Most celebrated as the creator of iconic homicide detective Jane Tennison in the Prime Suspect series, Lynda La Plante is one of Britain’s most important contemporary television dramatists, following in the footsteps of Dennis Potter, John Mortimer, and Andrew Davies. Typically drawn to dark, violent subject matter that has traditionally been the province of male writers, La Plante has “reconfigure[ed] the boundaries and structures of TV crime drama” through her exploration of sexual politics and her insistence on verisimilitude through graphic attention to detail, according to British film scholar Deborah Jermyn. The influence of her work has been felt internationally, certainly in the United States, where shows like The Closer, Cold Case, Medium, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit owe a clear debt to La Plante’s Tennison, who established that the crime genre can be carried by a strong female character. Much of La Plante’s post–Prime Suspect work, including Trial & Retribution and The Commander, also features strong women at the core, reflecting La Plante’s own career experience to an extent. Originally an actor, she turned to writing when frustrated with the roles being offered, and then to producer when she became disillusioned with the limits of her creative input. As Rebecca Eaton, who brought Prime Suspect to the United States as executive producer of Mystery! and Masterpiece Theatre, has pointed out, La Plante’s sensibility transcends genre, with a “universal nature” that “would resonate for many, many executive women.”
La Plante, born Lynda Titchmarsh in Lancashire, United Kingdom, studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and broke into show business as an actor using the screen name Lynda Marchal. She appeared on numerous British TV series in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, including popular crime dramas like The Sweeney and the family comedy Rentaghost (portraying a ghost with an allergy to flowers). From 1973 to 1974, she penned eight episodes of the British family sitcom The Kids of 47A, still credited as Lynda Marchal. As La Plante herself tells it, in 1980, while guesting on The Gentle Touch—reportedly the first police drama series on British television with a female protagonist—she wrote four plot outlines and dispatched them to the show’s producers. All four were rejected, but on one of them someone had scribbled “This is wonderful!,” which was all the encouragement La Plante needed. She kept at it, turning that brief synopsis into the script for the six-part TV series Widows, her first big hit as a writer. Airing to much acclaim and hefty ratings in 1983, Widows—the story of four women carrying out their late husbands’ robbery heist—was nominated for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award and solidified La Plante’s transformation from actor to writer.
La Plante’s choice of genre was remarkable for its time, as British crime dramas were dominated by TV tough-guy writers like Ian Kennedy Martin, his brother Troy, and Ranald Graham, all of whom La Plante was familiar with as an actor on such shows as The Sweeney and Z Cars. In the years following Widows she was hotly sought after, and in 1985 she penned the follow-up series Widows 2, followed a year later by an episode of Unnatural Causes. “And then, for the next [several] years,” La Plante told the New York Times in 1996, “every single script was rejected.” Turns out British programmers were looking for another Widows, while La Plante was looking to move on.
Flash forward to a fortuitous lunch with a British programming executive hungry for fresh ideas. Recalls La Plante: “The left side of my brain just came to life, and I said I’d been thinking about a detective series about a woman plainclothes homicide detective. Then she asked what it was called, and out came the title Prime Suspect.” Intrigued, the programmer asked for a treatment, which was great, except that La Plante hadn’t conducted any research on the project. She began phoning British police stations in search of a real-life detective on whom to base her fictional creation, only to discover that “there were three in the whole of England. I knew I was on to something.”
“Something,” it turned out, was a huge understatement. La Plante proceeded to create one of television’s most nuanced and compelling characters: Jane Tennison, a lonely, driven, self-destructive homicide detective who battles not only depraved criminals, but also resentment from her sexist colleagues and a rich array of personal demons. Tennison was a groundbreaking creation; before her arrival women were typically supporting characters on British TV crime dramas. Brilliantly limned by Helen Mirren, she has appeared in seven Prime Suspect programs, from her debut in 1991 to Prime Suspect: The Final Act in 2006, all airing not just in Britain, but also in America on public television and in other countries. The series has won numerous awards for excellence, including an Emmy for best miniseries in the United States and several British Academy of Film and Television Arts honors for Mirren.
Writing in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, Deborah Jermyn called Prime Suspect “a transition text in the history of TV crime drama, for its simultaneous intervention into the genre’s sexual politics and representation of ‘realism.’” Jermyn, senior lecturer in film studies at Southampton Institute in Britain, said, “The intersection of these two themes marks this text as a decisive moment in Lynda La Plante’s ongoing reconfiguration of the boundaries and structures of TV crime drama.”
La Plante scripted only the first and third installment of the series and actually distanced herself from the seventh—in which Tennison becomes an alcoholic, much to La Plante’s dismay. “I just find it very sad that for the end of a great character, female, somebody has to say ‘make her a drunk.’ Why?” La Plante told London’s Daily Mirror in 2006. Interestingly, not all critics see Tennison as a poster child for feminism. As Jermyn has pointed out, some feminists have criticized La Plante for portraying Tennison’s private life as “recurrently in crisis and thereby denying women the possibility of ‘having it all.’”
Other British TV credits followed the original Prime Suspect, including Civvies and Framed, both airing in 1992; Seekers and Prime Suspect 3 in 1993; and She’s Out in 1995. In 1994, frustrated by her lack of creative input after turning in scripts, La Plante launched an eponymous independent production company, whose first project was The Governor, a hard-hitting drama series about a female prison governor in charge of a high-security facility for men. With its strong but flawed female protagonist and its focus on violence and gender politics in the workplace, The Governor (1995) strongly echoes Prime Suspect and other La Plante works. “What I find the most fascinating is that women alone and women who are childless are very dangerous, because when pushed they’ll fight,” says La Plante, the divorced mother of an adopted child. “When a woman has a child at home, she’s the lioness and protective. When there’s nothing to protect, something happens.” Subsequent titles from La Plante Productions have included Supply & Demand, Trial & Retribution (fourteen installments and counting), The Commander (premiering in 2003 and still going strong); Killer Net; and Mind Games.
La Plante has also cracked the U.S. TV scene, teaming with writer/producer Tom Fontana (Homicide: Life on the Street) in 1996 on The Prosecutors, a pilot for U.S. TV, and in 1997 scripting the four-hour CBS miniseries Bella Mafia, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Nastassja Kinski and based on La Plante’s own novel about a quartet of women who seek revenge against the Mafia. Other U.S. TV credits include the 2002 Widows, a remake of the original British production, and The Warden and Framed for TNT. Much of La Plante’s television work on both shores shares the same thematic preoccupations, leading You magazine to comment in a 1993 profile: “The chief characteristic of her work is not optimism but a profound sense of the violence of human existence.”
Recently, La Plante teamed with producer Sophie Balhetchet to launch a film company, Cougar Films, whose maiden film Imagine Me & You, was released in 2006.
La Plante has won numerous British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards, including the coveted Dennis Potter Writer’s Award in 2000, plus the British Broadcasting Award, the Royal Television Society Writer’s Award, the Edgar Award, an Emmy for best miniseries, and a Contribution to the Media award from Women in Film, and has been named an honorary fellow of the British Film Institute. In turn she has awarded a creative writing scholarship to John Moores University in Liverpool.