Prime-time with La Plante

Lynda La Plante's work has been a hit with the viewers, but the critics remain unconvinced. James Rampton reports
Lynda La Plante is the most famous television dramatist in Britain. She has "above-the-title" stardom and is more renowned than many of the actors who feature in her work. She has reached such a peak of celebrity that French and Saunders can do an elongated spoof of her work in the knowledge that everybody will know what they're going on about. How many other TV writers can you say that about?

She has been responsible for a rash of hard-hitting, tough-talking, no- holds-barred dramas: Widows, Prime Suspect, Civvies, Comics, Seconds Out, Framed, She's Out and The Governor. The very mention of her name is enough to have drama commissioning editors salivating at the prospect of off-the-radar ratings. But her successes have only served to provoke some critics.

The Times called Seekers, a series on female private detectives, a "dud", and said Comics, a drama about stand-ups, "had a sketchy, unfinished feel". The Daily Mail knocked out her boxing film Seconds Out, with the headline "feeble fighting farce", and the Observer described some of her dialogue for The Governor as "plain ham".

More seriously, the military strongly objected to her portrayal of life after the army in Civvies. Sara Jones, wife of Falklands War hero Colonel H, dubbed it "a fairy story removed from reality", and Lt-Gen Michael Gray wrote to the BBC complaining of 50 supposed inaccuracies. La Plante received death threats and had to employ a minder.

Speaking down the line from Dublin, where she is producing the second series of The Governor, about the head of a prison (Janet McTeer), La Plante remains gloriously impervious to the slings and arrows of outraged critics. Irrepressibly lively, she ascribes the attacks to The Tall Poppy Syndrome - an Australian phrase for the peculiarly British phenomenon of "build 'em up and knock 'em down" - and dismisses any suggestions that Prime Suspect was a one-hit wonder. "Whatever they print in the paper is tomorrow's chips. You get in a blinding rage for an hour, then you forget all about it. In this country, there is the attitude that, 'you can be successful once, but try it again and I'll smash you in the face'. I'm like one of those rubber balls; I keep bouncing back. I may appear flippant, but what they don't see is the side that is exceedingly serious and very dedicated."

Verity Lambert, who produced Widows, Comics and She's Out, mounts a robust defence of the writer. "People are funny about success, but the fact is Lynda is a very good story-teller. What distinguishes her is her characterisations. Sometimes when you read a script, anybody could be saying the lines, but Lynda's characters always exist as more than one-dimensional, they have their own personalities. They're colourful and vibrant, rather than over- the-top. She writes characters people respond to - look at Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect."

Ruth Caleb, who was executive producer on Civvies, also feels La Plante has been maligned. "When people say you've been inaccurate, the mud tends to stick. Lynda has been accused of over-cooking characters, but I don't think she does. She has a strong sense of plot and a good nose for what an audience wants. Maybe it's the sort of drama you associate more with American prime-time where a story drives it through."

La Plante is noted for throwing herself headlong into research. For The Governor, two former prisoners arrived at her office to give her a story about inmates systematically destroying an officer by repeatedly calling out his name. "Because I work in so many prisons, they all know where to find me," she laughs, "and they always come up with something better than I could have imagined. Real people give you better lines."

A self-confessed workaholic, the 50-year-old writer thinks nothing of 12-hour days at the keyboard. She is currently working on two dramas for ITV (Supply and Demand and Trial and Retribution), series for NBC (The Prosecutors) and CBS (Bella Mafia) and a film with Sean Connery (The Profiler.) But her very fecundity is used as a stick with which to beat her. "People say, 'she can't be writing that much, she must have people working for her'," Lambert observes. "That's simply not true. She just works like a dog."

"I see the look of suspicion on people's faces," La Plante chimes in. "When they say, 'she's prolific', they mean, 'she's got pyorrhoea'."

So it appears that the high-profile La Plante is a victim of her own success. As long as she's doing well, she will be regarded as fair game. "Lynda suffers from being at the top of her profession," Caleb reckons. "People like to have a go at the coconuts at the top of the shy. She's become a prime target - or should that be prime suspect?"

'The Governor', tomorrow 9.05pm ITV