22 Mar 2013

Forensic award for Prime Suspect’s Lynda La Plante

Lynda La Plante is famed for the meticulous research behind her depictions of the forensic process. Now her dedication has been recognised with a fellowship from the Forensic Science Society.

Lynda La Plante has been rewarded with an honorary fellowship from the Forensic Science Society (picture: Getty)

Discussing the honorary fellowship award, La Plante told Channel 4 News: “It is very humbling to be given this award. But it’s sort of proved my mantra which is if you don’t know, go and research, don’t make it up.

“In the end what the experts tell you is often better than what you would have written. I’m glad I’ve stuck to my guns and the science has made my scripts better for it.”

Widows and killers

La Plante started out as a RADA-trained actress in 1969, but soon became frustrated with the roles offered to her.

“I moved into writing because the scripts that were being given to me had already been rejected by six other actresses before me. My first stab came with Widows in 1983. My script fell on the right desk, at the right time when commissioners were looking for women in leading roles.”

You can try to bleach it, scrub it, wash it, but a single pin prick is all that is necessary for DNA to be traced. Lynda La Plante

Widows ended up being a six-part crime drama about four women who carry out their late husbands’ planned armoured-car robbery. The success of this gritty crime drama secured her place in the TV thriller writers’ landscape.

She added: “Before Widows there weren’t any drama series with women in lead roles, it was all men. When it dawned on me I had to write the first series, I went to the police and said, ‘Can you help me with this?’ and you know what? No one since has ever said no.”

Female perspective

In subsequent years La Plante has become renowned for creating narratives from a female perspective, with memorable characters like DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, played by Helen Mirren, as well as Trial and Retribution, a series looking at psycho-killer events.

“Over the years I have built up some very good contacts within forensic science through the society as well as in the police,” she said.

“I remember one novel I was working on and I was in a dire situation. I was three or four chapters in before I realised that I needed help.

“I wanted my victim’s identity to remain concealed but I had blood at the crime scene. The experts told me if blood is found it can reveal family relationships and you can’t ever get rid of it.

So much of what I see doesn’t make sense because of dramatic licence. Lynda La Plante

“You can try to bleach it, scrub it, wash it, but a single pin prick is all that is necessary for DNA to be traced.

“Then the forensic scientist told me there is a way to protect the identity of the character. If the mother had had IVF treatment and the egg was a donor and the sperm used to fertilise the egg was also a donor, there could be no DNA link back to the parents because there is no direct blood link even though she carried the child through pregnancy.

“Now I didn’t know that, and it opened up a terrific avenue in the chapter of the book I was writing.”

Dramatic licence

La Plante is critical of others in her field who strive for dramatic effective over what is actually possible. She agrees she is not your typical viewer and is more critical of scripts but she stresses there is no excuse for not researching your work properly.

“So much of what I see doesn’t make sense because of dramatic licence. I really hope that this will prove to be an inspiration to a new generation of writers to be more accurate.”

The progression in science is quite something especially in DNA. Lynda La Plante

Dr Ann Priston, the society’s president, has been reported as saying the most common forensic mistake portrayed in dramas is time: “I appreciate that this is often for dramatic effect but the reality is that analysis takes considerably longer.”

When asked about the decision to give La Plante an honorary fellowship, Dr Priston said: “There are many programmes focusing on forensic science at the moment, some of them bordering on pure fiction.

“Lynda brings a level of realism and understanding to her writing that is refreshing and exciting and it is an absolute pleasure to make this award.”

Criminal advances

American imports such as the Crime Scene Investigates series and other police/forensic dramas have proved to be hugely popular with British audiences. La Plante says the Americans do actually have incredibly advanced techniques and the money to match which is something the UK lacks and is being squeezed even further.

“The progression in science is quite something especially in DNA. But you know it’s not just writers that are aware of this but criminals too. More and more, I read about how criminals are taking to using rubber gloves, or clothes that don’t shed fabric. Thankfully science is always one step ahead so we shouldn’t worry too much.”

Despite having a plethora of forensic experts at her fingertips La Plante says today’s award is an endorsement she’s absolutely thrilled with: “It really is such an honour to be invited inside.”