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'Prime Suspect' Creator Delves Into Criminal Mind


In Great Britain, Lynda La Plante is considered the Bard of Bad, the playwright laureate of women crime stoppers. She is certainly best known in the United States for creating and developing the hard-bitten character of Inspector Jane Tennison, so memorably portrayed by Dame Helen Mirren in the long-running series, "Prime Suspect," which won every major television award in Britain and the U.S.

Now, two more series that Lynda La Plante developed have just been released in special DVD sets from Acorn Media. "Trial and Retribution," starring David Hayman and Kate Buffery, follows a London case "Law and Order" style, from crime to verdict - often a surprising verdict.

(Soundbite of series "Trial and Retribution")

Unidentified Actor: It's blood. But getting through to the crime court, we have to adjourn now. We can't try him twice.

SIMON: And "The Commander" stars Amanda Burton as Clare Blake, the highest-ranking woman officer in New Scotland Yard.

(Soundbite of series "The Commander")

Ms. AMANDA BURTON: (As Clare Blake) I'd like to interview Graham Warner.

Unidentified Actor #1: That's going to be difficult.

Ms. BURTON: (As Clare Blake) Why?

Unidentified Actor #1: He is on holiday.

Ms. BURTON: (As Clare Blake) Well, find out when he's back. And further more, I have repeatedly asked DCI Hedges for CCTV footage.

Unidentified Actor #2: Oh, I've got it. It came this morning.

Unidentified Actor #1: It's in the machine.

SIMON: Lynda La Plante joins us from a booth at the BBC in London. Let's put her in. Thank you so much for being with us.

Ms. LYNDA LA PLANTE (Crime Writer): Hello, Scott.

SIMON: May I ask, I read that you were born Lynda Titchmarsh(ph)?

Ms. LA PLANTE: Yes, dreadful.

SIMON: Well...

Ms. LA PLANTE: In fact, when my original name, Lynda Titchmarsh, and I was an actress, and I was auditioning at the National Theater for Lord Olivier, and I was about to go on the stage to do my piece when this woman said, no, no! You can't go on yet. What number are you? And I said, I'm number 42. So she went on, she said, Lord Olivier, number 42, Lydia Titmouse(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

From the stalls came this kind of really bored, was, good heavens! What is your name? I said, well, actually sir, that's not my real name. He said, and what is your real name? And I said, it's Lynda Titchmarsh. And he said, change it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, now you were at the National, the Royal Shakespeare, Rada(ph). How did you get over to the other side?

Ms. LA PLANTE: Well, I think there comes a point in one's life when, you know, around about nudging 30 and you haven't made it, every script that you're offered has got an awful lot of fingerprints over it. And so I was doing a television series and I said, could I have a go at writing? And somebody said, by all means, send in a treatment.

And I made the classic error because it did have a leading lady, and I wrote these leading parts for myself, and they were all turned down. But on one treatment, which was called "The Women," somebody - it could have been the cleaner, I have no idea - but somebody had written on it, this is brilliant. And you know, that little bit of encouragement, I took it home and I reworked it, and instead of calling it "The Women," I called it "Widows," and it was my first big, big hit show over here. And I never worked again as an actress.

SIMON: Strange question. I don't get to ask it of many people. How many murders do you think you've committed?

Ms. LA PLANTE: Ooh! Ooh, that's - there has to be at least 30.

SIMON: Hmm. I would have guessed even somewhat more.


SIMON: Of course, we're making - if it was lost on anyone, we were making a reference to the way, obviously, murder cases are so important in your series. I was struck in doing my reading. An old profile of you in The Guardian says, quote, "As a child, she would scalp her sisters' dolls and dump them down the toilet."

Ms. LA PLANTE: Yes, that is true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LA PLANTE: Not a lot of people knew that. You know, in some ways, I've always been interested in - not in murder, you know, scalping people. But crime - my favorite show as a child was "Elliot Ness." And with "Trial and Retribution," I think what's good about it for me is that there is a conclusion. You actually are in on the moment the crime is committed, and you see a trial and the guilty or not guilty verdict at the end of it. And I felt that so often you see in any television thriller program, you see the arrest of the perpetrator but then you don't really know what happens to them.

SIMON: We suggested in the introduction to you, in "Trial and Retribution" people might often be surprised by the verdict because they might have a very good idea of who they think is responsible and what the best resolution of the case would be. To be plain about it, the verdicts are sometimes disappointing, and I wonder what lesson you draw from the fact that even in certainly one of, if not the best,legal system in the world, which you have in the U.K., innocent people sometimes get convicted and killers sometimes go free.

Ms. LA PLANTE: OK, Scott. Which is the killer that goes free? Because I don't think I've ever let one go.

SIMON: Well, I'm thinking of - let me think about this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LA PLANTE: I got you there because I bet you think the number one, where the actor is Rhys Ifans.

SIMON: Let's set that case up a bit for our audience.

Ms. LA PLANTE: OK. It's a very tragic case because it's a murder of a child. And the suspect, when he's brought into custody, is a drunk drug addict who lives on a derelict building site. And bit-by-bit they find evidence to implicate him in this child's death, and he is formally charged with the murder. There then occurs an almost metamorphosis. They clean him up, they wash his hair, and beneath the matted hair is actually a rather angelic-looking young man and one forgets the first image of him.

And when you hear them say, you did it, he is guilty, he did it. But so many people, Scott, have said exactly what you said, that he was innocent, and they forget, actually, the damning evidence against him because of that ability in court, cleaned up, he appears like a young, blond, rather handsome young man, and innocent.

SIMON: Do you go to trials?

Ms. LA PLANTE: Yes, and I've made so many good contacts with the courts and with barristers that they get me in. Sometimes I go in as a defense counselor and I sit in the back with the black robe and the wig on. I mean, it's any way they can get me in.

SIMON: This is not the most important question I've ever asked, but you may be in a position to know. Why do they wear those robes and wigs, aside from - is it just to look picturesque?

Ms. LA PLANTE: For the simple reason they instill the most extraordinary feeling of order. As soon as you're in those courts that echo and in they come in those robes, they're like a breed. Their language is different, the way they talk to the judge. My Lord, I would like to bring up, you know, this moment in court. And there is a pomposity to it. I don't want it to change because I think it does have a regulation about it, a fear about it that is very good.

SIMON: Pointedly, I'm not going to ask you about the criminal mentality because you certainly present it in both of these series, "Trial and Retribution" and "The Commander," but I'm interested in your portraits of the men and women in law enforcement. And maybe we find the criminal mentality sometimes so fascinating we overlook theirs.

Ms. LA PLANTE: Yes, we do. We do sometimes. They are predominantly actors. To go into, knock on a door of a family and tell them the worst thing of all - can I come in, please? I'm afraid I have very bad news for you - they don't know the victim, and they don't know the family but they have to go in and they have to touch that family, calm them down. And of course they act. They learn, when they're interrogating the good man, the bad man, they learn a performance. And you can see officers after an interrogation come out and go, whew, that was a bit tough. What do you think? Do you think he did it? And yet still you've watch them in an interrogation saying, I know you were at that house! You were there at 1 p.m., now why are you lying to me? Come on, you were there. And they go on and on and on and on. Then they walk out and they say, I don't think we've got him. Do you think we've got him? Of course, they're performing.

SIMON: How do you - do you ever instruct actors who are in your series?

Ms. LA PLANTE: No, but I do read in. When I'm casting, I cast all the start. I mean, it's lovely because you meet the actors. You can also throw the script around with them, too, which is very, very exciting because to hear your words lifted off the page is always good. But, boy, I can also hear when they don't work. So I love to be in casting for two reasons. To pick the stars or the actors for the show and also to make sure my dialogue is very saleable.

SIMON: Lynda La Plante DVD sets from Acorn Media are now available for two of her great crime series, "Trial and Retribution," starring David Hayman and Kate Buffery, and Amanda Burton as "The Commander." We've enjoyed talking to you. Thanks so much.

Ms. LA PLANTE: I've enjoyed every minute with you, Scott. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.