Queen of crime fiction is a scream
Over lunch and a G&T, best-selling, award-winning author and screenwriter Lynda La Plante is fascinating company, says our reporter: entertaining, observant and warm-hearted
'If you'd said to me a couple of years ago 'did you ever experience any form of discrimination or chauvinism,' I'd have said 'no, not at all.' But when I sat down and thought about it, I remembered things and pieced things together."
Over lunch in the Shelbourne hotel - chicken Caesar salad with chips and a gin and tonic - much-decorated writer and producer (a BAFTA, an Emmy, a CBE, and then some) Lynda La Plante, author of 25 books and seven major TV series, as well as a variety of stand-alone dramas, is discussing the bad old days of the 1970s, when men were men and women were there to be patronised, propositioned, and occasionally patted on the bottom. She is great fun: vivacious, witty, and very engaged; charming, with a direct, almost confrontational kind of charm that I suspect could turn to steel fast if the need arose.
Her latest novel, Tennison, set in London in 1973, is full of this kind of thing: women police officers being sent off for tea and sandwiches, and made the butt of sexist jokes. As much as it is a clever murder case and police procedural, the backdrop of the story is a convincingly drawn atmosphere of casual, relentless, sometimes aggressive, sexism. The book is a prequel to the Jane Tennison of Prime Suspect, immortalised on the small screen by Helen Mirren, showing where that meticulous, steely, ambitious, rather cold woman came from; the events that shaped the withholding of her own private self, and the backdrop that produced her. We meet her, in Tennison, as a sweet, rather naive 22-year-old probationary WPC. By the time we leave her, she is embarked on the path that will lead to the Prime Suspect incarnation.
And writing it brought back memories. "I didn't just write, I cast, brought in the director, and produced," Lynda says, of the remarkable career that brought her from actress - she trained at RADA, along with Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt and Ian McShane, and landed parts with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Z-Cars, The Sweeney, The Professionals, Bergerac and (my personal favourite) Rentaghost, before moving into writing, first with TV series Widows, followed by debut novel The Legacy in 1987 - into the big time, taking charge of the production of her own work. It is an impressive trajectory; as she says herself: "how do you go from being a writer for hire, an actress, and then running your own production company?" More to the point even, why? "When you're a writer for hire, you have no power at all. If you produce it, you own it," is the response. "It's control, although I'm not at all a control freak." It is, I suspect, about doing it right, and having the power to insist on that. However, that kind of power in a woman at that time, was always going to produce a backlash.
"All these memories came back recently," she says. "Something I've always done is, as soon as I've got a director, I walk away. On a film set, there's only one boss, so I never used to go to set. My next work would be as the rushes came in, the dailies, and next comes the edit suite, where it's all knitted together. In the edit suite, that's when I noticed." Her voice drops slightly as she goes into raconteur mode. "The first time it happened, I remember a director said" - here she draws herself up, assumes a stiff voice - "'I've never had the writer in the edit suite with me.' I said 'well that's ok. You can go.' And his face!" She bursts out laughing. Clearly, there is no doubt about who won that particular tussle. Or indeed the next one: "In the edit suite, it was all men - about five of them, and me, usually the only female. It was an episode set in Mexico with a church. I'd found this bell sound that I wanted. So I'm there, watching the opening shot. The camera moves past the church tower, and in comes this bell sound. I said 'the bell's in the wrong place.' And then I caught it. 'She thinks the bell's in the wrong place,' one of them said. I said 'yes, you're coming a fraction too early.' 'We're coming in a fraction too early are we . . . ?' You could feel it in the room, this fury coming up. You know they're all thinking 'what a stupid cow . . . ' I showed them exactly where I wanted the bell sound, and every single person knew that I was right, and not one person said it."
As far as mentors and role models go, women who might have eased her path by example, there simply weren't any. "I made it up myself," she says. "I'm just one of these people who, if someone says 'can you water ski?' I'll say 'I'll have a go.'" So is there anything that scares her? "No. Except cold soup, I'm not very good with cold soup," then, more seriously, she says "If you get knocked down badly, it's hard to get up. And I've been very fortunate, I haven't had many knock-downs. People who have, and who climb back up, they're the ones I admire. I've been very fortunate in that way, I keep on clawing up, and the knock-backs have been very small."
The funny thing is how Lynda learned to deal with the sexism. It was through her original research for DCI Jane Tennison, in particular the time she spent talking to a London policewoman, Jackie Malton. "One thing she said was 'never fold your arms. If you fold your arms in front of a team of men, you are a washerwoman, and you lose your strength. Keep your hands down, never lift your voice. The second you do that, you're finished.' Now I realise that I think I did listen to an awful lot that she taught me."
This is just one example of the way in which meticulous research has shaped La Plante's career. She has always been the writer who 'goes there.' To morgues, brothels, prisons; talking to specialists, criminals, the wives of men put away for murder. So where is the most memorable place her research has taken her? "Nothing is as bad as talking to the parents of a murdered child," she says. "Nothing, nothing, nothing. Years later, it just hits them every time. It never ceases, never goes down. But I'm not sorry I did it - it's like a warning to me, not to touch that." And indeed, mercifully, La Plante's victims, although tragic, failed by those around them as much as betrayed by the person who kills them, are almost always adults.
When it comes to children, I get the impression that La Plante - warm-hearted anyway - is particularly protective. Possibly as a result of the many years during which she wanted, and did not have, a child of her own. "I did not believe I would have a child," she says. "I'd been to every doctor, I'd had miscarriages, IVF, gone to adoption agencies. Only a woman that's had a miscarriage can understand, the hope, the positive, then the failure. You just get on with it, but you feel a terrible sense of loss. I'd gone through a divorce, which totally affected the chances of adoption, but I still went on, put my name everywhere, but there was a stop point. I got to an age and I thought, 'ok, that's it.' I gave up hope, I thought 'I'm too old, that's it. I'll get a Great Dane.' So I went out and got this huge dog, Bates, and a part-share in a racehorse. And then one day I was at a friend's house by the sea, which has a lawn that goes down to the water's edge. I was standing there, a beautiful sunny day, not thinking about anything, and a girl with lovely dark hair was walking up from the beach and she had a little child on her hip, his little legs swinging. I had the most awful depth of despair because I thought 'that's never going to happen for me. I'm never going to have that.' And it was astonishing - although I'd said there was no hope, I got home and there was the phone-call . . . '
That phone-call, in 2003, was from an American adoption agency where she had been registered for many years - having been married to an American musician, Richard La Plante, who she divorced in 1996 - saying that she had reached the top of the list, and there was a two-day-old baby boy for her if she still wanted him, and so Lynda became mother to Lorcan, now 12, living in the States for six months while the adoption was processed, commuting to London for work.
At the time, there was some talk that she lied about her age - Anne Robinson, who claimed she knew Lynda as a child, wrote in her Daily Telegraph column: "I noticed in the newspapers last week that Lynda La Plante was saying that she was 57, and I thought, 'That's a bit odd', because she was best friends with a girl who used to live opposite me called Elaine, who was 11 at the time and Lynda was the same age, as was my brother. Elaine and my brother are now pushing 62 . . . It seems strange that Lynda is now two years my junior."
Asked now about her age (Wikipedia puts her at 72), Lynda just smiles and says "very old. Very, very old," which suggests, rightly, that although she was furious at the time about Robinson's comments - "Her comments had a devastating effect on me and could have had a devastating effect on the most precious thing in my life, my son Lorcan . . . she claimed she knew me and I know we have never ever met" - now, with Lorcan part of her life, it seems to be all water under the bridge.
At one stage, before the adoption, she said in an interview, "I would give every penny I've ever earned and every word I've ever written, for a child." So, I ask, is that still true? The questions makes her hoot with laughter: "I'm not sure," she says, still laughing. Then: "I always say, the mother lion will fight you to the death. And I will fight, over very small things. I will battle for my son, because he is the most important thing in my life, even if he is a bag of trouble." Then she tells the story of Lorcan's interview for Eton: "I apply for Eton, and the deputy head, at the interview, says to my son: 'what is your best subject?' My son says: 'Lunch'. That's him out of that!" She laughs heartily, then says "I don't want him to go there anyway," adding, seriously, "I think it's horrible right now, schools are putting such pressure on 12-year-old boys, academically. It's a nightmare."
Lynda herself, born and brought up in Liverpool (although not a hint remains in her accent), where her father worked in the motor industry, felt no such pressure. "I went to RADA at 16. I wasn't from an academic family, there was no pressure on me to do well. I remember after the 11-Plus exams, my father said, 'How did you do?' I said, 'Oh, it was so simple. They asked stupid questions that were so easy.' He said 'Like?' and I said, 'Well, like, what's heaviest, the pound of coal or a pound of feathers?' He said, 'what did you put?' 'A pound of coal, of course! They couldn't get me!'"
For all the laughing though, it's been a tough year for Lynda. "I lost my best friend [actress] Linda Bellingham. She always made me laugh, so much. She used to ring me up, even dying, and have me weeping with laughter. Then Cilla Black. I lost my brother. That fear hits you. You think, 'Bloody hell, they're dropping like flies. Don't lose a day, because it's too precious really.'"
And so, always famous for her work ethic - often writing for up to 15 hours at a stretch - Lynda is still putting in the time, and the effort. Next year Tennison will be turned into a TV series, for the BBC, which means that right now, Lynda is casting. "I have said, I will not have a known actress for Jane. So, we're going to find her." Given the various actors whose careers she has kick-started or enhanced, including Helen Mirren - until Prime Suspect, Mirren was largely considered stage-only, but Lynda insisted on her - Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, Paul Bettany and Idris Elba - it is no surprise to hear her say, "I love finding talent. It's so exciting", adding "it's terribly important when you have a career that is really interesting to you, exciting to you, that pays well - to draw in, and pass on."
So, given that she has been immersed in the 1970s for the last while, reliving the early part of that troubled decade as she wrote Tennison, does she think we live in a better world now? "No. I think we're going to very dark places. For us, getting a bit of grass was 'ooh! The terror!' Now it's these synthetic drugs. You can buy a wrap of heroin for one pound. I think the internet and the draw for very young children is a nightmare. People say it was bad in the Victorian times, but nothing's like it is now. The paedophilia is appalling, children are at risk. So the lioness has to roar much more than ever before. You cannot depend on anything - not teachers, not the state; you've got to check every single thing. You say, 'I'm going to secure my pride, I'm going to take care of my family, and anyone else on the periphery who I can, I will help.' It is a very frightening world."
That said, she doesn't look frightened at all. She looks determined, capable, amused, and sharp as a tack.
Tennison, by Lynda La Plante, published by Simon & Schuster, is out now, £14.99