In front of a packed house at the BFI Southbank, Lynda La Plante took to the stage on September 19th to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Prime Suspect and the publication of the latest Jane Tennison adventure, Unholy Murder.
After the breakthrough success of her BAFTA-nominated crime drama Widows, Lynda La Plante’s screenwriting career was in something of a rut. Despite a number of critically-acclaimed novels, the hunt for her next major television project had stalled. Though brimming with ideas, and pitching with her infectious passion, she could find no takers: “I was getting nowhere.”
She headed into a make-or-break meeting with the execs at television studio Granada with a clear game plan. “I told myself: ‘Keep your mouth shut. Go in and listen to what they want.’”
What they wanted, it turned out, was a detective. Perhaps plain clothed. A woman.
La Plante seized her chance, fingers crossed behind her back. ‘Oh, I’ve been working on one of those! I’ve been doing a lot of research…’ Naturally, Granada were keen to get a first look at this exciting new project. How quickly could she send over the script?
“Manna from heaven! Only what do you do? You’ve told a blatant lie. You haven’t written a line!”
From that white lie emerged the phenomenon that is Prime Suspect. The next day La Plante was on the phone to the Met police, securing the introduction to Jackie Malton, the officer and font of insider knowledge that would come to shape the creation of the iconic Jane Tennison, and kickstarting a journey that has lasted over three decades and continues to capture the imaginations of millions of readers and viewers across the world.
Prime Suspect would go on to become a multiple BAFTA-winner and forever influence the detective genre ubiquitous on our screens today. La Plante is today one of only three screenwriters to have been made an honorary fellow of the British Film Institute. Her best-selling novels have propelled her into the upper echelons of crime and thriller writers globally, with the series of prequels following the young Jane Tennison and her early days in the London Metropolitan Police proving hugely popular with fans and critics alike.
Interviewed by broadcaster Matthew Sweet, and joined by cast members Zoë Wanamaker and John Bowe, La Plante delighted the audience by spilling the secrets on Prime Suspect’s creation and its unique writing process – her natural flair for storytelling (and a good punchline) evident throughout.
“If you want to write crime, go to the source and go to the police.” In creating the series, La Plante had no interest in relying on undue dramatic licence: it would set new standards for realism on page and screen. The author recalled time spent with Malton at her side, and the long hours sat in police stations, embedded in the day-to-day of its officers, soaking up every last detail and sneaking the choice cuts into her work. “I’m like a sponge. I’d take everything in and go home and write it all down.”
She seized the chance to speak to anybody that might shed light on the world of crime and those who fight and are forever affected it – attending medical examinations and prison visitation rooms, building a list of contacts that ensures that her work rings true with rare authenticity and empathy. It’s led to an unusual list of pen-pals – with infamous career criminal Charles Bronson sending her poems and cartoons (and complaining when she sends him cheap crayons in return).
The research has had a habit of throwing up the unexpected. She had the crowd in fits of laughter recounting the story of her first post-mortem and a farting cadaver, and swiftly followed up with the tale of the forensic scientist who burst abruptly into the room she was observing in, yelling wildly “who’s taken my f******* left foot?!”
It’s this mix of light and dark that is a hallmark of her work. La Plante spoke movingly about the heavy responsibility that comes with representing stories based on brutal fact, and the lasting impact of speaking to the families of victims: “You hear these extraordinary, emotional, powerful things. That’s why I don’t treat everything so lightly.”
The Tennison novels have been defined by a willingness to uncover hard truths and expose corruption – a vein mined in the television show’s blistering third season – and writing that has no room for unnecessary sentimentality. No easy endings, handshakes and forgiveness – a messy world that reflects the often-messy lives of those on the force. “They go through horror… In reality, there is no closure. It never ends.”
It has proven a gift for the actors who have brought her creations to life. Helen Mirren – absent due to filming commitments – sent a message from her Atlanta shoot, paying tribute to La Plante’s work. “I don’t think I would have been working in Atlanta if it wasn’t for Prime Suspect. It changed my life as an actor. It’s difficult to remember just how revolutionary it was at the time… It reverberates to this day.”
This message was echoed by Zoë Wanamaker and John Bowe, who sat alongside La Plante and eulogised about the show’s impact. “It was the first time on television,” said Wanamaker, “that women were conceived to be interesting or to have power and strength.”
While Bowe remembered that the script had him “drooling” from the moment he first laid eyes on it. He recalled arguing with an initially sceptical television executive over its prospects for future seasons: telling him: “It would sell all over the world. It’s about a woman in a man’s world. This is a universal subject.” Adding with a laugh: “I think I was right.”
Indeed. 30 years later, Prime Suspect’s profound effect on the landscape of modern British television is beyond question – as is La Plante’s own impact on the popular culture. The author continues to delight fans with her books, and – treating the audience to copies of Unholy Murder – she confirmed that she has no plans to rest on her considerable laurels.
La Plante says: “I still have this passion. I still write continuously. I can’t stop.” Indeed, she admitted that her high-energy writing process – jabbering away out-loud to her characters, acting things out, possessed by their stories – has proved too much for at least one typist.
But there’s nothing she’d rather be doing: “When a light goes on. Oh man. It’s wonderful. The joy of giving birth to something. And it grows and grows…”
Three thrilling decades on, and you suspect that there are plenty of twists and turns in Jane Tennison’s story still to come.
In Unholy Murder, Tennison must lift the lid on the most chilling murder case of her career to date. Published by Zaffre, the book is available now in hardback, ebook and audio.