Lynda La Plante: Make way for Mrs Angry

Lynda La Plante writes bestsellers. She wins awards, she makes money. Sounds like the perfect life. So why is her latest book so filled with fear and rage?

Danuta Kean
Sunday 18 September 2011 21:55

Lynda La Plante is raging. She is furious, her temper as fiery as her flame red hair. "How many Romanians are in? How many Polish are in?" she splutters in the midst of a diatribe about the NHS, over-crowded prisons and illegal immigration. "They are congregating like cockroaches into our major city centres, which are unable to deal with the crime that they bring."

She doesn't see me flinch. My name is Polish but I am too shocked to say anything: the woman who showed us that there is more to female cops than Cagney & Lacey has turned into Alf Garnet. Her pint-sized body – small even in precarious high heels – shakes with all the indignation of a Daily Mail editorial.

How different to a few minutes ago when she entertained me, comic voices and all, with the story of the life-size panther she used to have astride her desk. "It was given to me on the Des O'Connor show," she purrs in a voice that reflects none of her Merseyside roots. "We had to take the battery out because its eyes light up when you pass and it goes" – she growls loudly – "and the cleaner nearly had heart failure!" She clutches her heart in a mock attack, laughing. I am laughing too.

After reading Clean Cut, her latest novel, a page-turning police procedural, I guessed that anger lurked beneath the surface of the award-winning writer. Indignation spits from every page of this, her third novel to feature dysfunctional crime-busting duo Anna Travis and James Langton. Prison over-crowding, lenient sentences for sex-offenders and the foreign prisoner crisis collide with a series of brutal murders and a violent attack that threatens Langton's life. Throughout we are regaled with shocking statistics about sentencing, the probation service, police resources and crimes committed by illegal immigrants.

But what I don't understand is why she is so angry. Is there a sudden crime wave in her well-to-do neighbourhood of Richmond? Somehow I doubt it. So, exactly what is eating Lynda La Plante?

Worth £25m, with a happy home life – her adopted son Lorcan, four, is the "sun of my world," she says beaming – and a stack of awards, including three Baftas, she should be one of the happiest women on earth. But she is not.

The anger first bubbles to the surface when I ask how she juggles a successful career as a television producer – she owns La Plante Productions and is the power behind television bankers Trial and Retribution, The Governor and The Commander – with writing and late motherhood. She launches into a rant about battling (male) directors to get scenes changed. "I sometimes leave the room before blowing a gasket," she says with no small amount of pride at her self-control.

The theme of women marginalised in sexist workplaces runs throughout her canon. In Clean Cut, Anna Travis battles to separate the personal from the professional. In 1991, La Plante's most famous creation, Prime Suspect, stood apart from other television detectives, because of the realistic portrayal of the sexism that DI Jane Tennison faced in the incident room. She is a solo female set against a chorus of resentful men.

It is a situation La Plante recognises: "I deal with that in my own life." She sounds weary. "Sometimes I am the only female voice in a room full of producers, directors and editors. It is tiring constantly having to prove yourself over and over again."

Perhaps this is where the anger comes from? La Plante is one of only two female television dramatists whose names appear above the credits – the other is Kay Mellor. By contrast, television is swarming with male dramatists whose names are used to sell a series to viewers: Russell T Davies, Paul Abbott, Jimmy McGovern and Andrew Davies.

I have clearly hit a nerve. Mention of Davies draws the sputtering response: "If Andrew Davies was to fart I think people would give him an accolade. " She adds hastily: "He is wonderful and very clever, but I do feel like shouting, 'Excuse me! I am under a toadstool over here.'"

This is not mere sour grapes. When La Plante approached the BBC, they wrote back asking her to send in a treatment and added: "If we like it, we may commission it to a script." This was after the success of Widows, which drew in more than 17 million viewers a week, and Prime Suspect. It is hard to imagine BBC favourite Davies has received a similar brush off. Perhaps it is personal. La Plante clearly thinks so. "The BBC wouldn't commission [she blows a loud raspberry] from me."

She is almost laughing, and I am reminded that before Lynda La Plante there was Lynda Marchal – the name adopted by young Lynda Titchmarsh as an actor in a host of television series, from Rentaghost to Bergerac and The Sweeney. The name "La Plante" came from her ex-husband, writer and musician Richard La Plante.

There remains more than a hint of the theatrical in La Plante's storytelling. Later, as she recalls a hapless criminal she interviewed, she jumps up to illustrate him sawing a hole around himself before plunging feet first into the bank below. In other stories she slips easily from her plummy Rada-trained tones into the voices of well 'ard east-end lags and their even harder women, who demanded dishwashers in return for fact-finding prison visits.

The prison visits are part of La Plante's meticulous research. Though she has a team of researchers, she says she has to do the gritty work alone. Referring to a particularly gruesome murder in Clean Cut that will put you off pork for life, she explains: "The truth is you can have researchers, but all they can do is check the facts. The actual nitty gritty of going to halfway homes and to places where children were butchered in a piggery and seeing the house, the smells and the horror, I can't get a researcher to do that because they never make it real."

The 61-year-old has an army of contacts in the police, law and forensics whose advice is assiduously followed and whose opinions she respects. She is clearly enamoured of the police and talks of heroic men and women battered by the traumas they see in daily life.

She also reads about murders and insists on using real-life crimes in all her work – in Clean Cut, the ritual murder of an African boy is based on the case of Adam, the five-year-old whose dismembered torso washed up in the Thames and whose murderers remain at large. The character and crimes of the violent sex offender Arthur Murphy are also based on a real case. "I used to have pictures of all the killers in front of me pinned up in my office at home," La Plante explains. It sounds grim.

She also talks to the families of victims and hears first-hand of the burden they have to bear after the publicity has died down. And that is why she is so angry, so threatened by crimes that can rarely touch her personally. "It is a terribly angry book," she freely admits. "The first title I had was 'Rage'. It was my rage, because I couldn't believe what was happening."

Talking about victims she has met, her voice cracks with emotion. This is no act. Despite the Daily Mail diatribes, Lynda La Plante is a deeply compassionate woman. As with her books, the violence that animates her is emotional, not physical. It is also misdirected, fed by tabloid exaggeration and too much time in the company of angry coppers who only see one side or seedy lags with a story to sell. I leave feeling that the wave of crime she rages against is one that threatens to engulf only those who believe what they read. *

Femmes fatales: The cream of crime novels by women

The Not knowing by Cathi Unsworth

Journalist Diana Kemp investigates the murder of an acclaimed film director. She may have been better off not knowing the truth

A dark-adapted eye by Barbara Vine

Family secrets are revealed with shattering consequences, as Faith Severn recalls her relationship with her snobbish aunt Vera

Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell

The first and best of the Kay Scarpetta series, about the paranoid forensic scientist on the track of serial killer, Mr Nobody

Killing The Shadows by Val McDermid

Psychologist Fiona Cameron gets caught up in the hunt for a serial killer who is bumping off crime novelists

Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter

Paediatrician Sara Linton and her ex-husband Jeffrey pursue a murderer whose crimes are described in unflinching detail

Well Schooled In Murder by Elizabeth George

Toff 'tec Insp Lynley and his working- class sidekick Barbara investigate class divides and schoolboy murder

Clean Cut By Lynda La PlanteSimon & Schuster £17.99

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments