Lynda La Plante: True stories from my life of crime
Bestselling crime writer Lynda La Plante talks to Julia Molony about her rookie days mixing with gangsters, her long road to motherhood and the adoption of her son Lorcan
Though slight, there is something of the big cat about Lynda La Plante: her eyes are a clear, crystal blue and her mane of hair is tiger-striped in russet and blonde.
But though her assistant Nigel is all smiles, Lynda’s greeting is a little stiff today. She’s not unfriendly, quite the contrary. But she is wearing a warming pad around her neck and is, she says in substantial pain. An old injury, one she believes is the result of the countless hours she’s spent bent over a keyboard throughout her life, has been playing up lately, and she hasn’t got the prescription for the heavy-duty painkillers yet.
Someone of a more delicate constitution might have called off the interview, but Lynda is a trooper. She leads me through the expansive entrance hall with its grand staircase, into a sitting room, decorated in period style, where a stuffed-antelope's head stares down from above a cavernous stone fireplace. Facing us, two built-in bookcases tell the story of her career - various editions of her novels are on display alongside her three Baftas in pride of place on her wall of awards.
La Plante's long career as the UK's first lady of crime fiction spans four decades. She started writing as a young actress recently out of RADA in a bid to secure meatier, more complex roles for herself. Her first effort - a TV script called Widows - was inspired by a true stories of a group of London women initiated into crime when their husbands are killed during a botched raid. It became a cult hit of the 1980s and an international success, but to date, she's probably still best known as the creator of Prime Suspect, the ITV police procedural drama she invented in 1991 which stars Helen Mirren and has been a smash hit all over the world.
She never, she says today, had any "burning ambition" either to be a writer or an actress. She's always been led by curiosity and a compulsive interest in the imaginary worlds she creates. Yet she admits that she's driven nonetheless, "I think I'm like a little tsunami," she says. "Because you can have one monster hit, but to have two, that is very odd." She must be determined, she says, because "in between the writing of Widows and doing Prime Suspect there were a lot of rejections.
Now, 35 years after Widows first aired, a rather satisfying twist has brought La Plante back to her roots. It has been adapted into a feature film by the Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen, (12 Years A Slave) and La Plante is evidently thrilled about it. He approached her at a function at Buckingham Palace and confessed he'd been "obsessed" with the series as a teenager and was determined to remake it as a film set in modern day Chicago. With the new version of the story, penned by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (the writer of Gone Girl) set to hit screens in November, La Plante has revised and republished the novel of Widows, which she wrote in a flurry after the release of the original TV series.
It's come at a good time, after a turbulent few years professionally speaking. In 2016, she walked off the making of a prequel of Prime Suspect, focusing on a rookie Jane Tennison after irreconcilable differences with ITV.
"It was very depressing and very stressful," she says now. "Because I'd never ever confronted it before. I'd never ever come across such abusive behaviour. Every director I suggested was turned down, every actress was turned down, every actor... everybody was turned down."
She still smarting about the disdain with which she feels she was treated, so the much more satisfying process of working with one of Britain's most feted directors has gone some way to salving her injured pride. "It's a sort of raspberry to the ITV people."
Lynda La Plante, now 75 years of age, spent her early life in Liverpool. Her family weren't in the least bit luvvyish. "I don't think my father had ever been to the theatre" she says. Though they did send her to elocution lessons (she still speaks with the crisp, Noel Coward-esque diction she learned there), and it was her elocution teacher who suggested she take the entrance exams for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. "I'd never heard of RADA before, I told my father and he thought it was a pub. I was only 16, it was very young to get into the royal academy. But my elocution teacher in my school had said 'you better put you're 18, darling. They won't let you in'."
Her family, who preferred watching sport to crime, were, and have remained pretty indifferent to what she was getting up to. "I have nephews who have never read a book," she says. "My mother said to me once, did you really write Prime Suspect? All of it? Well, I've only watched a little bit . . .' No interest in it. My brother used to say, Are you going to write a comedy? I can't watch all this crime."
She bats away the suggestion that their disinterest might have hurt her feelings. She's always been too busy getting on with the next thing to lose sleep over it.
Widows came about after she'd started working as an actress. Since she "was short, from Liverpool and with red hair" she was forever being cast to play prostitutes. "Every cop show you could think of, I was there, she says, adopting a sassy scouse accent: "'Ello there, y'alright!'" It soon became boring. So she wrote up "two pages of a treatment, I didn't know what I was doing. I was actually writing a part for myself," she says. But luck intervened: "Right desk, right time. And it happened to go into Verity Lambert, Euston films. And she was just looking for a female-led project. She was so far ahead of her time."
Lambert told her to develop the idea and said she'd consider commissioning it. So that left La Plante with the problem of how to write about a world of gangsters and police, prostitutes and pimps, that she knew almost nothing about. Her solution was to "go to the source".
"I went to King's Cross and they used to have old railway arches where there were patches for the girls. I went up to a number of, they call them working girls now. I said, 'hello, I'm writing a thriller TV series. They said, 'oh piss off."
"They wouldn't talk to me for ages until I said 'look, I'll pay you for an hour'. And then I'd take them to this greasy spoon cafe and then their stories... they were deeper, more interesting, not as flip as I'd been doing." It was something of a breakthrough. "I knew I had one character. Then I had to find others. I had to go to the police and ask for help."
But what about the criminals? "In every film unit, often around the prop area, is a villain," she says. "I was filming at the time. And he was called Mickey. And I said, 'could you help me? I need to talk to some really bad criminals', and he said, 'alright darlin' who d'you wanna meet? What do you want killers, burglars, lifers?'"
She's retained the trained actor's gift for anecdote, and is off now, warming to her repertoire; Mickey, she says, took her to "these terrible bars," and introduced her to a whole dark world of dodgy characters.
"Pubs, boxing fights, I was everywhere. No bodyguard, nothing. These guys took care of me," she says. "The ones who were low-grade couldn't wait to tell you stories bloating their own criminal world. The top guys were much harder to get into. And much less eager to tell you anything about themselves. And that's when I wrote Harry Rawlins (the arch criminal at the centre of the Widows storyline). Because Harry Rawlins really doesn't appear much in the entire series. But his presence is so dark and so powerful. That's because when I met nightmare criminals, that's how they made me feel."
Research has always been central to her modus operandi as a writer, and her best loved characters are closely based on people she's met.
She shares some history with the Widows lead character Dolly Rawlins, who like her creator experiences infertility and multiple miscarriages. But Lynda brushes off the suggestion that there is anything of herself in the character.
"It wasn't because at that time I was going through that," she says. It was rather that the woman on whom she based the character "had herself lost four babies".
And yet the personal dilemma of her lead character is something she understands only too well.
Lynda's own heartbreak around fertility happened during her 18-year marriage to the American musician Richard La Plante. She had four miscarriages, went through IVF with donor eggs and sperm, and was eventually diagnosed as having gone through an early menopause.
It was a devastating experience. "I would exchange every penny I have earned and every word I have written for a child," she later said. "When I go to my maker and he says to me, 'Do you want it all again or do you want a family?' I would say 'Give me a family'."
She and La Plante split and sometime later, seemingly out of nowhere fate intervened and she became a mother at the age of 57. She'd been on American adoption lists since her marriage, and in 2004 received a call to say there was a baby for her.
She had, by that stage, reconciled herself to life without children, she says today. "I had a Great Dane and a new race horse."
"My heart breaks for people when you read about their infertility and that they've tried everything and you want to say, there is hope. I don't understand how often they give up. There's no giving up really, you'll always ache for it." She smiles at people who, like she did, look to their pets to fill the gap. "The child substitute, people with dogs, cats, Christ knows what, and you know there is no need for it. There are so many children with their arms out calling for you."
She received no small amount of flak over her advanced age when baby Lorcan joined her family in 2004. But attitudes, she says, are "changing slightly, because when you've got big high ranking movie stars dropping babies at 47, you've got to go, well the older mum is being able to carry it… so I think there is not as much stigma now as there used to be."
Lorcan is now a teenager. "I don't think the bringing up of any child is easy… I doubt it very much," she says. He, like the rest of her family, shows little interest in her career as a writer. "He's very into designer clothes," she says. "All teenage boys are into the labels. Sneakers, designer sneakers, it would take your breath away, the prices. He also quite likes physics. He's a photographer, very, very good. He does publicity films of me."
Having a child didn't change her approach to writing. "I've always been very cautious around doing anything with a murdered child, because to me that is a very easy way to write emotion. Everybody knows it breaks your heart. I won't watch them. I've no interest in seeing programmes with a kidnapped child or a murdered child, because it wrenches your heart out. And having interviewed so many people whose children have been murdered or daughters raped, it gives another area that you don't see. It is never ever to me depicted deep enough. Because they can't go that deep, because it's so long. If you've got a four-hour programme you can't go into that. It is so deeply shocking and you see these bewildered pain-racked people. And that is very easy to put on a screen to get a quick response and I don't approve of it. I don't go there. Ever."
She used to split her time between London and the Hamptons, where a recent boyfriend was based. But these days, she says, she's less disposed towards a life split between two continents. "I'm getting a bit tired jetting back and forth," she says. As for the man, when I ask about him she just rolls her eyes and, in a line that could be stolen from the mouth of one of her no-nonsense, unsentimental female characters, she says: "No no, I had to get rid of him."
Widows by Lynda La Plante (Zaffre Publishing) is out now.
Lynda La Plante will be in conversation with Niamh O'Connor at Smock Alley Theatre on Saturday November 3 at 7pm, as part of Murder One, Ireland's International Crime Writing Festival. smockalley.com
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