Lynda La Plante is holding court on the Eigrid stage at the Hay Festival, Kells. She’s relating how the final series of Prime Suspect took so many liberties with the character of her hero Jane Tennison, to the point where she refused to participate in the project.”What about Helen Mirren?” interviewer Myles Dungan asks. “How did she respond?”
With a look as eloquent as a snort, La Plante replies, “Well, she’s a Dame, you know!”
There is nothing of the dame about Lynda La Plante, and thank goodness. She’s earthy, honest, and irreverent. If the Hay Festival is an intoxicating drink, she’s the salt around the rim.
The BAFTA- and Edgar-winner is a former actress, screen-writer, novelist, and producer. Her credits go far beyond Prime Suspect and include TV series such as Widows, The Governor, Trial and Retribution, and many others. She has also published more than twenty novels, which have brought her even further acclaim.
In person, she looks a bit like an older, more knowing Nerys Hughes. She commands the stage like the former actress she is, telling anecdotes, sending up herself and just about everyone she’s ever met, and salting it all with a few expletives and good common sense. You could almost hear the audience planning what they were going to tell their friends and neighbours afterwards: “Oh, it’s a shame you missed it. She was fabulous!”
She begins by talking about doing a scene with Jill Gascoigne in which her character was called ‘Juanita’. Pointing out the idiocy of giving such a name to a fairly well-heeled English suburbanite to the writer was met with a blank stare. Fits of giggles interrupted the filming but it led to La Plante declaring, “I could write better than that.”
As it happens, she could.
She began writing treatments (brief outlines of a story to later be turned into scripts) and started to submit them. She didn’t want producers to know it was the actress they’d worked with who was behind these ideas, so she used her ex-husband’s name. La Plante. It is, she says, the only good thing he ever gave her.
Producer Verity Lambert decided to give her a try and told her to write the script for the series that became Widows.
If there’s one trait all actors have in common, it’s that they never say ‘I can’t.’ Can you juggle? Yes. Ice skate? Certainly. Eat fire? Of course! This ‘can do’ attitude spills over from La Plante’s acting background into her writing. Throughout the course of the interview, she says many times how she often accepted a commission without any idea of how to make it work.
With the commission for Widows, for instance, she realised she needed exposure to London’s underworld. Enter Mickey, the prop man she knew from TV who had an air of knowing such people. “What sort of villains do you want?” he said, when she asked for his help. “Do you want a murderer?”
She met Mickey later in the Thomas a Becket pub, a place frequented by the likes of the Kray twins. Over a drink, Mickey asked her if she remembered a certain gristly murder. She did. So he introduced her to the killer.
From this start, La Plante was able to meet other people on the outskirts of society. Her research is up close and personal. She refuses to hire others to do the work for her (her only concession is to have a typist: ‘I can’t spell’.) She needs to “See, meet, touch… almost.” That ‘almost’ comes as an afterthought. One senses La Plante is highly tactile, and it’s easy to picture her squeezing the shoulder of a distressed police officer, or tracing the scars on the hands of a killer. It’s also evident that she has great compassion for all people: the victims and their families, the thieves and murderers, and the police officers who try to serve the cause of justice.
Asked how she researched the character of Jane Tennyson, La Plante says, matter-of-factly, that she called the Met (Metropolitan Police Force) and talked to someone in the employment branch. She asked how many women they had working in high ranking positions. Three, she was told. Could she meet with one of them?
Enter Jackie Malton.
A tough, no-nonsense police officer, Malton went to La Plante’s house to answer some questions, and thus began a collaboration that lasted decades. Malton opened doors that allowed La Plante to see the inner workings of the Met. She arranged for La Plante to attend an autopsy (“You don’t expect the sounds. And, oh! the smell!” And Malton ruthlessly cut whole swathes of the script that felt inauthentic. “Jackie taught me to be direct,” La Plante says.
La Plante is at pains to point out that Tennyson isn’t exclusively Malton. There are others on whom she is based. A character can’t be based on just one person, she says. They must be a composite.
Thanks to her intensive research and refusal to take liberties with the facts, La Plante is the only lay person to be made a fellow of the Forensic Science Society. “I respect them and they respect me back,” she says. She encourages writers to talk to the experts, to get it right, never compromise with the truth.
Asked if there is any similarity between creating a character as an actress and as a writer, La Plante launches into a hilarious and physical description of her process. She acts out every part she writes, does the voices, the mannerisms. She explains all this while contorting her face and her body into different persona.
While her acting career was good-not-great (her RADA teachers told her with her face she’d never get work until she was forty. Ouch!) she has unquestionably found her true calling as a writer.
“Once I saw my first show produced and on screen, I never wanted to act again,” she says.
Who needs to be a Dame?
The Hay Festival continues in Kells through the 28th June.