Ladies in the Lead: Binge-worthy British Detective Dramas Part 2

Ladies in the Lead Detective Drama

As Women’s Month 2020 comes to a close, I thought I would pay tribute to eight female-led British detective dramas. These series all feature a woman as the lead detective or investigator, sometimes even a team of capable women. Many are based on novels while some are original TV creations and all cover a diverse range of genres from gritty thrillers, period dramas, and even some dark comedy.

I’ve watched and enjoyed all of these shows and hope that some may bring comfort and inspiration during this extended quarantine.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (BBC 1/HBO)

Starring Jill Scott as Mma Precious Ramotswe, Anika Noni Rose as Mma Grace Makutsi, 7 episodes

No. 1 Ladies Detective AgencyBased on The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel series by Alexander McCall Smith, this television adaptation features the incomparable Mma. Precious Ramotswe, a clever and resourceful lady who sets up the first private detective agency in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. She is aided by her colleague, Mma. Grace Makutsi, proud graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College and with the unbeaten grade of 97%. Together, they help solve the various cases brought to them by the citizens of Botswana, from theft to marital infidelity to missing cattle. No case is too big or too small.

The series is as delightful as the novels and it’s a pity that there are only seven episodes. The stories are relatively light and the crimes nowhere near as gruesome as other detective shows but the beauty of the series lies in Mma. Ramotswe’s charm and humanity. She is a keen observer of human nature and her reflections on life make for very substantial viewing. If you enjoy the TV series, I highly recommend reading the books – all twenty of them! You will not regret it.

Agatha Raisin (Sky 1)

Agatha RaisinStarring Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin, 16 episodes

Based on the Agatha Raisin novel series by M.C. Beaton, this television adaptation features Agatha Raisin, a former public relations professional, who gives up her glamorous life in London for a quieter existence in the Cotswolds. But no quaint English village is without its murders and she soon finds herself involved in crimes. Using her city-girl street smarts and her keen eye for detail, she becomes a capable private investigator who often aids the local police force in their inquiries, whether they like it or not.

WPC 56 (BBC 1)

WPC 56WPC 56Starring Jennie Jacques as WPC Gina Dawson, Claudia Jessie as WPC Annie Taylor, 15 episodes

This period drama chronicles the adventures of the first two female police constables in the Brinford Constabulary in 1956. WPC Gina Dawson, and then later WPC Annie Taylor, are both capable police women who have to constantly work harder to prove themselves in a male-dominated (and misogynistic) department. Not only do they encounter challenges within the department but also with the sexist attitudes of society in the 1950s. But they both still succeed in solving cases.

The Bletchley Circle (ITV)

Starring Anna Maxwell Martin as Susan Gray, Rachael Stirling as Camilla Harcourt, Sophie Rundle as Lucy, Julie Graham as Jean McBrian, Hattie Morahan as Alice Merren

7 episodes

The Bletchley CircleThe series follows the lives of four women who worked as code-breakers at Bletchley Park during World War II. They would decipher German military codes to help the British troops. The show picks up in 1952, where all four women live unfulfilled lives, yearning for the time when they could put their skills and intelligence to good use. An opportunity arises when a series of murders occurs and one of the women notices a pattern. They form a team and start solving complex cases, all the while hiding their activities from their families because they signed orders of secrecy about their work during the war.

The premise is intriguing and the characters are all dynamic and interesting. It’s another exploration of the limitations women faced in the 1950s and how, despite these, they were still able to prove their mettle.

No Offence (Channel 4)

Starring Joanna Scanlan as DI Vivienne Deering, Elaine Cassidy as DS Dinah Kowalska, Alexandra Roach as DS Joy Freers, 21 episodes

No OffenceThis series is set in the fictional “Manchester Metropolitan Police” department and stars a formidable trio of policewomen, the dynamic and assertive DI Vivienne Deering, DS Dinah Kowalska, and DS Joy Freers. Deering is the real star of the show, a tough, no-nonsense leader who effectively ensures that her team is able to solve various heinous crimes.

What’s also great about the series is that it features many more female detectives and other detectives of color as well. The crimes can get grisly and the characters can be blunt but it’s always an engaging show to watch.

Happy Valley (BBC 1)

Starring Sarah Lancashire as Sgt Catherine Cawood, 12 episodes

Happy ValleyWritten by Sally Wainwright, better known for another detective series Scott & Bailey and her drama Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley is set in Northern England and follows the struggles of police sergeant Catherine Cawood. The series is less about different criminal cases but more about the tragedy surrounding Cawood’s own family because of a heinous crime. But the two seasons do feature grisly crimes that Cawood gets involved in while dealing with her own personal demons. Sarah Lancashire gives a powerful performance and one always roots for her despite all she has to endure in this series.

In the Dark (BBC 1)

In the DarkStarring MyAnna Buring as DI Helen Weeks, 4 episodes

The short series is an adaptation of two Mark Billingham novels, Time of Death and In the Dark, both featuring DI Helen Weeks. It’s one of the rare non-period drama/fantasy series for MyAnna Buring who is more well-known for her roles in The Witcher, Ripper Street, and Downton Abbey. What makes this series stand out is that the detective manages to solve two complex cases while being heavily pregnant. So this is the perfect argument against women not being able to do their jobs well when pregnant. Women can clearly get things done no matter what.

Vera (ITV)

VeraStarring Brenda Blethyn as DCI Vera Stanhope, 40 episodes

This series is based on the novels by Anne Cleeves featuring DCI Vera Stanhope, a formidable detective who is almost retired but still as sharp as ever. Her signature look is a floppy fishing hat and a shapeless green mac and she has an irritable and straightforward personality but she genuinely cares about her colleagues, shows compassion for victims, and takes no crap from criminals.

It’s refreshing to see a woman in the typical aged-veteran-haunted-by-demons role that usually goes to men. But despite her dark past, Vera still retains a sense of humor and a warm personality. She genuinely cares about her colleagues, shows compassion for victims, and goes hard on criminals. She may be advanced in age but she’s still even better than her younger colleagues and is always able to crack the tough cases.