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Kelly Reilly in Above Suspicion
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The Best of Lynda La Plante

(ITV; UK DVD: 3 Sep 2012)

Trial and Retribution (2007), Above Suspicion (2008), and The Commander (2007) – what, no Prime Suspect? Where’s Dame Helen? I thought this was meant to be the Best of Lynda La Plante??


So, it’s maybe not the very best then?


But it’s still good. La Plante has not lost her flair, her humour, or her ideological position. She is uncompromising in her representation of the major female roles. In Trial and Retribution (the episode included here is from Series 10) DI Connor (Victoria Smurfit) is played as a clear inversion of the regular dynamic in police dramas. It is she, and not her male counterpart, DS Walker (David Hayman) who goes on the attack during cross-examinations, and aggressively confronts suspects. Walker is the one whose job is compromised because of his personal life and family responsibilities. He has to take a career break because of parenting issues.


As with the creation of Mirren’s role of DCI Jane Tennison in the original Prime Suspect back in 1991, La Plante takes her influences from real police officers on the job. She backs up her writing with rigorous research but maintains her position of focusing on the personal lives of the investigators and being unafraid of the grotesque and troubling.


It’s hard to remember sometimes just how ground-breaking her work was at the time, when she took a minority figure in a challenging profession and delivered universally appealing drama. With all the versions we have now of female investigators: The Killing’s Sarah Lund, CSI’s Sarah Sidle, the Law And Order franchise’s full range of officers, special task force members, and legal authorities; the landscape of serious TV crime drama has changed for the better. The quality and longevity of such series are evidence of that. People do want to watch female characters in key roles, not just as victims or prostitutes, and La Plante was one writer who recognised that and helped advance the change.


She sees how influential television can be, how it can alter perceptions, and embraces that with her energy and invention. She knew that the crime had to come first, the thrills and intrigue were vital, but that subplots too had to be complex and engaging. She never shied away from the sexual politics of the worlds she created, in fact thrivev on it, and all the mistakes, compromises and obstacles that it entailed.


Her female leads are often ideally and strikingly beautiful, attracting the wrong sort of attention from colleagues and suspects alike. DC Anna Travis (Kelly Reilly) in Above Suspicion is a seemingly fragile figure, wholly unsuited to the day-to-day cut and thrust of police work in her short skirts and high heels, tossing her mane of turbulent red hair. She is more like a Mills and Boon romantic heroine than an investigator. It is La Plante’s writing that gives her a steely inner core; she doesn’t live up to others’ superficial perception of her. But she does face the question of how she should negotiate her sexuality in her job, with clear tension around her because of her youth and appearance, and whether or not she should accept the ‘honey-trap’ proposition put to her, in order to try and stop a killer of other women.


So, there’s never a smooth or straightforward ideological position in La Plante’s work, and nor should there be. Without the complications and dilemmas there would be no drama and these are the driving force of her work. She has been able to reshape the detective story for the better. And, apparently, we have her to thank for that whole writing-on-the-glass-screens thing, that the CSI and Criminal Minds posse are so fond of. She thought of that for Prime Suspect she asserts, in order to improve camera angles and depict a scene in multi-dimensions. If you think about it – it is highly impractical for office work, especially in an open plan setting! But brilliant for shooting scenes and increasing the perspectives for the viewer.


Extras are only actors’ biographies and photo galleries.

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Dr Gabrielle Malcolm is a writer, artist and academic based in the UK. She is known for her publications on Victorian literature and culture and her writing on Shakespeare on stage, TV and Film. She has published alongside writers such as AS Byatt in 'The Dickensian' journal, and her performance art pieces were featured in the Liverpool City of Culture celebrations in 2008, at the Liverpool Tate amongst other venues. Recent publications include a chapter in 'Writing Women of the Fin de Siecle: Authors of Change' (Palgrave McMillan, 2011). She is an avid fan of the Gothic and the Neo-Victorian. Her literary blog 'A Special Mention' has many followers and she can regularly be found tweeting @gabymalcolm, with fellow Shakespeareans and fans of Gene Kelly.


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