Before Vera came along, its leading star, Brenda Blethyn, was thinking about packing acting in.
“I don’t know how serious I was, but it had crossed my mind,” confides the 75-year-old star, who was born in Ramsgate, and has played the titular role in the ITV drama since 2011.
“It is such a wonderful character to play, and I thought, ‘I’ll do my best on the pilot’ and when that got the stamp of approval, that they wanted to invest in it and make more episodes, I was thrilled.” The detective drama is now returning for an 11th series, with two new feature-length episodes about to air, while four more self-contained crime stories are expected to be broadcast next year.
With the show once more set against the beautiful landscapes of North East England, the first gripping case which we see DCI Vera Stanhope investigating is the death of a well-respected local builder named Jim Tullman.
He is found dead at the bottom of the Collingwood Monument, and it is a mystery involving bitter family grievances, tensions and lies that will keep you guessing until the very end.
“At the beginning, Vera thinks he could have just fallen down the steps.
“Then it turns out he was due to give evidence at a trial of a young man on an assault charge – our victim was a witness to the assault.
“And then his estranged wife comes into play, friends of theirs come into play…”, she explains.
As always, Vera gets to the bottom of it.
And it turns out Blethyn, who won a Golden Globe in 1997 for Secrets & Lies, shares some of her characters’ clever sleuthing traits.
She explains: “I’m pretty analytical, and I love solving a puzzle.
“But if there was any moment where I guessed what was going on, the script would go straight back and it would be worked on, because if someone can guess it too early, there’s something wrong, so it’s got to be adjusted.
“I can’t help but pick up on stuff. I can’t stop myself.” The long-running series is inspired by the best-selling novels and characters created by acclaimed crime writer Ann Cleeves, who Blethyn travelled with to a crime seminar in Maryland in recent years.
“They were falling over themselves to talk to Ann Cleeves and showing their appreciation for Vera,” she recalls.
“It was quite wonderful.”
When series 10 aired in the UK, it averaged 7.5 million viewers, and it is a hit not just in the States, but also in Belgium, Denmark, France, Netherlands, and Norway.
Given its global popularity, there must have been some strange fan encounters along the way.
Blethyn recounts one such experience: “I remember we were filming once in a fairground in South Shields.
“It took forever to set this shot up because they wanted it to be done in one shot and I had to run all the way through the fairgrounds after the criminal.
“We’d got it all the way down and they filmed it all the way along, and it just happened to end near the lady’s loo, and a lady came walking out of the loo and she went, ‘Oh Vera!’ and she rang and she flung her arms around my the neck.
“They had to do the entire shot again.
“No one was cross, it was sweet.
“It was funny.” But what it is about no-nonsense Geordie character Vera that enamours viewers so?
“They think they know her because she is kind of ordinary.
“You feel like you could talk to her,” she says.
While there are much grittier crime shows around, Vera does have its darker moment and an intense filming process, so it must be difficult to switch off from filming sometimes.
“My husband always says my body comes home a month before my head,” quips the chatty star, who has been married to art director Michael Mayhew, her second husband, since 2010.
“I’m here physically, but my mind is still spinning with the work that I’ve been doing.
“I can’t leave it alone.
“And even after I’ve done it, when you can’t change it, I’m thinking, ‘I wonder if I should have done that?’”
Having started her impressive acting career with the Royal National Theatre, Blethyn’s television debut was Mike Leigh’s Grown-Ups on the BBC in 1980, while other notable film roles include The Witches, Little Voice and Saving Grace.
Asked what she would still like to tick off the career to-do list, she muses: “I don’t think there is anything.
“I always say I have never been hampered by ambition.
“I always try to do my best in whatever it is I do; whether it’s a big part or a small part, doesn’t matter.
“I’m fortunate that here I am, I’m 75, and I’m still playing a leading part on a popular TV show.
“How lucky am I?” There are also the locations she gets to visit while filming Vera, whether it’s the “magnificent” Northumberland National Park, remote seaside locations or stunning farmland.
“If you’re going to have to spend six months away from the home, there’s nowhere nicer you’d want to be than the northeast of England,” she gushes.
“The people are lovely, all the scenery is just gorgeous.
“The team of actors and the crew on Vera are just the best you can get.
“We’re like a big family.
“Sure, we’ve got to deal with Covid-19 and it was tricky; we were a little bit scared, working when there’s a pandemic on.
“You think, ‘Maybe it would be better if we were isolating’.
“But the precautions put in place were extreme and we were kept safe.
“You just have to be more creative in the filming of it.”
- Vera returns to UTV on Sunday, August 29