People: Lynda sifts the evidence

It was raining the morning I went to meet Lynda La Plante. It was heavy, remorseless rain, the kind of rain that in a La Plante mini- series usually heralds bad news of one kind or another. It was raining like this when a murder victim's head was discovered in the first ever Prime Suspect. And the rain will be pouring down again next Sunday evening as the police hunt for a missing child in La Plante's latest four-hour two-parter, Trial and Retribution.

"I know how expensive rain is now, too," says La Plante, who these days isn't just a writer but a producer as well. We're sitting smoking Silk Cuts in the Wardour Street offices of La Plante Productions, where the shelves bulge with videos of her previous output: Widows, Prime Suspect, The Governor, Civvies, Comics, etc, etc. On the wall there's a progress board of all the La Plante projects in various stages of development. There are about a dozen of them, many with titles that suggest gritty realism: Slag, Price of Justice, Cold Shoulder, Ice Maiden.

La Plante is a famous workaholic. After seeing me, she was due to spend the rest of the day at a casting session. In the evening she had some more interviews to do. Then she intended to go home and put in four hours of writing. On a normal day she starts working at six in the morning. She doesn't watch much TV and never listens to the radio, so if she's not going out in the evening, she'll stay at her word processor and just keep banging out the words.

"I enjoy it," she says in her posh-Scouse Beryl Reid voice. "Sometimes I hate it, but on the whole I don't. The fortunate part of my life is that what I write gets made or gets published. It's an incredible incentive to continue. My heart goes out to writers who have to live with rejection. I don't know how the hell they keep going at it."

Not that she hasn't known rejection herself After successfully making the transition from actress to screenwriter with the first series of Widows in the early 1980s, it was seven years before she was commissioned again. Everyone wanted her to write another Widows, but she wouldn't play the game. She got by on writing novels, and she still churns one out every year.

The subject of Trial and Retribution is the killing of a young child (as I said, the rain usually brings bad news), from the moments before the murder is committed right through to the verdict in court. As usual, La Plante's research has been painstaking, so she can talk at length about the detailed police procedures used in conducting a search for a missing person and the psychological techniques used in interrogating suspects. One of the more interesting products of her research was to discover that following the recent privatisation of the Forensic Science Laboratory, a police officer heading a murder investigation has to spend a considerable amount of time wrestling with his budget to work out exactly how many plaster casts and fingerprints he can afford to have taken. The days of bagging up everything in sight and sending it all off to Forensics are gone.

Authenticity is important to La Plante. On the set of Trial and Retribution there was a forensic as well as a pathology expert and she's proud to point out that she knows the difference between the two. She dismisses police dramas that, in place of research, fall back on formulas.

"The classic one is 'I think we're looking for a left-handed man and the victim was killed at 7.15 exactly'," she says. "There is no way that you can find out that somebody was killed at 7.15 exactly. And there's no way they can physically find out if the murderer was left-handed or right-handed. It's a farce. The truth is always much more fascinating," she concludes, sucking on another Silk Cut. The truth about La Plante's smoking is that she's tried to give up but never managed it. She even tried something called the "string technique".

"Every time you want a cigarette, you take out a piece of string and you tie a knot in it," she says. "By the time you've untied the knot, the urge has gone, because it only lasts under a minute. But I could never get the knots undone. I just became a neurotic idiot."

I've got just the gibbon for you

IT'S Adopt An Animal Week at London Zoo at the end of the month and the zoo recently asked the astrologer Shelley von Strunckel to help them promote their scheme by which members of the public or corporations adopt an animal for a year. For six grand you can have your very own elephant, but if your budget is more limited you can get a dormouse, a dung beetle, a gecko or even an ant for just 20 quid. You get an adoption certificate and various other goodies thrown in. Shelley's role was to decide which animals are most appropriate for different people's star signs. "I thought Geminis would certainly want a chameleon," she says. "Not only because it matches its surroundings but because its eyes rove independently of each other." For Leos, who like to think they're all stars, Shelley has chosen the red-kneed hairy bird-eating spider, in memory of Belinda, a spider of the aforementioned species who appeared on TV a lot before her death in 1993. For loyal Librans there's the white- cheeked gibbon. "They bond for life and can be heard each morning singing love songs to each other," says Shelley. From a personal point of view, I was interested to know what creature a Capricorn might feel some affinity with. "It's the spectacled owl," says Shelley, who has the good fortune to be married to a Capricorn. "Capricorns have a reputation for appearing to be very conservative and reserved, but anyone who knows them well knows that when those spectacles come off ... Superman!" There's something in this astrology lark.

(If you're interested in adopting an animal, call London Zoo on 0171- 240 9900.)

It's spice not vice, they claim

ON 5 November a new monthly magazine will hit the streets of London and it promises to cause a few fireworks. Personal Issue is a free entertainment guide to what goes on in the capital. It will be handed out at tube stations and will be available at bars, clubs, restaurants and hotels. Nothing controversial there, of course. The big issue about Personal Issue promises to be the fact that it will accept advertising from anyone. "Anyone meaning ... prostitutes, really," says Bryan Bonaparte, the 32-year-old marketing adviser to the publishers WND, who haven't actually published anything before. For just pounds 250 prostitutes who are fed up with having their cards removed from BT payphones will be able to have their very own card-sized advertisement at the back of the magazine.

"The fact of the matter is it's not illegal to do that," says Bonaparte, although he admits there are certain guidelines as to what the ads can and can't say. "Without going into graphic detail, there are cards in payphones that talk about spanking and things such as that. None of those sorts of cards will be permitted. In other words, there can be nothing in this publication that would warrant it having to go on to the top shelf of a newsagent if it was being sold. At the end of the day, the objective is that no one should be offended." Somehow I have a feeling that the Daily Mail may have other ideas.

Round-the-clock

Edwina

"IT WAS my idea, so it's a thing for which I feel particular affection, not to say worship, love and adoration," says Vanessa Feltz of her new Channel 5 series, Vanessa's Day With ... The idea was for Vanessa to spend 24 hours in the company of various celebrities, and the series kicks off on Tuesday with a day in the life of Boy George, which includes a trip to Safeway in the morning and a session at the recording studio in the afternoon. "I had a Jewish motherish urge to sort his life out a bit. I felt there were certain areas of his life where, with a good dollop of chicken soup and a good talking to, he might shape up," says Vanessa, who is a smart woman and perhaps the only presenter on Channel 5 who can casually drop the phrase "res ipsa loquitur" into a conversation. But the series really takes off in the second week when Vanessa spends a day with Edwina Currie. As chance would have it, it wasn't any old day, but the day following Edwina's announcement that her marriage was over. "I thought she'd cancel, but she didn't," says Vanessa. "So I was there when she hoisted her skirt up at Harrods to show her thighs to hordes of photographers, and I was there when she accosted shoppers and said, 'Hi, I'm Edwina, this is my book', and they said, 'No thank you, we don't want it', and ran for cover. And I was there when she took her shoes off in her own flat and manned the phones taking calls from journalists, giving a juicy quote here and a lovely quotette there. So that was an absolute humdinger of a Day With, as you can imagine."

Vanessa says it's up to the viewers to decide for themselves what they make of it all. "You don't need me to say, 'Isn't she horrible, what a terrible thing, it's disgusting'," she says.

Writing on the library walls

MANY thanks to all of you who responded to my cry for help regarding the problem I was having with the computer game Myst. You may recall that I'd found the beardy man in the dungeon and he'd told me to go and explore his library. I'd explored the library for many hours but nothing more had happened and I wasn't sure what to do next. I'm particularly grateful to my correspondent Jack Greenall (aged 10) for pointing out that in fact this is the end of the game, so what you're meant to do next is switch it off and go and do something else instead. Which means I must be even more stupid than I thought, I suppose.

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