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
THERE are two enormous stone lions guarding the door of Lynda La Plante’s fin de siecle mansion, which is tucked at the end of a wooded drive in leafy Surrey. Behind them stands the lady of the manor, her trusty assistant Nigel by her side.
Though slight, there is something of the big cat about Lynda herself: her eyes are a clear, crystal blue and her mane of hair is tiger-striped in russet and blonde. But though 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