BY BILLY SUTER
AFTER six seasons, the top-rated British crime-drama series, Vera, returns to DStv’s ITV Choice (channel 123) for another season at 8pm on Wednesday, March 29.
Based on the Inspector Stanhope books by award-winning writer Ann Cleeves, the series sees Vera and her team drawn into four more compelling mysteries.
Set around Newcastle and the Northumberland countryside, Vera features complex and intriguing cases, atmospherically shot landscapes and captivating performances, led by Golden Globe-winning Brenda Blethyn, who plays the unorthodox but brilliant DCI Vera Stanhope.
Blethyn, who is reunited with co-stars Kenny Doughty, Jon Morrison, Noof McEwan, Lisa Hammond and Riley Jones, was recently honoured at the North East Royal Television Society Awards – winning the award for best performance in Vera. At the same event, Vera won the Best Drama award.
The series continues to enthral audiences worldwide, and with sales in some 290 territories and growing, Vera is a huge success across a range of markets, including the US, Australia, France, Germany and South Africa.
DStv provided this question-and-answer interview with Blethyn to promote the new season.
Q: Is it a simple process for you to recapture the character of Vera when you return to filming after the break between series?
BB: It’s nice to revisit old friends. Bearing in mind I get the scripts way ahead before we start filming. Sometimes I might find little anomalies in the plot, so I adjust little bits and send through my thoughts to the script editor and the writer so they can discuss and address it.
By the time we all turn up on set, it’s all systems go. I know the character Vera very well as I’ve been with her for so long.
We have marvellous writers on the show and sometimes when a new writer comes on board I might have to say ‘There is no way Vera would do that.’
I explain why and refer them to a previous episode, which will demonstrate what I mean. They all appreciate the input.
Vera author Ann Cleeves jokes that I police her characters for her. But that’s because I have been the constant on the production since it began… and I think it’s important to take care of Ann’s creations. She jokes that I have a forensic eye on Vera.
Q: The first new story, Natural Selection, was partly filmed on the Farne Islands. What was it like working on such an iconic location?
BB: It was beautiful on the Farne Islands even though we were bombed by the birds who pooped on us. But we must consider that lucky because there was quite a lot of it!
It was lovely seeing the seals close up. We also got to visit the Longstone Lighthouse, which is where Grace Darling saved the shipwrecked sailors by making several journeys out in a rowing boat.
Vera would probably have attempted that. And most likely would have perished. But she would have had a go.
Q: How were your sea legs on the police boat?
BB: I’ve got good sea legs. Like Vera, I grew up at the seaside. The crossing to the Farne Islands can be quite choppy.
Our first assistant director, Natalie, was like a Bond girl, riding pillion on a high-speed jet ski. Flying across the bay.
Q: Another story sees Vera standing high up on the edge of a building. Did you need a stunt double?
BB: No, that really was me. It was the fifth floor or possibly higher. Every safety precaution was observed and if someone was required to approach the edge their ankles were tethered, and at the other end of the rope was a stunt man ready to leap into action should the unthinkable happen. Good job as it was a sheer drop.
Fortunately I’m perfectly all right with heights. In fact I didn’t want the chain on.
Q: How would you sum up Vera after all these years?
BB: I would describe the drama, Vera, as an unshowy look at policing in the North East of England. And the beautiful landscapes and seascapes are characters in the dramas. They are very important.
Vera is case focused. You don’t delve much into her personal life.
Vera herself is a flawed character. She’s very clever, dishevelled and not prone to vanity. That’s what I like about it. It’s not reliant on lipstick or the catwalk.
Q: The focus in Vera is very much on the crimes. Do we learn any more about Vera herself in this new series?
BB: I don’t think you do. She mentions she was pretty fit at school. In an earlier episode you see that she used to run marathons.
Aiden asks her what she studied at university. She told him that it was obvious and cracks a joke… because she didn’t actually go to university.
Q: Vera’s trademarks include her hat and mac. Are there more than one of each?
BB: There are. We lost the hat a couple of series ago. We’d already shot half the scene and we were going back to shoot the other half. So we had to have the hat as Vera had been wearing it.
Eventually it turned up. But as a result of that I went out and bought some more. So there are a couple of them now. Especially if they have to use a Vera double in a particular shot, or if a stunt driver does a long distance shot, they have to be dressed in Vera’s clothes.
Although, truth be told, my stunt double has a big ,ginger beard. So if you were going to see him close up I don’t think the hat would make any difference at all. But there’s a hat and mac for him to wear too.
Q: What is the reaction of local people when the Vera cast and crew arrive to film?
BB: The reaction of local people is very nice. It’s generally a very welcoming atmosphere. Which is lovely.
We were filming once on a fairground. There was a very long tracking shot lasting a few minutes. We got there quite early before the fair opened and rehearsed the scene with Vera running past all of the fairground rides. We started filming and were almost at the end of the shot when suddenly a lady came out of a loo and hollered, ‘Vera! Oh Vera, I love you, Vera!’ And rushed over and gave me a cuddle. I started laughing.
Then you heard the director shout, ‘Cut.’ It was funny. Everybody laughed. So we just had to go back and shoot the scene all over again.
Q: Vera also has plenty of fans in the rest of the world?
BB: We get lots of reaction from abroad. It’s growing in popularity in America. It also went from a minor channel in Australia to the main channel. I’m told it’s very popular in South Africa, and in Scandinavia it’s well liked and it’s really big in Holland too.
My friend saw Vera dubbed into Spanish. He sent a tiny excerpt of it to me. Well I could have sworn it was me speaking Spanish! In France it has a longer title. They call it Les Enquêtes De Vera. Which means ‘The Vera Inquiries’.
Q: You watch episodes ‘live’ as they are broadcast. How has social media added to that experience?
BB: Generally you get a nice reaction. Positive and upbeat. But you have to take it all with a pinch of salt.
Sometimes I get a bit of stick because of my accent but mostly I don’t. People talk about my Geordie accent. Vera doesn’t have a Geordie accent. It’s Northumberland, if anything.
Her parents were kind of middle class and didn’t have a strong accent. So it’s born of that. There are so many variations of accents. Things change with the immediacy of travel and all that. Accents change and they’re not as strong as they used to be. Which is a pity I think.
Q: Aside from paying the bills, what has being an actor given you?
BB: When you film in various places, like the food factory and a scrapyard, you see how hard other people work.
We work hard too and very long hours at that, but we are doing something we really enjoy. Maybe those people enjoy doing their jobs too. But it looked laborious. I felt I was the more fortunate one.
It makes you realise how hard people strive to make a living.
Making a film in the Isle of Man, I learned how to drive a bus. They said I did rather well and would pass my test if I put in for it.
There are lots of things like that.