cascade of red curly hair, an Irish wolfhound by her side.

‘I’m Lynda,’ she said. ‘Do you like dogs?’

This first meeting with crime author and screenwriter Lynda La Plante came during my first year as a Detective Chief Inspector in the Metropolitan Police – and it changed my life.

Lynda’s interest in senior female police officers had been piqued while watching the BBC’s Crimewatch UK. The officers talking about murder cases were, she noticed, invariably men.

She made enquiries at New Scotland Yard and learned that there were only three female DCIs in the entire Met. I was one of them.

At the house, Lynda led me into a large, comfortable sitting room where she handed me a giant glass of wine – and a script with the words Prime Suspect typed across the front page.

As soon as I started reading, I was hooked. But I knew the script could be even more realistic. I did most of the talking over dinner that night as I filled Lynda in on my experiences as a female detective.

She was visibly shocked as I told her that female police officers were routinely classified as either a ‘bike’ or a ‘dyke’, and that my nickname on the Flying Squad was ‘The Tart’.

I recounted in detail what female officers had to put up with to survive in the job – including a humiliating initiation by male colleagues.

It was Lynda’s surprise that made me realise that the behaviour I had come to accept as normal was not every woman’s experience at work.

Over the ensuing months, I relayed everything I thought might be relevant to her TV project: the dynamics of a male-dominated policing culture ridden with bravado and male camaraderie; my experience of feeling like an outsider; my efforts to blend in.

I explained I’d always worn expensive skirt suits for work – never trousers – and a smart ‘detective’ coat to look the part even if I didn’t always feel it. All too often, witnesses or suspects would presume a junior (male) colleague was in charge.

‘I don’t like being called “Ma’am”,’ I told Lynda. ‘I find it archaic and a bit stiff. I always tell my junior colleagues, “Call me Boss or Guv, but don’t call me Ma’am. I’m not the bloody Queen.” It usually makes them laugh.’

What I didn’t realise is that Lynda was studying me and my tics – my tendency to smoke Silk Cuts intensely, my unconscious habit of running my hand through my short hair.

Over time, Lynda fleshed out DCI Jane Tennison into a fully formed and credible character.

Watching Lynda’s drama unfold on screen, shortly before it was broadcast in 1991, I chuckled as the redoubtable Helen Mirren channelled my quips.

‘Listen,’ Tennison tells a detective constable. ‘I like to be called Guvnor or The Boss. I don’t like Ma’am – I’m not the bloody Queen – so take your pick…’

My delight at La Plante’s brilliance was tempered by nerves. A male actor had shown the script to his police friends, who had declared it ‘b******s’. 

The fact that a bunch of men were trying to discount my experiences spoke volumes: this was deja vu.

I was a DCI with 20 years of policing experience under my belt, 11 of them spent in the Met. The attempt to drown out my voice reflected my daily reality, where there was no room for a female perspective.

It certainly unnerved Prime Suspect’s producer, Don Leaver, who began to worry that they might have a turkey on their hands.

‘Imagine my surprise that male officers don’t agree with this,’ I said to him.

‘It’s kind of my point. They haven’t got a clue what it’s like to be a woman on the job.’

I returned Leaver’s gaze for what felt like the longest time. 

Finally, he spoke. ‘OK, Jackie. I trust your experience. We will go with that.’

Jackie Malton in a police car, 1972

Women police officers had been virtually invisible in the TV shows I’d grown up watching in the 1960s. Yet Dixon Of Dock Green and No Hiding Place had done little to deter my 18-year-old self from my chosen career.

It was the autumn of 1969 when I set out to join Leicestershire Police cadets, although my cup of enthusiasm ran dry when I realised that female cadets – and only female cadets – were expected to stick the kettle on.

One fateful day, I was asked to make a round of drinks for senior officers in a meeting led by Deputy Chief Constable Eric Lacey. He stirred the sugar in his tea, took a sip then promptly spat it out. 

‘You’ve given us salt instead of sugar,’ he roared, his face as red as a traffic light.

My reaction was to laugh and put my hand on his shoulder. ‘I’m so sorry, sir,’ I said. ‘It wasn’t intentional – but if my mum knew being a cadet was about making the tea, she wouldn’t be very happy.’

Thankfully, it made him smile. But it wasn’t much better once I joined the force itself. A female officer’s role was to support the work of the male officers who worked over the road. WPCs (as we were referred to back then) dealt with issues relating mainly to women: missing children, child neglect and abuse cases, and domestic disputes.

At Leicestershire Police, male officers called us ‘Peewees’. Derogatory terms such as ‘Office Doris’ and ‘Plonk’ (Person with Little or No Knowledge) were used in other police forces. But I wasn’t deterred: at 22, I became the youngest policewoman ever to be promoted from the beat to sergeant in the Leicester and Rutland Constabulary. After two years, I applied to the CID.

In the 1970s, the CID had its own way of welcoming a woman detective to its ranks – an initiation ceremony called ‘station stamping’ that was neither pleasant, nor remotely welcoming.

Mine happened as I was booking off duty in the admin office at 11 o’clock at night. Two officers grabbed me by 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. 

There was little point fighting them off. I knew it was going to happen, however much I resisted.

It was utterly humiliating, just as I suspected this ritual – meted out only to women – was meant to be.

But I focused on the privilege of being a detective. My arrest rates were good – but there seemed to be resistance to me as a female of more senior rank.

This was confirmed during a meeting with Chief Superintendent Michael Hirst to discuss my future. I’d passed my inspector’s exam in 1977, and had been wondering whether there was more scope to advance my career in a bigger organisation, such as London’s Metropolitan Police.

His response was far from encouraging. ‘If I were you, Jackie, I would go. They don’t know what to do with you [here].’

Crestfallen, I asked him what he meant. ‘The men aren’t used to reporting to a woman, and it makes them feel uncomfortable,’ the Chief Super said. ‘I know it’s not fair, but it’s the way it is.’

My face was burning with hurt, disappointment and bewilderment. But it gave me the kick I needed.

I’d been in the Met 18 months when I joined the CID. I was later assigned to Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad, the mobile unit of elite officers who focus on violent crime and robberies. It was my dream job. I’d been an avid viewer of The Sweeney, starring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman.

The fictional squad dripped with machismo – and the reality wasn’t too different. I was greeted on my first day by Detective Inspector Stan Finch, a handsome man with a snappy dress sense: smart suit, coloured shirt with a white collar, and black patent shoes.

He arranged for me to meet my new partner at the Prince of Orange pub across the road from the station at 12 noon.

At about 12.15pm, in walked a strapping man of about 6ft 3in, slightly hunched with a John Wayne pose, a bent nose and a sullen look on his face. He gave the appearance of someone looking for a fight. It turned out that he was.

DI Finch introduced us. ‘Phil, this is Jackie. She’s your new partner in the car.’

I smiled at Phil and held out my hand to shake his.

‘Why don’t you f*** off, you c***,’ he snapped at DI Finch. ‘I’m not working with a woman.’

My disgruntled new partner turned his back on me and walked out.

Despite Phil, I loved every minute on the Flying Squad. It was exhilarating, dangerous and adrenalin-pumping, a dog-eat-dog kind of world.

On my first trip in a squad car, we got a call to race to the scene of a robbery in Tooting. With the ‘blues and twos’ on, we sped the wrong way up one-way streets and mounted the pavement. The fish and chips I had been eating were thrown everywhere.

I soon learned that the guys on the wider team weren’t too keen on a woman detective either. Being able to depend on a colleague if you got in a tight spot on an operation was essential – and a matter of trust.

But it wasn’t just that. As one colleague explained: ‘If we’re on a job, I worry that having you with us is going to be distracting because we’ll be worried about you getting hurt.’

I’d always strived to be seen as ‘one of the boys’, but it took a while for the message that I could handle myself to get through.

I joined in with post-work drinks down the pub. I avoided doing anything they might see as ‘different’. Yet I had the dual sins of being both female and gay.

Still, part of me didn’t expect the men to tackle me quite as hard on the Astroturf as the only female in the five-a-side football team.

Everyone got ribbed about something. But Phil’s jibes towards me, in particular, were personal.

‘You’re not gay, Tart,’ he’d say. ‘You just haven’t met the right man and had a proper ******* yet.’

To complain was out of the question.

Phil also seemed invested in trying to wrongfoot me.

During my first week, he asked me to be at the office at 6am to do a reconnaissance of an address for a known robber. Phil arrived three hours later, at 9am – the usual start time. I was furious. 

‘I changed my mind,’ Phil said. ‘We’ll do it on Friday.’ On Friday, he was a no-show.

Even though we were the same rank, Phil would make sure I wasn’t allowed to sit in the front passenger seat.

‘Remember who you are, Tart,’ he’d say.

67e485fb5ff4 prime suspect cropped

The cast of Prime Suspect Series 7 on ITV1.

Drink was a notable feature of life in the Flying Squad: you knocked it back after a bad result, and after a good one. 

As a woman – and a lesbian – I’d receive gifts of sex toys from members of the squad at our occasional boozy lunches. Over the years, I received so many I could have opened my own sex shop.

I had no choice but to be a sport and conceal my humiliation. After all, what could I say? To remonstrate at this male pack mentality would invite suggestions that I couldn’t take a joke.

A regular party trick by one officer was seeing how many 10p pieces he could place in his foreskin. The magic figure turned out to be £3.20. Obviously, I had to laugh as loudly as anyone else.

However, things came to a head with Phil after six months. My former DCI had asked me to come to a meeting to discuss some details about a previous case I’d worked on.

But 20 minutes in, the door to the DCI’s office had burst open. There stood Phil, looking enraged.

‘Come on, you’ve been long enough,’ he barked, before thundering back to the car. He didn’t speak to me for the rest of the day.

By now, I’d had enough of his erratic and volatile behaviour, which left me walking on eggshells. I felt like an abused wife.

I wouldn’t put up with it any longer and I was given another partner.

However, my experience with Phil wasn’t a complete waste of time. Many years later, courtesy of Lynda La Plante, he would be the inspiration for the odious Prime Suspect character Detective Sergeant Otley, played by the late Tom Bell. 

After the first episode was broadcast in 1991, my phone rang off the hook from my Flying Squad pals, who all knew exactly who Sergeant Otley was.

In 1984, I was promoted to Detective Inspector, and posted to West End Central on Savile Row, one of the Met’s most iconic stations.

The senior officer, Ted Stowe, summoned me to see him for his version of the ‘welcome to the  team’ talk.

‘You’re the first split-a*** DI we’ve had here,’ he said. ‘Welcome to the premier division of the Met.’

When Valentine’s Day came around, I decided to get my own back. I found the most obnoxious card possible and sent it to his private office. He displayed it proudly on his desk, causing quite a stir. It took three months for the penny to drop.

Called to his office, I told him: ‘If it took you this long to detect who sent it, then no wonder you were never a detective… sir.’

‘Get out!’ he boomed, with a  wry smile.

At West End Central, I learned that doing my job properly could leave me feeling more isolated than ever before.

My decision to report an allegation, by a female acting sergeant, that there had been a lot of people arrested on drugs charges who claimed the drugs had been planted on them by police officers, reverberated on me personally. But I was just doing my job, upholding the law and following procedure.

Not long after, as I walked into the station canteen, all heads turned towards me – and a group of officers stood up and walked out.

Some colleagues gave me a wide berth, some with discomfort, others with a look of ‘she’s not to be trusted’ in their eyes.

I felt as though I was being watched closely, with people waiting for me to trip up.

I was home alone when, at about midnight, I heard my letterbox rattle. On the mat was a porn magazine. I felt sick.

The following week, another late rattle of the letterbox, another dirty magazine. I wanted to blot everything out.

As the pressure took its toll, my drinking escalated. Nursing a drink took the edge off my troubles temporarily, and sometimes I’d arrive at Waterloo Station, for my train home to Claygate in Surrey, worse for wear.

I remember it well; focusing on the departure board with blurred vision, swaying and feeling like a spinning top.

Alcohol became an emotional prop. Over time, when I picked up a bottle of gin, it wasn’t a pub measure any more, but the equivalent of half a glass topped up with tonic.

The days I didn’t drink, I felt good; the days I succumbed, I felt ashamed. I no longer felt in control of alcohol and no one at work had a clue I was struggling personally.

In fact, I was using my rank – by now, I was a DCI – to improve our response to domestic violence incidents and rape cases. The police were slow to understand the many ways in which women could be victims at the hands of men, and knew nothing back then about coercive control, gaslighting or harassment. I wanted to change that, and to raise the profile of domestic violence to that of a serious crime.

But by 1992, I knew I was in trouble. For as long as possible I had clung on to my identity as a strong, capable woman who could cope with anything, but it was proving increasingly hard to do.

I feared losing my job. I feared causing an accident. I feared ending up on a park bench, or losing my friends. Yet I’d wake up each day and repeat the drinking, somehow expecting a different result.

Then I went to AA. It placed my life on a new axis. It’s been 29 years since then, a long time to live a decent life, one day at a time.

Last autumn, I arrived home to hear my trusted jackapoo dog barking hysterically. I’d been burgled. The following day, two young officers came round to make a report.

Looking at the woman in uniform sitting alongside her male colleague made me reminisce about my own policing years.

I am glad that I voiced some of the challenges of being a woman in the Met to Lynda La Plante. I’d felt guilty, conflicted by my loyalties to the job.

But what reassured me was hearing from younger women that they’d seen DCI Jane Tennison as a positive role model to aspire to. By the time I left the Met in 1997, any residual niggling doubts were long gone. Women police officers needed a voice, and they still do.

By March 2021, women made up 32.4 per cent of police officers across 43 forces in England and Wales. But there is work still to do.

I sincerely hope the young female police officer who came round to my house that autumn day last year will have every opportunity to thrive in her career without needing to make unacceptable sacrifices – and without the loneliness I endured as I climbed the ranks.

 © Jackie Malton, 2022

• The Real Prime Suspect, by Jackie Malton with Helene Mulholland, is published by Endeavour on August 25 at £20. To pre-order a copy for £18, go to or call 020 3176 2937 before August 28. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.

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