Best British Female Centric Detective Shows: Gritty, Independent, Surprisingly Strong

Updated on July 22, 2017
Ilonagarden profile image

I admit to watching a good deal of television. Mysteries are one of my favorite genres followed by sweeping epic and historical melodramas.

Great TV

What do these women have in common?
What do these women have in common?

If you love crime TV genre, especially British shows, you know there are plenty of dedicated, strong women characters who make up part of the crime solving teams. But for those who want to see women take the helm, here is a short list of some of the best ones to watch.

Some I have discovered on Netflix, some on PBS, and others through Amazon, but in my present addiction to British style detective series I have found the women characters to be some of the most fascinating.

There is a wide range of subject matter, and the range is from gritty to humorous, but the entertainment value is always top notch.

Interview Discussing Vera's Persona and Looking At Female Leads


Stars: Brenda Blethyn, Jon Morrison, David Leon, Riley Jones

Not your usual heroine, DCI Vera Stanhope is a middle aged, rather disheveled career policewoman. She is something like your mum, and plays that maternal side to get to the bottom of even the most difficult cases.

It doesn't hurt at all that DS Joe Ashworth, her sergeant, is so dishy.

The show has gained an international audience, which is testimony to the staying power of a heroine who is mature, matronly, and no-nonsense holding the top billing of the competitive TV Crime drama genre.

You've got to love the British for giving us so many great women crime solvers of quite ordinary looks, and extraordinary brains.

"Vera" Trailer

Prime Suspect

Stars: Helen Mirren, John Benfield, Tom Bell, Jack Ellis

Helen Mirren, of course, brings sex appeal and glamour to any role she plays, but this one has an edginess and grittiness that gives us the flawed hero realism of our favorite crime shows.

Fighting her way up the ladder in a predominately male dominated time and career has left its marks, but her intelligence and focus gives this character a believable persona.

Helen Mirren as Detective Superintendant Jane Tennison is believable. You know she has paid her dues and has the ability to win her place in the macho world of crime and detectives.

I think Prime Suspect is one of my all time top picks for great TV, especially in this genre.

Helen Mirren

Good News for Prime Suspect Fans

For those of us who became fans of the gritty portrayal of Jane Tennison, a new Masterpiece Theater series is starting in the summer of 2017!

The back story of how the Mirren character became the strong leader is played out in Prime Suspect - Tennison, with Stefanie Martini playing the title role.

After viewing the first season I can say that it will be interesting to those who are already fans of Tennison, but strides needs to be taken before it catches up to the original story. While doing a great job in reenacting the time period, the characters, including Jane's, fail to connect with either each other or the viewer.

The New Jane Tennison, Her Early Years


Stars: David Tennant, Olivia Colman, Jodie Whittaker, Andrew Buchan

You might be drawn, as I was at first, to watching a show with your favorite Dr. Who in the starring role, but this is a dark show with the focus on the development of Detective Sgt. Ellie Miller. At first passed over in what might have been her investigation, she grows into the driving force in finding the perpetrator of a child's murder.

Not just the impact on the family, but upon an entire community is dramatically portrayed with spot-on acting and filming. The transformation of individuals, families, and town is sometimes grueling and gruesome, and sometimes redemptive and strong. It makes for a compelling story with many threads and entanglements.

This remote Dorset resort town may not have provided much opportunity for crimework, but Miller evolves as a person and as a detective within her tight knit community. The interaction between her and Detective Inspector Alec Hardy grows into a balanced respect and admiration, but not without its turns and pitfalls, all the while trying to find the truth about a most perplexing murder.

With two seasons of Broadchurch, one wishes for more Sgt. Ellie Miller and D.I. Alec Hardy crime solving exploits.

Who Done It?

Stella Gibson

The main character in the a British crime drama television series The Fall
The main character in the a British crime drama television series The Fall | Source

The Fall

Stars: Gillian Anderson, Jamie Dornan, Bronagh Waugh, John Lynch

Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson is a long way from Dana Scully. Tough and brittle in manner, she is drawn in clearly feminist terms. In fact, the show was named "The Most Feminist Show on Television" by Amy Sullivan of Time magazine.

With a truly creepy criminal, a set of missed cues allows him to murder and live his double life. All the while the police are trying to get their act together.

Eventually Gibson gets her investigation team and plan together to close in.

Fraught with tension of harrowing scenes and missed opportunities, eventually Stella gets her man. She is not the most likable, but she is definitely effective.

Be forewarned that there is plenty of "language" and sex in this show.

The Fall

The Bletchley Circle

Stars: Rachael Stirling, Julie Graham, Sophie Rundle, Anna Maxwell Martin

Women of different temperaments who proved to be a formidable team of decoders, later are reunited in an amateur group who use their skills in detective work.

The backstory of their feelings of meaning and usefulness while working in the war effort, and their search for its replacement in their post war lives gives an added layer of plot to their efforts to catch a killer.

The story hinges strongly on the personalities and interactions of women who find strength in themselves and in each other. The struggles of women who have tasted meaningful work and are then expected to sublimate their talents and dreams into the lives of men.

More a celebration of the individual women than the blatant feminist moralism that it might sound like, interest ranges from their codebreaking days to the good detective story at its heart.

I liked the period feeling that is carried throughout with costume, manner, and the general color palette.Surprising how using certain color, and filming technique instantly transports us into a time period.

The Enigma Machines

Cipher machines of WWII created code which the four women of Bletchley Park would work to break. Later, they reunite to  decipher murders by a serial killer.
Cipher machines of WWII created code which the four women of Bletchley Park would work to break. Later, they reunite to decipher murders by a serial killer. | Source

Murder in Suburbia

Stars: Caroline Catz, Lisa Faulkner, Jeremy Sheffield, Glen Davies

I always like actress Caroline Catz, who plays one of the leads, Inspector Kate Ashurst. In this one she plays the posh side of a customary formula of police partners from contrasting class backgrounds. Her partner Scribbins is working-class and saucy.

Interesting and fast moving, the criticism I would give this series is the lead actresses are a bit too frivolous and light hearted while going about their crime solving duties. It gives a feeling of smugness to the show.

But this is one of those detective series that doesn't take itself very seriously, the very opposite of one like Prime Suspect. I'd compare it to Midsomer Murders, but more modern and urban. Lots of humor and a sense of fun are the earmarks of this set of mysteries.

Happy It's Not

Happy Valley

Stars: Sarah Lancashire, Siobhan Finneran, Shane Zaza, Charlie Murphy

Happy Valley is anything but, of course. This gritty police drama centers around policewoman Catherine Cawood as she seeks justice for her daughter, tries to pull her family together and struggles as a grandmother who must now raise her grandson.

Tough, and sometimes misunderstood, she garners respect and bulldogs it through some harrowing experiences.

All the characters grab the imagination and attention of the viewer, Even Cawoods sister, who is sometimes on and sometimes off her latest rehab is a fully fleshed out profile of a woman with both strengths and weaknesses.

The streets of the town which has seen better days, the inside workings of those whose job is to keep those streets safe, and the heartache of a strong woman who sometimes finds "keeping it together" a challenge gives this series its hook.

I give this show top rating for those who love crime shows.

A Recent Miss Marple

More straightforward and confident in manner, Geraldine McEwan stars in the series on Acorn TV.
More straightforward and confident in manner, Geraldine McEwan stars in the series on Acorn TV.

Agatha Christie's Marple

Stars: Geraldine McEwan, Julia McKenzie, Stephen Churchett, Greg Bennett

In this incarnation of the Marple Character, Geraldine McEwan plays a very chatty, spry Miss Marple. She is elderly, but with quite a bit of energy and lively curiosity. Agatha Christie was such a marvelous crafter of story that even though we know how the plot turns out, the power of the story and the beloved protagonists ensure great programs. We want to see the interplay of the characters and the display of human psychology.

It is fun to see what different actresses have done with the stories, whether the more frail Hickson or this redoubtable rendition of why it is never a good idea to underestimate old ladies!

If you are not familiar with the Agatha Christie stories or if you have not yet seen any of the televised series, it is time to become acquainted with them, starting with this series.

Miss Marple

Joan Hickson also plays Miss Marple in  Agatha Christies classic mystery stories.
Joan Hickson also plays Miss Marple in Agatha Christies classic mystery stories.

Geraldine McEwan's Miss Marple

How Do You Like Your British Detectives?

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How about those Aussies?

Too good to leave out, Miss Fisher Mysteries takes her place among the British shows. An Australian drama television series worth watching, with many similarities to British TV: great character development, intriguing plots, and attention to period style.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries

Stars: Essie Davis, Nathan Page, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Ashleigh Cummings

From the Roaring Twenties comes a humorous, slightly risqué, leading lady. Miss Phryne Fisher hails from Australia; she isn't British, per se, but close enough.

Maybe that explains her crossover from humble beginnings to lady of wealth and leisure who has plenty of time to investigate all these mysteries while dressed to the nines!

Phryne has her own private detective career, and exemplifies the free wheeling "modern girl", without the American speakeasies or mobsters that we often equate with those times. That makes her character represent today's women, but allows her to retain some sense of unspoiled playfulness. Which is a part of the fiction, perhaps.

These are light, breezy episodes for the most part, although they occasionally touch on serious social issues. There is a certain amount of sexual tension between Fisher and her main contact in the police department, DI Jack Robinson. He is obviously smitten with her.

Any sex in the show is alluded to, not portrayed.

Miss Fisher is a new take on TV's rendition of female detectives, although those who love mystery fiction recognize these as grownup Nancy Drew stories, I think. Always a fun adventure in sleuthing with a bit of danger thrown in.

Watch on Netflix
Watch on Netflix


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    • Ilonagarden profile image

      Ilona E 11 months ago from Ohio

      Alicia McKay, Thanks for your comment. I realize that, but watched it with along with similar British movies. It is hard to find a large number of movies of this genre to list under an entirely Australian category- but didn't want to leave her out!

      It is so interesting to hear about the books incorporating Aussie history. I was only familiar with the stories through the TV series. Now I want to read the books :)

    • profile image

      alicia mcKay 11 months ago

      I love Phryne Fisher too, and the atmospheric setting of 1928. But she is Australian, not British - the series was filmed in and around Melbourne by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. (ABC) In the books, which are a bit different from the TV series, each episode incorporates some historical elements from Australian history. I love both the TV series and the books by Kerry Greenwood.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 19 months ago from Queensland Australia

      I love British Detective dramas, whether the detectives are male or female. Phryne Fisher is my favourite (Essie Davis is amazing.)