Media: 'I hope to God this does cause a stir': From the pen of Lynda La Plante now comes the TV series, 'Civvies': macho, violent and controversial. Sue Summers talked to her
La Plante, a small woman with bright red hair, a carefully revealing cleavage and a name with the hothouse exoticism of a silent movie goddess, is one of Britain's few superstar television writers. She wrote last year's big hit, Prime Suspect, the award-winning ITV serial with Helen Mirren, an achievement only slightly marred by subsequent controversy over the voting of the Bafta jury. The autumn schedules contain three new Lynda La Plante productions. If BBC and ITV drama chiefs agree on anything it seems to be that La Plante 'writes ratings'.
Civvies is not the only La Plante drama in the pipeline. Next month, Screen One will show Seconds Out, her film about a boxer down on his luck. In November, ITV screens Framed, a four-part thriller starring the former James Bond actor Timothy Dalton as a supergrass. There is also her new novel, Entwined, a blockbuster about identical twins who become the victims of Nazi experiments.
Such limelight seemed inconceivable eight years ago, when La Plante was a bit-part actress. Then in 1984 she wrote Widows, an ITV drama series about four women who decide to carry out the bank robbery that had killed their husbands. It made her an overnight sensation. 'I never thought of writing for TV and when I did the world suddenly opened up,' she says. 'I stopped dead after 20 years of being a full-time actress with the National, the RSC and every repertory company in England. Yet I've never missed it for a second.'
Although a fanatical writer who spends up to 15 hours a day at her desk, La Plante, 46, is anything but a literary recluse. Added to the cleavage and the hair is an ability to spin a yarn, not only on the page but also at fashionable dinner parties. She is a born storyteller notable in a profession distinctly short on narrative drive. 'I believe there's an incredible body of good writers working in British TV,' she says. 'What often seems lacking is the stories.'
This autumn's outpouring of drama is, in fact, the result of several years' work. Widows may have made her famous, but afterwards she found many doors slammed in her face. 'For eight years I had rejection from every single TV company,' she says. 'Everything I wrote was rejected because the people in power didn't want anything new, they just wanted another Widows, and I didn't want to write one.
'First, I researched a big series on the drugs squad, but it got shelved. And Civvies was on the shelf in the BBC for four years. Everyone says I'm incredibly prolific now, but really people are suddenly taking material down from the shelves because of Prime Suspect. Prime Suspect has turned my life round again.'
Born into what she describes as 'an ordinary Liverpudlian family', La Plante originally wanted to dance, but her elocution teacher suggested she become an actress. By the age of 16 she was at Rada, but she hated it. 'I remember being called in by the Principal, who told me I was not very pretty and I was very small, so I would probably always play old ladies. So I walked out of Rada. I drifted back to the Liverpool Playhouse, where I had a fantastically glamorous part opposite Anthony Hopkins and one night, after the show, the Principal came to see me. 'My darling,' he said, 'you were absolutely brilliant.' I swung the door wide and said, 'Piss off'.'
She began writing when she left Rada. 'I've got drawers full of stage plays,' she says. She thought of writing for TV only when she had a bit part in the police series The Gentle Touch and decided that the scripts were 'crap'. She wrote four plot synopses and sent them to the producer, who rejected them all. On one idea, however, someone had scrawled 'wonderful', and it was this that became the basis for Widows.
Married for 17 years to the former heavy metal singer Richard La Plante, she lives in style in a huge house in Kingston, Surrey. But one of the secrets of her success is being approachable to any dodgy character with a good story to tell. 'People accuse me of only giving my full attention to villains or fighters, and in a way I think it's true,' she says. 'But they are drawn to me, too.'
The idea for Civvies was born when a builder working on her house asked if she could help find jobs for some friends who had just left the Paras. 'I rang up eight different security firms, but they refused to offer work to ex-soldiers on the grounds that they were too institutionalised. Then I met a group of them - men at the peak of their lives, whose pride in themselves was slipping out of their hands. I became very attached to those people and I felt very deeply that their story should be written.'
La Plante - who emphasises that she always pays her subjects for their time - used them as the basis for the characters in Civvies. 'Then the series sat around and never got made. By the time it was made, the story had a very tragic ending. They were all in prison.'
Civvies is quintessential La Plante: macho, violent, every line as tough as if written by a long- term male recidivist who had taken a literary course behind bars. Its central character, on the basis of last night's opening episode, spends much of his time swilling beer, rigid with self-pity, taking time off only to indulge in ritual 'Paddy-bashing' with some of his military chums. His redeeming feature thus far appears to be his loyalty to a Para friend, victim of horrendous injuries that have left a tube permanently in his throat. Later episodes will doubtless explore in graphic detail just how the tube came to be there.
The Army and the Ministry of Defence have complained to the BBC that Civvies portrays soldiers as maladjusted misfits released into society with no preparation or help. It is also extremely bloody. One BBC executive describes it as 'the most violent home-produced series the BBC has ever made'.
La Plante fervently hopes it will make waves. 'The characters are an amalgam of the men I interviewed, but the events are factual, particularly those set in Northern Ireland,' she insists. 'We're losing our young men in Ireland and their deaths only merit postage stamp-size articles, while stories about Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger monopolise the front pages. I hope to God this does cause a stir. That's why I wrote it, not to glorify any form of violence.'
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