Tag Archives: origin

Top ten writing tips from Lynda La Plante, creator of Prime Suspect

30 Oct
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Lynda la Plante: currently working on a prequel to Prime Suspect

After a diversion to report on the Brixton Ritzy strike, it’s back to my daily reports from the London Screenwriters’ Festival. One of the giants of crime writing gave a hugely entertaining talk: Lynda La Plante, creator of Prime Suspect. Here are her ten tips:

1. Write like a transvestite trucker. I was an actress [in cop shows like Z Cars and The Sweeney] before I was a writer. I had a role with dialogue that made no sense, so I thought, Can I have a go? I went off and wrote three short treatments. They were all rejected, but there was one, Widows, where someone had scrawled across it, “This is brilliant.”

So I sent it to [veteran producer] Verity Lambert, but decided I wouldn’t put my acting name on, but instead put “Lynda La Plante”. When she called me in, she looked up and said, “Oh no, you’re not Lynda La Plante, are you?” Because she knew me as an actress. “We thought it was a transvestite trucker!” She told me to write episode one.

2. Make sure you have a killer treatment. My treatment for Widows started like this: “Four men planning a raid blow themselves up with their own explosives. These men left four widows: Dolly Rawlins, Shirley Miller, Linda Pirelli and Bella O’Reilly. Bereft by the loss of her beloved husband, Dolly Rawlins finds weapons, money and a detailed map of the robbery, and knows where it went wrong. She approaches the other widows and says ‘I will pay you to work alongside me and do the robbery.’” But I didn’t know how to write it from there.

3. Do your research. So I went to source.  On every TV unit there’s always someone who’s done a bit of time, so I contacted one and said I needed to find some criminals. He’s like, “Oh yeh darlin’? What sort?” “Bad ones.” “Murderers?” “Yes.” He took me to the Thomas A Beckett pub, where the Krays hung out. He said, “Do you remember that bloke who fed the bodies to the pigs on a farm?” I said yes, not knowing at all. He said, “Right, here he is. John? Come and meet Lynda.”

Then I went to prison visits, met prisoners’ wives, widows. There was one who was tough, worked a greengrocery, and Dolly began to shape. I went to the police, they said they’d help me – I had no idea of police procedure. You show respect, and just ask.

4. Know how to keep your mouth shut. I’d had one big hit with Widows, then had various commissions that had all fallen down so was feeling a bit bruised. I was learning another big lesson – to keep my mouth shut in meetings. Instead I started off, I really need to know what you’re looking for. She said, “What we really want is a woman in a leading role, working on a murder investigation.” I said, “I’ve been working on that!” Which I hadn’t. She then said, “And we want her in plainclothes.” I said, “Yes, I’ve been working on just that!”

She said, “What’s it called?” The gods were on my side: I came out with, “Prime Suspect”. She said that sounded perfect, just what they were looking for! So I agreed to bring in a treatment.

Helen Mirren as Prime Suspect's Jane Tennison

Helen Mirren as Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison

5. Do still more research. The first thing I did was phone the police and ask for a high-ranking woman detective. “No problem, we have three.” Only three! That was the first insight. So I go in to meet one, and in comes my prototype for Jane Tennison: DCI Jackie Malton. She would say the male officers were so desperate to elbow her out that when they got the call to scramble the squad cars, her rank would put her in the front seat, but she got her hand caught in the door three or four times because they didn’t want to let her in.

6. Keep one step ahead of the audience. People love crime fiction, because it’s a game. They say, “I know who did it – now trick me.” I will outwit you again and again. You think you know who the killer is? No you don’t. That’s respecting an adult audience, not decapitations and blood everywhere.

7. Break the rules – for a reason. I went for a split screen on Trial and Retribution because I had become so involved in forensics [La Plante is the only non-scientist to have been given an honorary fellowship by the Forensic Science Society], and was fascinated by the process of removing a single hair from a button, unwinding it bit by bit so as not to snap it, because the bulb at the end of the hair has DNA. How do you put that on screen, without the viewer making their cup of tea and going, “What, are they still on that button?” So that’s why I did the split screen, so the action could carry on. I did not copy 24. They came to me to find out how I was doing split screen.

8. Be prepared to fight your corner. When I suggested the split screen to the head of ITV, he said, “No, most people have 16-inch screens.” So I said, “Most old ladies watching this can also have eight cards of Bingo and do them all at the same time.” He said, “You’re bloody right, let’s go for it!”

9. Someday, you may want to set up your own company. It’s depressing for writers sometimes when they present a script, and they just go thank you very much. Then editors, producers and actors all have a hand in it. Towards the end of Prime Suspect, there were too many voices telling me where the character should go, which I didn’t always agree with. Then there’s the budget – you’ll write “four patrol cars steam up”, and they’ll say in the meeting, we’ll just have one.

10. And of course, know your characters’ background. I was at a book signing and this fan asked me in a Q&A, where did Jane Tennison come from? And I didn’t really know! It was astonishing. I had no idea. I kept thinking of this: where did she get that cold, aloof exterior, that iron will? So I’m working on a Prime Suspect prequel [book out in 2015, with TV series to follow in 2016] where Jane Tennison is aged 22, a probationary officer working in Hackney police station, fresh as a daisy. Ha ha!

For Tony “Life on Mars” Jordan’s equally entertaining tips from the festival, click here.

Before Gotham: interview with original TV Batman Adam West

6 May

Fox announced yesterday that it had commissioned Gotham (click on the image above to watch the trailer), a TV series which will tell the childhood origins of Batman, along with The Riddler, Catwoman and The Penguin. Alfred will be played by Sean Pertwee, son of Jon Pertwee, who played Doctor Who in the early ‘70s, which makes Gotham feel like some Hadron Collidor of primal geek forces. It will air next year, nearly half a century after the TV series played with the new spread of colour TV sets to produce a hallucinatorily vivid show inspired by pop art.

It’s also more than a quarter of a century since I interviewed its star, the original TV Batman, Adam West. Having been obsessed with the show as a small kid growing up in Canada, it was unbelievably weird to hear him drawling my name, “Dahminic”. Let alone to hear him say ‘f**k’.

There’s a whole generation out there who know the 85-year-old actor only as the voice of Mayor Adam West in Family Guy. So for those newbies, and the old guard like me who watched it (nearly) first time around, I’ve rescued my 1988 interview with Adam West from the vaults. It appeared as a two-page feature in Time Out magazine, where I had recently started work as a sub-editor:

Having devoted half his life to walking up horizontal walls in leathers and skin-tight nylon and foiling fiendish death traps, Adam West is feeling the pressure. He speaks slowly and softly, his voice just occasionally tinged with that famous steel, lying flat out on his bed in the Mayfair Hilton. Even now the phone never stops ringing. In the few days he has spent in London, his first visit in seven years, he has been besieged with requests for exclusive interviews and had to turn them all down, save television appearances and this one. He is tickled when I tell him I am interviewing him for Time Out. ‘You mean you’re elevating me to the status of The Arts?’

At 58, he now tries to roll with the punches, but there was a time when he tried hard to shake off the role which keeps coming back to haunt him. ‘I made the mistake of allowing myself to be rushed into several movies very quickly when Batman folded (after three seasons), because I knew I’d have the typecasting problem, with Batman like an albatross round my neck. There was The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which was really awful, then another one, and I said “That’s it, f**k it, I’ve had it.”

‘So I just sat on the beach and licked my wounds for a year; carousing, boozing, anything just to get away. And then I began to realise I’ve given a lot of my life to this, this is what I want to do, I love the process of performing and acting. So I started doing anything I could. I did circuses, dinner theatre, avant-garde theatre … My God, I did The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood!’

Modest though he is, he can’t feign surprise at the virulent outbreak of Batmania when the series was revived, first on Night Network and then TV-am — causing ratings to leap by 25 per cent. He knows better than anyone the secret of its success: playing the straight-man with deadly seriousness week after week to anchor a sit-com whose wacky guest stars ranged from Eartha Kitt and Joan Collins to Vincent Price and Liberace. When the first series was broadcast in 1966, he was mobbed by admirers even in small mountain towns; and fame came with a high price-tag. “People would get a little ugly and say “Hey, you’re not so tough, I can take Batman.” I usually try to be reasonable, then turn round and run.’

Adam West and Frank Miller's Dark Knight comic -- how the interview first appeared in Time Out

Adam West and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight comic — how the interview appeared in Time Out

The current passion for all things ’60s is no hindrance to the new burst of popularity — ‘An Italian paper said, “in the ’60s, it’s the three Bs: Batman, Bond and the Beatles”.’ But the groundwork had already been laid by a peculiarly ’80s phenomenon: the huge sales and hype surrounding Frank Miller’s audacious adult comic book, Return of the Dark Knight. In it, Batman emerges from retirement grey-haired, embittered, determined to wage war against the increasingly mindless violence on the streets with equal brutality, his youthful sidekick no longer Robin the Boy Wonder, but a feisty feminist.

‘Isn’t that something,’ says Adam West of the book. And indeed he bears some similarity to the Dark Knight: still in good shape, his famous paunch if anything less noticeable, but the years showing in his greying locks, thick glasses, and the trenches in his cheeks. ‘I enjoyed it, its inventiveness, its artistry, a bit nihilistic and violent. If I were to do a Batman movie, I would like to have aspects of that.’

Ah, the Batman movie. Ever since Dark Knight appeared in 1986, rumours have been rife of a hard-hitting film that would forever banish the memory of the Camp Crusader. Last spring Dick Giordano, Vice-President of comics publishing giant DC which owns the rights to Batman, confided it had been scripted, would shortly enter production, and that — snigger — Adam West had applied for the part: anathema to the new, more serious breed of comics fan, particularly when rivals for the role include Mel Gibson.

But, after talking with him, the idea of West updating his role is by no means absurd. It would be entirely in keeping with the idea of Return of the Dark Knight, and he displays an intelligent, even poetic approach to film-making. When I show him a proof copy of The Killing Joke, Batman’s latest foray into the ’80s, he is enrapt by the brooding artwork, evidently visualising it as a storyboard. But when his eye alights on a page featuring a graphic shooting, he is suddenly angered.

‘On film this would be Peckinpah, slo-mo Wild Bunch. You don’t need to do this — blow people away with huge holes, blood splattering all over the place. But you can (and here his tone becomes conspiratorial) lop off a villain’s head with thin Batwire (chuckles) that snakes out of your utility belt — wssst! — and the head lops off and rolls across a full moon, bloodless.

‘I think in the final scenes of something, if it’s bizarre and mysterious, you can still have Alfred the butler driving the old Batmobile to the rescue. In the picture we’d have been using all hi-tech, wonderful slick new stuff, so you haven’t seen it before, and at the critical moment, there’s Alfred, driving the old Batmobile. People would stand up and cheer, it’s like the cavalry.’

But unlike the Dark Knight, Adam West is powerless to effect his own return, and frustrated at his new enemy: he can hardly sock the face of the corporate power which prevents him from using the character he has made his own. ‘Yes, I care about the character. It’s 20 years of my life, my career. I’ve seen so many people, signed autographs, shaken hands, done television — South America, the Amazon even; anything I can do to keep this thing fresh and alive. I don’t mean to sit here and weep about sacrifice in roles or other directions my career might have taken; I just put a hell of a lot of work into this thing and dammit, I know, better than anyone else, the best opportunities to do a smashing Batman movie. I hate to see the character denigrated, experimented with. Ruined.

‘Integrity,’ he continues, hammering out each syllable with very Batman-like force, ‘is vital, organic to the project! Sometimes I just don’t know. I mean we sit here and talk, and you’ve caught me at a moment when I’m very relaxed… Sometimes I think, I really don’t give a damn. Now, am I tired? Am I losing a little energy, am I getting older? No, I just think I really don’t give a damn because I already did it!’

But West isn’t resting on his laurels. No less than three features are in the can, to be released, in America at least, sometime this year: Doing Time On Planet Earth, an off-the-wall comedy; Mad About You, a romantic comedy; and Return Fire, an action pic.

As for the spirit of ’66, that will be recreated in April in a two-week stage show for charity at the Bloomsbury Theatre, called Batman and Robin: The Last Re-run (the show was produced and directed by John Gore, now a major producer and CEO of Key Brand Entertainment). West won’t be appearing, but preliminary glimpses of the script suggest it will be hysterically funny, with the shadow of Dark Knight nowhere evident, and walk-on parts suggesting other TV shows of the era like Star Trek and Man From UNCLE. Huge, colourful cardboard cut-outs will supply the full array of Batgadgets, as well as the BIFFs, KA-POWs and ZZWAPs.

And what of Burt Ward, aka Robin? How has he weathered the Dark Knight era? During the ’60s he had problems coping with his overnight success, going on about his ‘million-dollar face’. Now, says West, ‘Burt’s a kind of super-businessman. Robin the mogul!’