Authors: Lynda La Plante
LYNDA LA PLANTE
A Guiding Light
When I was commissioned to write
for Granada Television, I had no notion that it would change my life. I had been very successful writing a series called
, but it had not resulted in offers of work that I felt excited about. The plot of
pivoted on four men attempting a dangerous armed robbery, and all died when the explosives held in their truck exploded. They left four widows, who discovered the detailed plans and decided they would audaciously attempt to pull the robbery.
My meeting at Granada was to see if I had any other project they could consider. Due to offers coming in that were all similar to
, I decided that the best way to approach the possible commission was to find out exactly what the network was looking for, rather than pitch one or other of my ideas. I was told they were actually looking for a female-led police drama, but they did not want her to be in uniform.
“Ah I have been researching exactly that, and have some great material in a treatment,”
I LIED! But when I was asked what the title of this proposed new show was, out came, and with no forethought, the title
I knew this was a great opportunity, and with nothing actually written, I had to launch into research to prepare a treatment for a possible series. I was fortunate enough to meet Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Malton. She was attached to the Metropolitan Scotland Yard murder squad, and had risen through the ranks from uniform to become one of only three high-ranking female officers. By the time I had completed a story line and treatment, we had become friends. The friendship continued as I gained a commission to write the series
Via Jackie, and her eagerness for me to “get it right,” I went to my first autopsy. I spent time in incident rooms, pathology labs, and forensic departments. She was a never-ending source of encouragement and in many ways Jane Tennison was created via Jackie’s constant desire that for once a woman was portrayed within the police force in a realistic way. She would read every scene, make corrections and suggestions with anecdotes appertaining to her own career. She was a complex woman and had been subjected to discrimination throughout her career. As I rewrote and polished up the scripts she became quite emotional because I had acted like a sponge listening and inserting sections that she didn’t recall telling me about.
aired on British television it created incredible critical acclaim. I had to fight for a number of scenes to be retained. Producers were concerned that I had written an unsympathetic woman, but I refused to change, explaining over and over that this was a character based on reality. When she examined a victim she didn't, as they wanted, show emotion but retained a professional distance. To make her ambitious was yet again not wholly acceptable, but I persisted, and again I was helped by being able to introduce Jackie Malton.
Helen Mirren was unafraid of the role and added a strong quality to the character. She was the right age, she was still a very attractive woman and yet her believability never faltered. I would never have considered another actress could take on the same role. Over the years there have been so many scripts and attempts to make a US version of the show. There was a constant difficulty in finding an actress on a par with Helen, and although the scripts were well written, something didn’t work as the writers moved away from the original concept. That is until Maria Bello took on the role. The series is written by Alexandra Cunningham and she has brilliantly captured the world of a New York precinct. She has cleverly snatched from the original opening series the most salient points and updated them, bringing in the discrimination that still exists and how even today a woman detective has to prove herself beyond and above her male counterparts; respect does not come easily.
The books cover
Prime Suspect 1, 2, 3
. . . and they mean as much to me as the television show. Sadly with all good things, sometimes the powers that be, have their own agendas and only these three books represent my voice. I only ever wrote three episodes, and three books. The learning curve from being a writer for hire, which I was on
, became the next major change in my career. I formed a production company, so that enabled me to produce my own work, cast, edit, and choose the directors. That said, although I have produced and written numerous series, I don’t think there will ever be one as close to me as
Lynda La Plante
rs. Corrina Salbanna was woken from a deep sleep by the sound of the front door banging in the wind. She squinted at her bedside clock; it was almost two. Swearing in her native Spanish, she threw off the bedclothes and stuffed her plump feet into her slippers.
She shuffled up the steps into the hall and towards the still-open front door, wrapping her dressing-gown around her against the chill. The naked light bulb gave the seedy hallway a yellowish hue that did nothing to enhance the peeling wallpaper and brown, flaking paint. Pursing her lips, Mrs. Salbanna slammed the door hard. There was no reason why anyone else in the house should be allowed to sleep if she couldn’t.
As she turned again towards her warm bed, she noticed a light beneath Della Mornay’s door on the first-floor landing. She put two and two together; it must be that little tart who had left the door open. Della owed three months’ rent, and had been warned about bringing men back to her room. Now was the time to catch her red-handed. Moving as fast as she could, Mrs. Salbanna returned to the basement and collected the master keys, then panted back up to the first floor.
“Della, I know you’re in there, open the door!”
She waited, with her ear pressed to the door. Hearing nothing, she rattled the door handle. “Della?”
There was no response. Her face set, Mrs. Salbanna inserted the key, unlocked the door and pushed it open.
The large room was as seedy as the rest of the rundown Victorian house, which had been divided into efficiency apartments long before Mrs. Salbanna and her husband had taken it over in the sixties, and many of the rooms still had the feel of the hippie years. Only the posters in this room had changed; Jimi Hendrix had given way to more modern rock and movie heroes. The first thing Mrs. Salbanna saw was a large photograph of Madonna, lips pouting, which dominated the squalid, clothes-strewn room from above the head of the old-fashioned double bed. A red shawl had been draped over the bedside lamp; in its glow Mrs. Salbanna could see that the pillows and red satin eiderdown had been dragged to the far side of the bed, revealing the stained ticking of the mattress.
There was no sign of Della. Shivering, Mrs. Salbanna looked about her with distaste. She wouldn’t put it past the little bitch to be hiding; she’d been devious enough about not paying her rent. She sniffed: stale body odor and cheap perfume. The smell was stronger when she peered into the mahogany wardrobe, but it contained only dresses and shoes.
The wardrobe door, off its hinges, was propped against the wall. Its full-length, fly-blown mirror was cracked and missing a corner, but reflected enough to show Mrs. Salbanna a leg, protruding from beneath the bedclothes on the floor. She spun round.
“You little bitch! I knew you were in here!”
For all her weight, the landlady moved swiftly across the room and crouched down to grip Della’s exposed ankle. With her other hand she threw the bedclothes aside. Her mouth opened to scream, but no sound came; she lost her balance and fell, landing on her backside. In a panic she crawled to the door, dragging herself up by the open drawer of a tallboy. Bottles and pots of make-up crashed to the floor as her scream finally surfaced. Mrs. Salbanna screamed and screamed . . .
By the time Detective Chief Inspector John Shefford arrived the house in Milner Road, Gray’s Inn, had been cordoned off. He was the last on the scene; two patrol cars were parked outside the house and uniformed officers were fending off the sightseers. An ambulance stood close by, its doors open, its crew sitting inside, drinking tea. The mortuary van was just drawing up and had to swerve out of the way as Shefford’s car screeched to a halt just where its driver had intended to park. Shefford’s door crashed open as he yanked on the handbrake. He was on the move, delving into his pocket for his ID as he stepped over the cordon. A young PC, recognizing him, ushered him up the steps to the house.
Even at two thirty on a wintry Sunday morning, word had got round that a murder had been committed. There were lights in many windows; people in dressing-gowns huddled on their front steps. A couple of kids had appeared and were vying with each other to see how close they could get to the police cordon without breaking through it. Five Rastafarians with a ghetto-blaster were laughing together on a nearby wall, calling out remarks and jokes, as if it was a street party.
Shefford, a bear of a man at six foot two, dwarfed those around him. He had been notorious on the rugby field in the late seventies, when he played for England. With his curly hair standing on end, his crumpled shirt and tie hanging loose he didn’t look or feel in a fit state to start an investigation. He had been hauled out of the celebration bash at the end of a long and tedious murder case, and he was knackered. Now he was about to lead the investigation of another murder, but this one was different.
Many of the officers in the dark, crowded hallway he had worked with before. He scanned the faces as his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. He never forgot a face, and he greeted each man he knew by name.
At the foot of the stairs he hesitated a moment, straightening his tie. It wasn’t like him to shrink from an unpleasant duty, but he had to force himself to mount each step. He was sweating. Above the confusion of voices a high-pitched wailing could be heard. It seemed to be coming from the direction of the basement.
Hearing Shefford’s voice, Detective Sergeant Bill Otley stopped pacing the landing and leaned over the banister. He gestured for his guv’nor to join him in the darkness at the far end of the landing. He kept his voice low and his eye on the men coming and going from the victim’s room.
“It’s Della Mornay, guv. I got the tip-off from Al Franks.”
He could smell the booze on Shefford’s breath. Unwrapping a peppermint, he handed it over. The boss wasn’t drunk; he probably had been, but he was straightening out fast. Then Otley shook out a pair of white overalls for each of them. While they struggled to put them on, their dark recess was lit at intervals by the powerful flash of a camera from the efficiency.
As Shefford dragged on a cigarette he became aware of a familiar low, gruff voice that had been droning on all the time he had been in the house. He moved towards the door and listened.
“ . . . She’s lying next to the double bed, on the side nearest the window and away from the door. She’s half-hidden beneath a red silk eiderdown. The window is open, a chest of drawers in front of it. We have a sheet, a blanket, a copy of the
dated December 1990 . . . Looks like it’s been used to wrap something in. She’s lying face down, hands tied behind her back. Wearing some kind of skinny-rib top, mini-skirt, no stockings. The right shoe is on the foot, the left one lying nearby . . .”