A Face in the Crowd

Lynda La Plante

A Face in the Crowd

The second book in the Jane Tennison series, 1992

For Sally Head


When I was commissioned to write Prime Suspect for Granada Television, I had no notion that it would change my life. I had been very successful writing a series called Widows, but it had not resulted in offers of work that I felt excited about. The plot of Widows pivoted on four men attempting a dangerous armed robbery, and all died when the explosives held in their truck exploded. They left four widows, who discovered the detailed plans and decided they would audaciously attempt to pull the robbery.

My meeting at Granada was to see if I had any other project they could consider. Due to offers coming in that were all similar to Widows, I decided that the best way to approach the possible commission was to find out exactly what the network was looking for, rather than pitch one or other of my ideas. I was told they were actually looking for a female-led police drama, but they did not want her to be in uniform.

“Ah I have been researching exactly that, and have some great material in a treatment,” I LIED! But when I was asked what the title of this proposed new show was, out came, and with no forethought, the title Prime Suspect.

I knew this was a great opportunity, and with nothing actually written, I had to launch into research to prepare a treatment for a possible series. I was fortunate enough to meet Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Malton. She was attached to the Metropolitan Scotland Yard murder squad, and had risen through the ranks from uniform to become one of only three high-ranking female officers. By the time I had completed a story line and treatment, we had become friends. The friendship continued as I gained a commission to write the series Prime Suspect.

Via Jackie, and her eagerness for me to “get it right,” I went to my first autopsy. I spent time in incident rooms, pathology labs, and forensic departments. She was a never-ending source of encouragement and in many ways Jane Tennison was created via Jackie’s constant desire that for once a woman was portrayed within the police force in a realistic way. She would read every scene, make corrections and suggestions with anecdotes appertaining to her own career. She was a complex woman and had been subjected to discrimination throughout her career. As I rewrote and polished up the scripts she became quite emotional because I had acted like a sponge listening and inserting sections that she didn’t recall telling me about.

The moment Prime Suspect aired on British television it created incredible critical acclaim. I had to fight for a number of scenes to be retained. Producers were concerned that I had written an unsympathetic woman, but I refused to change, explaining over and over that this was a character based on reality. When she examined a victim she didn't, as they wanted, show emotion but retained a professional distance. To make her ambitious was yet again not wholly acceptable, but I persisted, and again I was helped by being able to introduce Jackie Malton.

Helen Mirren was unafraid of the role and added a strong quality to the character. She was the right age, she was still a very attractive woman and yet her believability never faltered. I would never have considered another actress could take on the same role. Over the years there have been so many scripts and attempts to make a US version of the show. There was a constant difficulty in finding an actress on a par with Helen, and although the scripts were well written, something didn’t work as the writers moved away from the original concept. That is until Maria Bello took on the role. The series is written by Alexandra Cunningham and she has brilliantly captured the world of a New York precinct. She has cleverly snatched from the original opening series the most salient points and updated them, bringing in the discrimination that still exists and how even today a woman detective has to prove herself beyond and above her male counterparts; respect does not come easily.

The books cover Prime Suspect 1, 2, 3… and they mean as much to me as the television show. Sadly with all good things, sometimes the powers that be, have their own agendas and only these three books represent my voice. I only ever wrote three episodes, and three books. The learning curve from being a writer for hire, which I was on Prime Suspect, became the next major change in my career. I formed a production company, so that enabled me to produce my own work, cast, edit, and choose the directors. That said, although I have produced and written numerous series, I don’t think there will ever be one as close to me as Prime Suspect.


Lynda La Plante


The young black man was very good-looking. Tall and lithe, with a fine pair of shoulders, he kept himself in shape with regular workouts. He sat at the square wooden table in the interview room, long supple hands clasped in his lap, his body erect, and his handsome face impassive. His suit was well cut with an immaculate white shirt and a neat, precise knot in his tie. He was very calm, very sure of himself. The remote-control video camera high in one corner recorded all this, as he tilted his head back slightly, looking straight into the eyes of the woman opposite with just a hint of lazy insolence.

She stared back unflinchingly. “I am Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, attached to Southampton Row Police Station. We are in the interview room at Southampton Row. I am interviewing…” She leaned her elbows on the table. “Would you please state your full name and date of birth.” When the man didn’t respond, she patiently tried again in the same quiet, unhurried tone. “Will you please state your full name and date of birth.”

“Robert Oswalde. The t’irteenth of August, 1961.”

From his appearance you might have expected an educated voice, but it was a strong Jamaican accent, the t’s and d’s heavily emphasized.

“You are entitled to speak to a solictor at any time,” Tennison informed him, “and this legal advice is free.”

Oswalde stared back, black man to white woman, the insolence in his dark eyes almost like a blatant sexual challenge.

There was a dumpster half-filled with rubbish outside Number 15 Honeyford Road, so the police car was parked at an angle, its rear end sticking out into the street. Already, within minutes of its arrival, a small crowd was gathering in the late-afternoon November gloom, peering out from under umbrellas as the drizzle thickened and swirled in the sodium-yellow streetlights. The neighborhood was mainly West Indian, with a sprinkling of Asians, and rumor spread much faster here than it might have done in a white middle-class area. And ever since the Derrick Cameron case a few years ago, any police activity aroused curiosity and suspicion in equal measure; the presence of white cops didn’t mean protection for the local community, it invariably spelled trouble.

The front door of Number 15 was wide open, with a uniformed policeman on the top step and his colleague in the hallway talking to the builder. Or trying to hear him, which was difficult with Mr. Viswandha, the house’s owner, gabbling away in Urdu on the phone. His wife and their two children stood shivering and bewildered in the foyer, the draft from the front door whipping through the house.

“One of my men found it.” The builder jerked a grimy thumb toward the rear. “We’re laying new drains. Seems to be wrapped in polyethylene…”

The crowd at the garden gate was growing by the minute. Several young black kids had climbed on the wall, trying to peer through the open door. One had propped his bike against the gatepost and was jostling for a position. The murmur and rumble of voices continued under the pattering of rain on the umbrellas and plastic hoods as the drizzle turned into a steady downpour. Then a real buzz rose. Two cars had pulled up, Criminal Investigation Department officers piling out, shouldering their way through the crowd. Rumor and speculation were rife now: the heavy mob didn’t show up unless a serious crime had been committed, and by the look of it this was shaping up to be the most serious of all.

As the officers came through, the young boy with the bike piped up, “Have the Pakis murdered someone?”

Detective Inspector Frank Burkin didn’t break his stride. “Shut up and move that bike!”

The kid’s older brother, wearing a beaded cap with dreadlocks trailing down, wasn’t too thrilled with Burkin’s attitude. “What makes you think you can talk to him like that?” he burst out angrily. “We live here, man, not you… what is it with you?”

Impatiently, DI Tony Muddyman pushed past, leaving Burkin to argue with the youth. Diplomacy never was top priority on Burkin’s list, but why the hell did he have to alienate the local community the minute he planted his size elevens on Honeyford Road, he thought. Getting people’s backs up was no way to start.

Mr. Viswandha had finished on the phone and met Muddyman as he came through the front doo ...

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