It was the multi-award-winning ITV crime show that gripped tens of millions of viewers with its unflinching portrayal of the institutional sexism of its era.
Prime Suspect, based on the novels of Queen of Crime Lynda La Plante, followed DCI Jane Tennison, played by Helen Mirren, as she battled her way up the ranks against a barrage of misogyny – male Metropolitan Police colleagues branding her a “bitch” and a “tart” while everyone from witnesses to medical examiners assumed her subordinates were better qualified. Only her determination and professionalism won them over, often at the cost of her personal life.
The show ran for seven series between 1991 and 2006. But, three decades after its launch, its creator – who based Tennison’s experiences on those reported to her by the female serving officers – is dismayed to learn little or nothing has changed. And, speaking from her London home, La Plante reveals in The Sunday Post her own experience of “rampant” sexism in the TV industry.
The writer and producer – who has just celebrated her 80th birthday – opened up in the wake of the damning findings of a year-long review of the Metropolitan Police force. Launched following the murder of Sarah Everard in 2021 by serving Met officer Wayne Couzens, the report by Baroness Louise Casey branded the force institutionally racist, sexist and homophobic.
Last week The Sunday Post told how former Police Scotland officer Rhona Malone challenged a suggestion that Scotland’s national force did not face the same issues as the Met. In 2022 Malone was awarded £1 million in a landmark case after she was subjected to sexist victimisation in her Edinburgh firearms unit.
She hit out at the Scottish Police Federation’s defence of the national force’s record in response to Baroness Casey’s findings, saying: “Police Scotland has just as much to answer for as the Met when it comes to bad behaviour within the force, misconduct being mishandled and rogue officers.”
On Friday, incidents of misogyny, racism and bullying were exposed in an independent report on the culture at the UK’s largest firefighting and rescue organisation. The review of the London Fire Brigade found female firefighters have been groped, beaten and had their helmets filled with urine.
Speaking from her study in the sprawling period home she owns in London’s leafy Richmond, La Plante, told the Post: “I had all the stories from all the policewomen I have met over the years but it has blown up right now and is still ongoing, and how many women have actually gone to the press about the outrageous behaviour they have had to deal with.”
La Plante – who fell out with ITV in 2017 over its handling of the prequel featuring Tennison as a young WPC – revealed she chose to handle the sexism she encountered in TV with grace and dignity.
“I learned very early on not to get into a confrontation because I wasn’t a boss and most of the people employed in the film unit were all men,” she said. “They would talk behind my back but (loud) enough that I could hear. It would go ‘she’s here, she’s in’ and I would say, ‘Hi. Good morning, everybody!’”
Sexism occurred “particularly in the edit suite”, she claimed, as she sat to edit scenes. “One incident was over a bell,” she recalled. “I had a sound clip of a bell that I wanted to put over a suspect walking past a chapel. When the scene came up I said, ‘that’s the wrong bell’.
“Behind me were a row of men, technicians. And one says: ‘The bell! What’s the matter with the bell, Lynda?’ I repeated it was the wrong bell and that I’d sent a clip of the one with the correct sound. You could hear them moaning and going, ‘oh God’.
“I could have said I want the bell put in but I just said, ‘thank you so much everybody.’ You just grit your teeth. I used to find that a lot but I learned to deal with it. If it had been a man they would never have said, ‘he’s in’ it would be ‘good morning, sir.’ I have never come across it in publishing but in television it still pretty rampant.”
Of her fall-out with ITV in 2017, La Plante, who has produced more than 170 hours of international television, claimed promises were broken. “To be told this is your show, you are producer, what you want we will give you – but everything I wanted was ignored, down to set design and casting. They also rewrote the script.”
She had previously disclosed: “I decided it would be too damaging to my confidence to remain and felt very depressed, believing my career was over. Shortly afterwards I met a famous film producer at a party who told me not to waste a minute on regrets.
He said, ‘The only way you can go forward is to be successful’. The next day I met the director, Steve McQueen, at a Buckingham Palace function, and he asked if he could turn my hit 1980s TV show Widows into a Hollywood movie. Since then, I’ve been offered a lot of Hollywood films. I’m working on a new TV project possibly for Netflix or Amazon.”
While La Plante has been reported as saying she will never again work with “the networks” on Prime Suspect, the author told the Post she is not ruling out film.
With the ninth Tennison novel, Taste Of Blood, out in August, and vowing that the tenth will be her last, she smiled: “It would be wonderful if there was a (Tennison) film because I have a whole plot ready. Obviously, she would have retired by now, so it is how somebody in retirement comes back over a case for which she has the file but shouldn’t have. It is a very explosive case.”
So, has she mentioned the idea for Prime Suspect the movie to Steve McQueen? “I haven’t,” she said, adding with a throaty chuckle: “But you never know!”
La Plante, who shares her home with her 19-year-old son Lorcan, who she adopted from birth at the age of 59, his girlfriend Dominique, her live-in housekeeper Rosemary and her “donkey-sized” Borzoi dog Hugo, baulks at the word retirement. It’s not part of her repertoire.
She said: “I don’t know what I’d do with myself. I’ll keep writing until I drop off this Earth, as long as the readers still want me. Because I’m still learning new things all the time. I love it. It’s very exciting. It occupies my brain. Writing keeps you very mentally alert.”
Her latest detective, Jack Warr, has just returned in a fourth novel, Pure Evil, launched last Thursday. She’s adamant that her dark topics don’t bring her down because she tempers them with humour like her own heartaches.
And La Plante likes to laugh, some of her happiest times spent with cherished pals like actors Ann Mitchell (The Gold and Widows) and Glynis Barber and her husband Michael Brandon (Dempsey And Makepeace). She trills: “I have a big dining table outside and I make them all come to my house in the summer and have outrageous food and champagne. They are all wonderfully eccentric people.
“One of the biggest instigators of every party was a wonderful lady called Chrissie Most, who used to be married to Mickie Most, the music entrepreneur. She gave more dinners and parties and had more energy than other woman I ever met. I absolutely adored her. When she died it was the biggest shock I have ever had. She was so special and is so missed. I dedicated Pure Evil to her. It’s not a very good title,” she chuckled, safe in the knowledge that her late pal would appreciate the tribute and its funny side.
“A couple of friends have gone to dementia,” she revealed. “One of my oldest friends has it badly. I didn’t realise what you are supposed to do when you go to see a dementia patient.
“I got it all wrong and went in with my huge dog and a big bouquet of roses announcing, ‘I’m your oldest friend Lynda La Plante’. She didn’t know me at all. As I was leaving, she suddenly said in a very theatrical voice, ‘I knew Lynda La Plante and she was very slender’. I thought, ‘have I put on a lot of weight?’” she said with a chuckle.
Despite advancing years, very little scares La Plante – apart from, she admits, “ghost stories” and “medical” fears. A cataract operation on both eyes at the same time that left her temporarily “blind” but it didn’t stop her writing. She dictated her work. “It took two years to regain my sight,” she said. “That was two years of my life in nightmare.”
Now with her sight returned, the tenth and final Tennison looming, and plans for the launch of her memoir next year – which she plans to bring to Scotland – she is looking forward to life.
“There’s this slew of incredibly old actresses treading the boards these days, and wonderful Glenda Jackson is doing King Lear at 86. My friend Ann Mitchell never stops working and was brilliant in the BBC series The Gold and she’s 83. It’s like we’re new 50s. I’m having the time of my life.”
Dark Rooms, the latest Jane Tennison novel by Lynda La Plante, and Pure Evil, the new Jack Warr novel, are available now, published by Zaffre
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