Vera new series: Brenda Blethyn reveals she's loving playing detective as Vera returns for fifth run

The ITV show begins again on Easter Sunday and it's star reveals she's far from her glum alter ego on the set of the series

Brenda Blethyn as DCI Vera Stanhope
Brenda Blethyn as DCI Vera Stanhope

Highly strung and bad tempered, detective chief inspector Vera Stanhope is far from the most approachable of characters.

But despite her gruff exterior, the fictional Northumberland and City police officer has helped welcome thousands more tourists to the North East.

And with a fifth series of the hit ITV show set to start on Easter Sunday actress Brenda Blethyn, who’s quite the opposite of her glum alter ego, is looking forward to getting back in the green mac - a move that tourism chiefs hope will continues to work its magic.

“I do joke about a bit, especially if there’s a young actor who’s joined,” said the star, who was nominated for Oscars for Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies in 1997 and the musical Little Voice two years later.

“They’re a bit nervous, they haven’t done much, and they’re meeting this character who can-be rather abrasive. I crack a few jokes just to make it feel easier.

“It’s a job,” Blethyn adds with a laugh. “It’s not life and death.”

Actors Kenny Doughty and Brenda Blethyn on the set of Vera At Coquet Street, Chopwell
Actors Kenny Doughty and Brenda Blethyn on the set of Vera At Coquet Street, Chopwell

It might not be life and death off-camera, but the crimes investigated on the show - based on the novels by North East author Ann Cleeves - can be pretty grisly.

Over the show’s 16 episodes so far, DCI Stanhope has been tasked with investigating the stabbing of a pensioner on a rush hour train, the murder of a woman in a hedgerow, and a drug dealer found dead on a beach.

The new series, filmed on location in the North East last summer, looks set to be just as intriguing, starting with a deadly fire ripping through a Northumberland holiday park.

What’s more, Vera is dealing with the departure of her right hand man, Detective Sergeant Joe Ashworth - played by David Leon - with whom she had developed a close bond over the years.

“Joe’s been promoted and he goes off to pastures new,” said Brenda.

“So, we have to have a replacement in the office and along comes DS Aiden Healy - played by the absolutely adorable Stella star Kenny Doughty.

Helen Turton Brenda Blethyn as DCI Vera Stanhope and Murray Head as Peter Calvert
Brenda Blethyn as DCI Vera Stanhope and Murray Head as Peter Calvert

“It’s a different kind of relationship to Joe and Vera’s, but it’s an enjoyable one.

“He thinks he’s a bit of a joker - he’s not - and he rubs Vera up the wrong way a little bit.

“But she gets to grips with him. She’ll soon sort him out.”

Since it started in May 2011 Vera - which was brought to the North East in part thanks to a £30,000 investment by Northern Film and Media - has been credited with providing more than £90m worth of free advertising for the region, and giving Northumberland a big tourism boost as fans flock to the North East in search of filming locations.

During the fourth series Northumberland Tourism reported numerous emails from viewers interested in finding out more about towns and villages like Newbiggin and Alnmouth, which featured in the episode On Harbour Street.

Jude Leitch, general manager of Northumberland Tourism, said: “Every time the beautiful scenery of Northumberland is televised it helps spread the word about what a fantastic holiday destination Northumberland is.”

But it’s not just rural locations which fans have fallen in love with - with the show also increasing interest in Newcastle and Gateshead.

Actors Kenny Doughty and Brenda Blethyn on the set of Vera At Coquet Street, Chopwell
Actors Kenny Doughty and Brenda Blethyn on the set of Vera At Coquet Street, Chopwell

“Positive portrayals of Newcastle, Gateshead and the wider North East play an important part in raising the profile of our region’s iconic locations and stunning countryside,” Sarah Stewart, chief executive of destination management and marketing agency NewcastleGateshead Initiative, said.

“Primetime television shows, like Vera, reach millions of people every week and will no doubt increase interest in an area.

“Anything that paints the region in a positive light certainly encourages more people to visit.”

But it could have been very different had its star stayed with her first choice of career.

The youngest of nine children in a working class family from Ramsgate, Kent, she originally worked as a typist for British Rail and only then discovered a passion for amateur dramatics.

After attending the Guildford School of Acting, she landed stage roles in the National Theatre before Leigh cast her in his 1980 TV film Grown-Ups.

But now firmly an actress, the 69-year-old, who is married to art director Michael Mayhew, is about to start filming a sixth series of Vera, and has grown very fond of her detective character over the years.

“I think it’s great a character like Vera is playing a commanding role because she’s so ordinary. She’s not a fashion model, she’s not reliant on lipstick to be taken seriously, and she very much is taken seriously in the role,” says Blethyn.

“She’s not abrasive for the sake of it, there’s generally a reason for it. And she has an equal amount of warmth and acknowledges something well done - although she doesn’t much like people who ask for compliments all the time.”

Blethyn enjoys “throwing in some witticisms” of her own to the mix, but says her work is mainly “just taking the ingredients that have been created by Ann Cleeves and the writer of each episode”.

Author Ann Cleeves
Author Ann Cleeves

“I read on Twitter a couple of days ago somebody asked Ann if the series of Vera influences her writing of the books and she said no that doesn’t happen, but she hears my voice when she’s writing Vera,” she added. “So that’s very, very flattering.”

Filming Vera takes up much of Blethyn’s year, but she did find time to star alongside Harvey Keitel and Forest Whitaker in 2014’s gritty New Mexico-set drama Two Men In Town.

Blethyn played a parole officer, with Whitaker and Keitel playing a newly released convict and local sheriff.

“I loved every minute of it and, of course, it was wonderful being in the same company of those two icons,” says the star.

“Keitel has an aura about him. People would sort of think, ‘Oh, is it OK to knock on Harvey’s door?’ I’d think, ‘I’ll just go, behave as I would here in the UK and knock on the door if I wanted to say something’.”

“He’d say, ‘Come in Brenda, come in here’,” the star said, mimicking Keitel’s US twang before erupting into more laughter.

Two Men In Town marked Blethyn’s second time working with director Rachid Bouchareb, following 2009’s critically acclaimed London River and - Vera scheduling permitting - she’s hoping to make another movie with the French film-maker next year.

“We’re throwing around some ideas. I just love working with him, he’s so honest,” says Blethyn.

“I don’t know whether it’s a language thing because he’s French. I’d say, ‘Was that OK Rachid?’ and he’d either say ‘Non’ or he might say, ‘Yes, yes, yes, we move on’.

“You know where you are then,” the straightforward star adds. “There’s no second guessing.”

Series five of Vera begins on Sunday night, with the episode Changing Tides, in which the DCI investigates a suspicious fire that rips through a holiday park on the Northumberland coast.

Three cabins are destroyed and the body of a woman is found inside. Park owner, Jim Viner returns from a weekend away with his daughter Clare and quickly suspects the body is his sister, Deena, but he can’t explain why she was there and not at the family home. Meanwhile long-term resident Malcolm returns to find his cabin has also burned to the ground.

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