This years’ Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate will play host to the woman who has created a number of roles for ‘strong leading woman’ on TV. Lynda La Plante could be classed as the Godmother of many other women who have stepped out from the shadows of their once stronger male colleagues and taken the limelight for themselves. But we need to go back in time to truly appreciate what La Plante has done for women.
It all started in 1983 with a series that took everyone by storm and blew all that had come before out of the water and changed it for ever. Here was a series based on four women and boy, were they strong-willed! They didn’t curl up in to a ball and cry when someone started shouting at them nor were they afraid of the male species. If anything, these women, especially the ring leader, was a force to be reckoned with!
Her name was Dolly Rawlins and she headed the three women who helped her carry out an audacious bank robbery. The series? The title has gone down in history as one of THE out-standing series of the small silver screen: ‘Widows’ first aired in March 1983. If there were water coolers about in those times, then people would have been standing around them talking about ‘Widows’ the very next morning. It gripped the nation. Here was a series, the like of which had never been shown before. It was so good, that a second series was commissioned and shown in 1985.
Fast forward six years and La Plante delivers another ace from up her sleeve. This time the woman in question was on the right side of the law and came in the form of Jane Tennison as played by Helen Mirren. I remember watching the first Prime Suspect (and in my opinion, the best) and again, this drama caught the imagination of the British public and gripped the UK.
For a second time, La Plante had struck gold with a strong female lead and had got the TV watching public wrapped round her little finger as her ‘tour de force’ of suspense played out on our screens. Mirren had been an actress for many years but playing Tennison was to become the defining role that catapulted her in to the big time.
The following year in 1992, another woman who was to portray strong women in her books, surfaced and took the book buying public by the throat. Martina Cole’s debut, ‘Dangerous Lady’ was to set another course for women that had been unheard of in fiction.
Here we had women who could play as dirty as the men, and in some cases, even dirtier. In ‘Dangerous Lady’, Cole introduced a young woman to the public who her readers still hold a light to this very day: 17 year-old, Maura Ryan who took on the hard men of London gangland – and won.
Thanks to the roles given by La Plante and Cole to their womenfolk gone are the days where women were simply decoration and ornamentation. I remember Stephanie Powers in ‘Hart to Hart’ who simply stood by, calling out ‘Jonathan!’ as her poor husband got the crap knocked out of him. Gone are the days when the guy would swoop in to save the ‘gal’. These days it is more likely the girls who will get stuck in to a fight – and good for them!
A plethora of other women authors like Mandasue Heller, Roberta Kray and Kimberley Chambers followed La Plante’s and Cole’s lead and have put women centre stage.
So, we must salute La Plante who started the emancipation of women on our TV screens and in books. We have so many feisty women in our crime fiction. Even male writers enjoy dropping their female protagonists in the middle of it and seeing how they battle their way out of some very sticky situations. All you have to do is to look around at the crime fiction scene to see the strong women who dominate our reading.
Robinson’s Inspector Banks would be nothing without Annie Cabot watching his back and Siobhan deserves a medal for keeping Rebus in line (sort of). McDermid’s creation, Tony Hill would have melted in to a puddle if Carol Jordan wasn’t around along with Stephen Booth’s DS Diane Fry who is the perfect foil for DS Ben Cooper. And women like Nicci French’s psychotherapist, Frieda Klein has a whole series revolved around her. And the list goes on…
New writers like Sarah Hilary have recently introduced DI Marnie Rome, a feisty DI with a dark past. This new addition to the crime genre is welcome and I cannot wait to see what demons drive Marnie Rome to seek justice for those victims of such terrible crimes.
There are many women in fiction who are either beloved or feared but have definitely marked their territory in crime fiction. And thanks to La Plante, long may these feisty women reign!