Writing Breakthrough Crime Drama with Lynda La Plante CBE

IMG_8439Spanning a vast amount of broadcast time over decades of good drama Lynda La Plante has a vibrant and ongoing writing career, but that’s not how she began her career. Training at RADA she was an actor in such well known shows as Z-Cars, The Sweeney, The Professionals and Bergerac. It was during one such role on police drama The Gentle Touch, that she asked Jill Gascoine during a conversation about the show who actually wrote it. Jill answered “Oh everyone..” and Lynda decided then to submit some treatments herself. Instead of using her acting name she submitted under Lynda La Plante.

Having been successful with one of the treatments that caught some interest, she was invited to prove her writing skill by writing the first episode, so that they could see she could actually write. In order to do a good job, Lynda decided to go to ‘source’ for information on which to fully form her characters and stories. Knowing that there’s always a colourful character on ever set she went to one such individual and asked him if he knew any criminals. Taking her to the Thomas A Becket pub he introduced her to one man he knew of and she began from there to do her research through meeting people. Prisoners, widows of criminals, police etc. and found her tough lead character for Widows, Dolly Rawlins. Having delivered a wonderfully detailed first script the series was picked up and with a brilliant script editor Lynda began to learn how to cut her script into dynamic drama.

Having one series under her belt Lynda went on to learn the next stage of her craft, how to handle herself with commissioners. For her the lesson to learn was to keep her mouth shut. By letting one commissioner talk she discovered they were looking for a specific type of police show and was able to hint that she was indeed working on such a thing, and by ‘coincidence’ it was the plain clothes detective sort. Asked the name of her project she on the spot came up with Prime Suspect. Going to the police to again obtain ‘source’ information she met with DCI Jackie Malton who had risen in the ranks gaining respect as one of the highest ranking women on the force. The character of Jane Tennison was born.

With regard to her research, Lynda learned early on not to use an obvious notebook or mic, finding instead that without visual clues that everything they said was being recorded, people would drop annecdotes into their chat, allowing Lynda to hone in on important aspects of characters and their work situations. Malton had joked about workplace discrimination but the facts revealed a permeating attitude in the force toward women rising the ranks. Malton also gave her frank feedback, encouraging her to go for the jugular with her character’s persona and this coloured the direct approach that became a recognisable trait in Jane Tennison.

Her practice of personal interviews gave Lynda a work style and she fought for certain scenes that gave realism because that’s what her sources gave to her. Respect, she says, is part of her writing bible stating that there’s not a character she’s ever written that she couldn’t take you to a person who was part of them. So too she learned how to balance the drama with humour, that if you keep hitting people with heavy stuff without reprieve they will reject it. But she made the comedy elements in her writing work with the tone of her work and sometimes coming back from the humour to a hard hitting fact stemming from the very lighthearted elements.

In Trial and Retribution, Lynda found another aspect to her writing style, that of the split screen. It was a way to show the painstakingly slow work of forensics etc. that can give such tension as we see will a hair have the root that gives DNA or a button have a clue that will catch the killer, while keeping the action moving forward in another picture. It’s a costly way of producing drama but achieves a level of tension and interest that’s hard to do all in one scene. ITV drama controller Nick Elliott didn’t like the idea knowing that many people still only had 16″ screens and fearing these older viewers wouldn’t get the technique, until that is Lynda pointed out those ladies with 16″ screens were perfectly capable of monitoring eight bingo cards at the same time while carrying on a conversation. He agreed she had a point and the split screen took the drama to new realms. “You’ve got to have answers.” Lynda advises, explaining that you’ll sometimes need to defend the reasoning behind choices so people can see why those avenues are worthwhile.

With dramas in production other department heads putting other hands to her work, Lynda felt it was important to have more control over her characters and learned to produce. She’s been very fortunate she says to have found the right actors for the roles she wrote and she likes finding unknowns. She’s passionate about her work but pragmatic too advising writers not to break their hearts spending 18 months writing an epic only to see someone else take a similar idea to screen before yours can get read. Recommending a little research to find out the commissioners for your type of work and getting it to the right place as a way to get work off the ground. With grace, fierceness, commitment to her work and characters and good humour it was a pleasure to hear about how her career took wings. Now, following an out of the blue question of where Tennison came from Lynda has gone back to write the origin story for this tough, clever cop as we re-visit the forming character at aged 21. I for one will look forward to that and will take to heart the lessons I learned from Lynda La Plante’s friendly conversation with us today.

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