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Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, 2014. Lynda La Plante interview

July 27, 2014


So how do you follow the appearance of J.K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith? Bring on the one woman show who is Lynda La Plante.

In the ‘morning after’ event, the legend of TV scriptwriting and prolific, bestselling novelist, Lynda La Plante, was interviewed by Callum Sutherland, Vice President of the Forensic Science Society. He was an appropriate choice of interviewer considering that Lynda is the first lay person to be made a Forensic Science Society Fellow last year, because of her accurate portrayals of forensic science. She had also just been awarded the fifth Theakstons Old Peculier Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award on the Thursday night. A montage of clips from the TV programmes Lynda had scripted over the years rolled before the interview to remind the audience of her extraordinary output.

Lynda was asked why she began her working life as an actress. She replied that her entire career had hinged around doing something someone had suggested to her. This and her fearless attitude of jumping in at the deep end to have a go at something new, must account for the volume of her writing.

She had never heard of RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), until shortly before she applied to go there. Arriving at her audition resplendent in white heeled shoes and what sounded like a tightly belted 1950s style ‘stick out skirt’, she claims not to have felt the slightest bit nervous. Something that was probably just as well because, the shoes and voluminous underskirt had to go in order to be able to convince her audience she was St Joan (‘A young French woman who was burnt at the stake’ she informed the audition panel, with her habitual confidence). However despite Lynda’s evident naivety of the breadth of the panel’s appreciation of dramatic literature, and her partial striptease, she was accepted to RADA.

Lynda greatly enjoyed her time as an actress, but did not play very convincing corpses (of which she played several when she was starting out), due to fits of the giggles. Her ability to see the humour in the received wisdom of the thespian art, as well as unfortunately named characters, would emerge at intervals during her time on stage and screen, much to the frustration of directors.

She caught the bug for scriptwriting while working on ‘The Gentle Touch’ with Jill Gascoine. Even though her first attempt at a major drama, ‘The Women’, was rejected the positive feedback she received encouraged her to try again, with the resulting and very successful ‘Widows’. Lynda also expressed her gratitude to the legendary producer Verity Lambert who became her mentor.

Lynda spends a great deal of time undertaking the type of in depth research that produces high quality, credible scripts. Certainly it was easy to see with her personality and eye for minutiae how she has been able to coax important details out of people and bring them to life in her work. Her extensive research has taken her to prisons, some of the more colourful characters of the East end, as well interviewing police officers. Her later ventures have taken her down some very unusual avenues of research, including a Russian morgue (I would recommend asking her to relate this in a question and answer session, she had the audience in stiches).

Because she takes her research very seriously and squeezes it for every nuance, Lynda’s characters really come to life. The character of Dolly Rawlins (the head of the ‘Widows’ gang) grew from a visit to a lady whose day job was a market stall, but in the confines of her own home knew a thing or two about antique furniture, opera and immaculate dressing (insisting that this be reflected in the TV series, did add a whole new dimension to the production). Jane Tennyson was inspired by DCI Jackie Moulton (at the time working in a murder squad) who worked on the script of ‘Prime Suspect’ with Lynda to ensure authenticity. Lynda said she could not have created ‘Prime Suspect’ without her and also said that Jackie Moulton was responsible for teaching her to ‘be like a sponge’. This respect for professionalism has been returned by Jackie Moulton, who has maintained that she only checked for authenticity, and the script was down to Lynda. The value Lynda places on technical accuracy is high and she never writes anything that has not been carefully checked. But her imagination can sometimes cause problems with the script. This is why expert opinion is so important and why she has become so keen on liaising with forensic experts. An example of this was an initial read through that highlighted a problem with blood left behind at a crime scene after someone had been killed, however the same forensic expert who had identified the problem found a solution which meant that Lynda’s convoluted plot did not have to be completely rewritten.

‘Prime Suspect’ came at a time when, after the success of ‘Widows’, Lynda was being offered very similar projects. But Lynda was looking for something different and her persistence in holding out certainly had its rewards. Now there is to be a Jane Tennison prequel so that Lynda could explore the origins of the Tennison obsession, anger and refusal of marriage. Lynda was asked whether she would write the prequel organically as the ideas came to her, but it appears this was not possible because Jane Tennison had appeared as a fully formed woman and in the sequel she needed to be naïve. Also forensics procedure was not as advanced (there were no DNA tests at that time), and there was no technology like mobile phones. So the plot had to be carefully thought out because it was like ‘driving two trains towards each other’.

We all agreed Lynda was hilarious and when she was asked if she had ever been tempted to write comedy. Her reply was that she inserted humour into everything she wrote. Instead she spends a great deal of time writing about victims of crime, because victims never have enough help.

When asked how she deals with procrastination, Lynda replied she never procrastinated, because she is always getting ideas and has multiple projects on the go. She is always being commissioned to write, so she has to work hard to get books and scripts out. If she did suffer from procrastination she would tour the country encouraging young writers to write.

There was a question about how willing she thought the police are to talk to new crime writers. Lynda was of the opinion they will, because procedure changes and they would prefer a writer got the information correct. However this accuracy could sometimes cause problems for a script; for example, if she had to make her characters wait three weeks for toxicology. So some adjustments have to be made to keep the thrust of the programme going.

Lynda was asked if there was any crime that would not write about. The reply was a family on holiday where their little girl disappears. She does not like to write about things that would wound when they come out. She wrote about a child murder in ‘Trial and Retribution’ and would never do it again, because in her view the loss of a child is a pain that never ends and hangs over a family like a cloud over their lives.

Although the Crime Festival is about getting to know authors’ work in more detail, it is also about having a good time and being entertained. Lynda La Plante is able to do both so well that the audience could have sat and listened (or at intervals watched, in her more demonstrative episodes) for much longer than the time allocated. I do not think Lynda has ever stopped being and actress because she is a very physical interviewee, leaping up at intervals to act out a piece of narrative. She also acts out her writing, because it helps her to see if it works. This method of visualisation must be so useful when writing a script and must spill over into her books. Lynda’s sheer energy and professionalism is certainly an inspiration to any writer and will continue to keep her work in the public eye.

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