Lynda La Plante (The London Sunday Times Magazine, October 28, 2018)
You have to be quite brave to wear an all-white tent dress with a round neck – even if it is Valentino. La Plante greets me from a corner booth in her creamy beige hotel in Los Angeles and says “I’m ready for my pre-med,” referring to her designer dress that looks like a hospital gown and bursts into cackling giggles. Lynda La Plante is brave in so many ways. And funny.
Her original TV series Widows was one of televisions most watched in the 1980s over 18 million viewers. It was an event. Landmark TV, story of an all-female heist, unknowns cast as leads who later would become household names like Ann Mitchell who played Dolly Rawlins (Eastenders)
Widows has now been made into a powerful movie by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) starring Viola Davies, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell and Elisabeth Debicki. The movie is quite different from the TV series – for instance it’s set in modern day Chicago and a name has been changed – Dolly is now Veronica – but the premise is the same. Three armed robbers blow themselves up in a failed heist and the wife of the crimes leader discovers his notebook and detailed plans for jobs and they team up with the other widows to finish the men’s work. The film is exciting, sexy, powerful, emotional with all of the unexpected punches of the original – already an Oscar buzz about it and the film opened the London Film Festival on October 10th.
La Plante is here in Los Angeles pitching a different TV series to various networks and enjoying the gentle afterglow of the Widows buzz as well she deserves – last year was a terrible year where she thought she was having a nervous breakdown. ITV commissioned a prequel to Prime Suspect, Tennison 1973, which centred around the young DC Tennison, the character that was to make Helen Mirren a superstar and Lynda La Plante a force to be reckoned with. The ITV version had almost no force at all. La Plante had to take her name off it. It was humiliating.
La Plante does humiliation well – as long as she’s telling the story. She comes to the West Coast for TV meetings but not that often. She has homes in the UK and in the Hamptons on the East Coast, thus has never got to know California.
“A few years ago, before sat nav, I had to drive to Montecito for lunch. Because I have no sense of direction I got up really early and drove off in a rented little sports car. Lunch with my friend was at 12.30 but I got there at 9.30. So, I thought I’ll just go and sit by their pool and let myself in to this very elegant place, changed in the pool house, helped myself to beautiful iced drinks from the fridge and fluffy towels. I was there quite a while when someone came out and said, ‘Who are you?’ I’m Lynda La Plante and he said, ‘You are in the wrong house.’ I used their suntan cream, their towels, their drinks and my friend lived a few doors down. By the time I got to her I was still an hour early.”
She laughs loudly at herself, almost frightening the waitress who is bringing the coffee. The breakfast at the wrong house anecdote gives more than a clue to who she is. A woman who doesn’t care if she’s out of place. She’ll just get on with it. The more you know her, the more you realise she has all the bravery of the tough women heroines she’s created and all of the heart.
La Plante was born in Liverpool in 1943, a middle child with an older brother and younger sister. She was an actress until she created and wrote the series Widows, followed by the sequel She’s Out. She spent years in prisons, bordellos, mortuaries for research. Her first novel The Legacy was published in 1987. More international best sellers came and in 1991 she created Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison. She has 3 Baftas and two Emmy’s for Prime Suspect and was awarded a CBE in 2008.
Her father was devoted to the gold course, her mother loved sports and was buried in a Liverpool shirt. She wouldn’t watch anything of Lynda’s on TV if it clashed with the football. When Prime Suspect was on its third series, she once asked ‘Did you write that?’
La Plante continues, “I’m here (in LA) because of Widows (seeing final screenings) and I’m pitching a series with Tom Fontana (Emmy winning writer/producer of Homicide: Life on The Street, St Elsewhere and Borgia). All the studios say they don’t want anything quite as violent as I’m used to. Then they keep saying how do I see the second season, the third season…”
We agree that the golden age of the box set is perhaps over forever and why can’t there just be one good series?
She is used to being a lone voice in a room where she’s pitching. ITV questioned her creative control as a writer/producer/show runner. They wanted the Tennison character, but it seems nothing else of La Plante. She found it shocking.
“Because I didn’t have control at casting, at producing, getting the crew… It used to be a joy to me. Being an actress for so long I knew intuitively if someone was good. (She trained at RADA, worked with the RSC and was on TV in Z Cars and The Sweeney) I love actors. Sam James the casting director walked out, couldn’t take it. The abuse I saw during the casting was really quite something. The director would say do it again, do it again, do it again but without any notes. He didn’t believe in notes.”
There’s a smell of calm in the creamy beige hotel and fresh floral arrangements but still a smell of outrage in our booth. Does she feel that it would be a lot different if the casting had taken place just after the events of #metoo rather than just before? She laughs, “Yes, it would have been much better.”
Did she feel dismissed as a woman? Dismissed because she’s not young? (She’s 75) She doesn’t know which it is. She’s not used to being dismissed. All her projects have involved prodigious research. Her knowledge of police and police procedure is phenomenal and outside of that she is credited with discovering the then unknown Idris Elba when she cast him in The Governor and a young Paul Bettany in Killer Net. Perhaps the other producers were slightly in awe of her, afraid of her?
“No, they were just amateurs. Scared of any decisions or any risk,” she dismisses.
“Someone at ITV found an actor that they wanted to play the lead but I said, “He can’t act,” and they said, “But he’s very attractive.” I said, “He can’t walk and talk at the same time,” and they said, “You don’t understand, he’s very attractive.” He was cast and by the time the reviews came out I had walked. One of the reviews said when the bomb went off in the bank and this actor was burnt he probably burned up very quickly because he was so wooden! I cut it out and sent it to them.” More giggling.
Some people might have thought this was childish. For her it seems a small triumph. She doesn’t care if she never works for ITV again. The original Widows was on Thames (ITV). She says you could never get it on TV now. She cast black people and mixed-race people in leads rather as maids and butlers and in the eighties this was in itself a revolution. She was always a woman ahead of her time. That must be why she clashed with the male bosses at ITV.
“No, I think they were egocentric amateurs. That’s it. They wanted to do what they wanted to – whatever I wanted they didn’t care.”
Would it have made a difference if she was a man? There’s a pause as long as you could smoke a cigarette in.
“Probably,” she concedes. “The emotions of stress and frustration was difficult to deal with. I felt heartbroken. I had spent so long working with the old cops, so much research…(all of her input dismissed). What was the most shocking of all was when the man who commissioned it had lunch with me at the Ivy. I said I’ve got all the material, I’ve got Jane Tennison, I’ve written a book. He looked at me and said ‘Unfortunately for you, you don’t own these characters. We do and if we wanted to make our own series of Jane Tennison we could. We wouldn’t do that,’ but that’s exactly what they did. From day one they wanted me out.
“Franchise of the novel continues and they are huge worldwide. I own the other characters and two other production companies have liked them and I’m in talks to develop a series around them.
“ITV also decided to change the killer and not kill another character off. I was bypassed at every single level so I took my name away. John Heyman (producer who died recently and father of Harry Potter super producer David) told me, ‘don’t waste a second being angry. You want revenge, be a success.”
Indeed, she’s now on book number 4, Murder Mile, in a series of 10 Tennison books which is about to drop. Widows has been re-released and a best seller in many countries, with new territories added almost weekly. She’s in the Best Seller list of several countries every week. She’s pitching her new crime show with Fontana which she says is exciting and the book Widows continues to roll. In Australia it’s already in its 6th reprint. Rights have been sold everywhere from Japan to Russia. Widows the novel has been expanded and enhanced from the original work and it’s still a ripping read.
Although she is not officially on the payroll for Widows the movie, she is ultimately the creator of these characters and as thus she is able to bathe in the large pools of its success.
She smiles. “The extraordinary development is that Widows is rearing its head like a monster…
“I met Steve McQueen at an event at Buckingham Palace honouring members of the Royal Academy. John Hurt was there. He had this shaggy moustache, maybe it was for a film and his hair was standing on end. He took me aside and said, ‘Everybody here looks so fucking old,’ and he died a few weeks later.”
La Plante is more than aware of time passing. Friends Lynda Bellingham and Cilla Black both now gone means she doesn’t want to lose a day, an hour even. At the same party, McQueen came up to her. “Are you Lynda LaPlante,” he said. I didn’t know who he was. He is quite a formidable person, large. He said, “My name is Steve McQueen,’ and he had just made 12 Years a Slave. He said, “I have been obsessed with Widows since I was a child.’ He told me how he watched it as a teenager and it stayed with him. It was dormant in him and he’d like to make a movie. And I thought that would be absolutely incredible. He has been so respectful.” La Plante didn’t write the script but she was consulted at every turn.
“The notes sessions were incredible, where did you find these women?,” he would ask. “And I went through all the lives of all the women I had met in prison and he was, ‘Tell me more, more, more.’ He sent the script and I had a lot of notes, every note that I had he would say, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ and that is how we worked.
“He is quite boyish when he wants something. He said, ‘You have a lot of humour. Why do you have this humour?’ and we laughed. And I said, ‘If you laugh with somebody you like them.’ Dolly Rawlins comes over as hard hitting like a hammer, but she’s got to make mistakes and jokes so you like her. In the movie she is Ronnie. If you were making this for TV first off, they’d say Dolly Rawlins has got to be Olivia Coleman and the glamorous one would have to have several TV credits.
The film so far has been receiving rave reviews. Producer Eain Canning says “I did not set out to write a film about diversity but we knew we had a very significant female voice echoing the original. This is a contemporary love letter to Lynda’s Widows. She very definitely has a voice in it. We wanted to make sure that the original spirit was there so she was part of the process. We didn’t set out to make a film about diversity but that is Chicago. We simply reflected what we saw on the streets. Steve and I are equally surprised that people are surprised that this story connects with audiences, just like Lynda’s TV show connected. It’s crazy that in 2018 we’re still talking about it being abnormal to have a film with female leads. Hopefully it will be the last time people focus on this.”
It’s almost as if the feminist clock had been ticking backwards and that there was more freedom for women in television in the eighties.
“When I originally cast Eva Motley (British born Barbadian actress in the role of Bella), the casting director was nervous because she had just come out of prison. I remember reading something about Lauren Bacall when she first worked with Bogart she found it very difficult to lift her eyes, she looks down and then up (she mimics this and looks quite Princess Diana) I noticed that Eva did that. She had a gruff voice, yet this vulnerability. Director Ian Toington was a man who loved women and said, ‘I think she is scared but wonderful.’
It was a risk, that nowadays, she would not be allowed to take.
“I see Eva every day of my life in a poster in my office. She committed suicide before the second series. Every time I think about her, I always want to make a film in her memory.”
Now this fearless, tiny juggernaut of a woman, a woman who’s been chopped down and always stood up again, has large tears rolling down her face.
“It was like her dream had come true and then it turned into a nightmare.” In many ways there are parallels here. La Plante’s dreamed of another TV series and then it became her nightmare.
“I’ll fight and I will be as strong as I can be. I have always been on my own, I have never had back up until recently where I have had people working close with me and it’s changed my life, that I could trust people. Going into those rooms pitching totally solo and I would be saying things like, ‘This girl is no good,’ and them saying, ‘Well we all like her.’”
Widows has been the opposite experience – inclusive and respectful. Although the is set in a different era, a different city, “the emotions are the same.” More than ever, it’s a movie that’s right for this time. It’s about women not putting up with abuse and being sidelined. It’s about women rising up and women doing it better.
“It’s quite violent.” But it’s a powerful, emotional, heart stopping use of violence. It’s interesting to her that in her recent pitching, the networks all seem to want the violence toned down or taken out altogether. They see it as gratuitous.
“The thing I have always disapproved of is gratuitous nudity. For example, in Tennison there was a 17-year old victim. We cast a young girl – in the script it very clearly states that the only thing you can see is her Biba boot. The police officer looks and says she is very young. She is covered, it’s raining. In the TV series you see her whole body. That girl was left naked for hours and hours. It’s abuse. There was an autopsy scene where this young naked girl lay on a trolley for ages while the crew drank coffee. That’s men, male directors, unasked for, unnecessary, abusive. I am very protective of actors.”
Does she think she could take an occasional acting role? In our meeting she’s done quite a few accents including five different Liverpudlian ones. “I don’t think I could act now, I walk into furniture because of my eye problems.”
In January she had cataract operations that went wrong.
“I had glasses everywhere. All over the house. I thought, oh I think I’ll have laser surgery. I went in to have the laser and they said,’ You are too old to have the laser, you have slight cataracts. What we can do is get rid of the cataract and insert lenses so you will never have to wear glasses again. Both eyes at the same time. Everybody I have met says you never have both eyes at the same time but off I went.”
Was this blind optimism or too busy to really think about it?
“Don’t know. They told me it’s just a couple of weeks recovery time and before that things will just be a bit blurred. After two weeks and drops and drops and drops in my eyes I still couldn’t see a thing. Morning, noon and night drops. ‘Oh, you have a slight infection,’ they said. More drops. I told them I can’t judge dark from light, I fall over. ‘Only to be expected.’ they said. They didn’t tell me that. The operation was January 10 and since then I have seen eight specialists. Some have said the lenses they inserted are problematic. They now tell me if they re-move the lenses I could be completely blind.
The Queen, she goes in, wears dark glasses for one day and it’s over. But not me. Lawyers are looking into it. I have become very fearful of them doing anything. I was in the garden and I thought, ‘There are an awful lot of bugs in this drink.’ I go inside, empty it out, fill the glass and they are still there, then I realise they are everywhere. It’s in my eyes. Little black dots everywhere. Then they told me it meant the retina was coming away. Another specialist said that apparently my right retina came away during the procedure but they pushed it back.
“I actually had the Queen’s surgeon look at me and he is the one that pointed out the possibility of blindness. It’s something about the lenses being stuck into the eye. Another surgeon said there is the possibility of placing a black lens in the eye and I said, ‘I would look very weird,’ and he said it would help my ability to judge day from night.
“You’d be amazed how many places have white walls and white tables. There is a new drug that costs $900 a month to help with that. I took it and it had absolutely no effect whatsoever. I deal with it by using a big magnifying glass and using very large print, like a children’s book. I have to have somebody to take me around the airport and into the plane. And all these meetings in these studios, they all have huge white tables. And I am sitting there thinking, they don’t know I can’t see them at all.”
Once again, we laugh almost hysterically as we both know it’s quite tragic. Is there no hope?
“There is hope that they would do one eye at a time to remove the lens. If the first eye goes blind then they won’t do the other one. I also have nightmare pain in the neck from a disc.”
She has had several procedures where steroids have been injected into the disc and she still can’t turn her neck properly when it flares up which is probably exacerbated by stress.
What makes her power through it?
“I don’t know. I have had five operations under anaesthesia where they shoot steroids into the dodgy disc and then they say we missed it.”
She is also on pain killers.
We order croissants, no jam because she’s a spiller, and wearing white. She’s like all the strong female boss characters she’s created and then some. I wonder, does she laugh a lot and make jokes to make you like her? She’s certainly very easy to talk to, kind. The eyes, the neck, the ITV. They’re all scary but she seems to have taken them in her stride. Perhaps she’s prolific because of the setbacks. It’s her way of working through the pain.
The first tidal wave of pain came when she was divorcing Richard La Plante in 1996. “When you go through a marital exposure… for me it was a betrayal of everything. The worst was my trusted PA. I kept saying to my lawyer, ‘I don’t understand how he knows everything I am earning. Every contract.’ She was feeding him everything. They got married.”
How very All About Eve. No wonder trusting people is new to her.
She nods. “He had Raymond Tooth as his lawyer, an obnoxious little man (known for his ferocity in the court and nicknamed Jaws) and I had a man with a stammer! I was told to stay quiet and not say anything.
“Eventually I said, ‘How much do you want? Put it on the table.’ And I sold everything I had to get rid of him. But I wouldn’t let him have so much as a brick of my house. When it was over, the relief was immense.
“Richard was coming after me for the house in the Hampton’s and alimony for the rest of his life. I sold everything that I possessed so that he didn’t get a brick. But I didn’t have to give him his name back, that’s the only thing I got out of it. My name before was Marchal. It’s not a good name. What’s the best gift I have ever had? My divorce papers. I waited so long so I was glad for it to be over and to be free. And to be able to have my son.
“He wouldn’t let me adopt, I had had three miscarriages and he said no to adopting. It was over for me. I thought I have got to be very grown up and just accept it was over for me and babies. I got a great Dane.
“I remember the moment – I had gone to the States. Was at a friend’s house by the beach. The water came up almost into his yard and I saw this girl walking towards me and she had a two-year old on her hip. His little legs were moving and I remember thinking I will never have that. Whereas before I thought it’s too late, I’m too old, I thought I had accepted it but suddenly I felt such emotion. I thought that I had dealt with it but I hadn’t. When I got home there was a phone call from an attorney – when I had been hoping to adopt I had been listed with many attorneys, this one said, ‘we’ve got something for you, there is a baby being born in Florida, we don’t know if it’s male or female, the birth mother does not want any finances, she does not want to know or meet any adopters, she has not queried if it’s a single parent. Somehow you have risen to the top of the list. If you can be in Boca Raton by tomorrow morning, the baby is yours.’ So I left immediately from the Hampton’s to Boca Raton and the next morning I had my son.”
How interesting – the moment she gave up and let it all go, she got the call. She answers simply with the stream tears from her eyes,
“Perhaps other people would have queried it, saying I am by myself now but I didn’t. When we were married he said, ‘We are not adopting.’ I didn’t have to turn anyone down, this was the first. I know my son (Lorcan now 15) finds it hard at school as he is always referred to as Lynda LaPlante’s adopted son. He hates that, he says, ‘I am your son. Why do they always say adopted?’
I promise her I will not use the phrase LLP’s adopted son.
“He says, ‘I am your son,’ and he is extraordinary. She can’t hide her pride in him. Does she fear that the birth mother will come looking for him?
“I hope that one day I will reunite her with him. At his Christening – I went to town, it was huge. I talked to the Archbishop who was doing the ceremony, I asked, ‘Can you please insert a prayer for the birth mother to be at peace with this?’ He said, ‘I have never had to do this before.’ And I said that I would appreciate it. And there wasn’t a person at the ceremony who didn’t feel it.
“I owe her 15 years of love from this extraordinary, naughty boy who is now in the Hamptons with his motorbike. He can’t go on the road, just on the grounds. He is gorgeous looking and very funny. He is very handsome, brown haired. He said, ‘Will I have a suit at the premiere?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘Not a Marks and Spencer’s one?’ He is quite a snazzy dresser. He is broad, he does rowing (I’ve seen them together and they look like they belong).
Since he was three he has had a girlfriend called Hailey, they met at summer camp and they have been together ever since. She looks like a young Kate Moss. They are a divine couple, beautiful together. She bosses him around.”
I’m sure Lorcan is a large part of her drive. Her east coast banker boyfriend has been gone about a year. “I got quite tired of when he came to London, get tickets for this, book Harry’s bar… I am not his secretary. He is very, very, social, Mr. Society, has all these huge parties. We had an enormous argument about a painting. I don’t know if you ever saw that play Art, where one of them has bought a white canvas. He bought a white canvas by… I said I don’t care who it’s by, you actually bought a white canvas. I cannot believe you would do that. So, I drew a little face on it and he went berserk.
“My house in The Hamptons is full of American Indian art. He would walk in and say, ‘Oh my God, the red Indians. Why have you got them in every room?’
She sent out for painkillers which have just arrived. She slips one down. Of course, never having complained
She has a library of her own intellectual property. In the library are outlines for a further 5 Tennyson books, outlines for Above Suspicion. I wonder why all these outlines laid out? She’s up at 5am every day – never stops. Is it because she thinks at 75, she might not have time to write all these books?
“No,” she says. She takes it in her stride. These days she can’t really see where she’s going, but she’s going there anyway. Any pain, any problems seem to disappear when she talks about her son. And when she talks about the kindness of Steve McQueen which seems to have totally compensated for the pain caused by ITV’s dismissive attitude.
“Steve gave it back to me. He constantly refers to the way we work together. He is generous to me. He sent me the most amazing flowers saying, ‘Thank you for your amazing notes.’ She smiles blissfully.
She worries that she might have to let go of things she cares about like her house in the Hampton’s, her 1970’s Mercedes.
“I can’t drive it now, but I hate letting go of things. I keep things because they make me remember exactly what I was doing when I got them. I keep doing bits of letting go.”
Is it because she’s testing how it feels to let go of the small things to see if she’s ready to let go of bigger things?
“I don’t think so,” she smiles, enjoying the ride even if she’s no longer driving the car.
Widows and Murder Mile are published by Zaffre