Interview: Brenda Blethyn, Vera

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Series seven of Vera starts tonight (Sunday 19th March) on ITV in the UK, and, as ever, it showcases the talents of one of Britain’s finest actors – Brenda Blethyn. Adapted from crime writing legend Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope novels, the series has become a bit of a Sunday-night institution. Series seven starts when Vera investigates the body of a wildlife ranger, found on a remote island off the coast of Northumberland. Her death is at first assumed to be an accident, since she was alone on the island when she died, but marks on the body seem to point to murder. A few weeks ago I went along to ITV’s HQ to chat to Brenda about Vera. But with Brenda it’s never just about one thing – she’s just a hoot and a delight, with an infectious laugh and an endless stream of stories. Have a read after the jump…

The Killing Times: Did you have to learn any specific skills for Vera?
Brenda Blethyn: I had to learn to drive that vehicle, which is different to my own. If a tractor with a farmer in comes out of nowhere it can be a bit hairy in those narrow lanes. Not for me, but for the passenger. [laughs] I have had to learn things before – I had to learn to drive a bus for a film I made called On A Clear Day, with Peter Mullan. I had to learn to drive a single-decker bus, which was great. On a skid patch and everything. Is that what you call them? The instructor said said I’d pass if I did a test.

TKT: You’ve done Vera for a few years now, what’s it like stepping back into the role? Is it like putting on a favourite pair of shoes or slippers again?
BB: It is a bit. I was exhausted when I finished the last series in October, but after a bit of a rest and Christmas I was like, “where’s my old friend?” Did I consider giving it up? I always do! It’s pretty full on for me – 16-hours days every day – but it is nice to go back. But before I go back, we’ll have already been working on it – I’ll be given the scenarios, the scripts and the re-writes months before we start filming. We have good writers who have terrific ideas but they sometimes don’t tally with the back stories. So I’m good at ferreting all of them out and presenting them, and then they get adjusted. Ann Cleeves says I’m the best police person she’s ever had on her projects.

TKT: Are you good at working out who’s guilty when you first start reading the scripts?
BB: No! But that’s a good thing because if I can work it out the audience can as well. And if I do work it out I let them know straight away.

TKT: When Vera does come to an end, how would you like her to go?
BB: Oh, I’d just like her to suddenly not be there. Or not suddenly. You know? For a normal episode… where’s Vera? Dunno, she’ll be in later. And she never does come in. Dun-dun-da! [laughs] She just wouldn’t be there.

TKT: There’s a trend now for prequels – Endeavour, Prime Suspect 1973 etc. Would you ever want to see a Vera prequel?
BB: Yes, that’s right. Well it wouldn’t be anything to do with me, but I’d watch it. It’d be interesting. Who would I cast? Blimey, there are so many brilliant young performers out there. I went to see Guys And Dolls last night in Guildford and there were some wonderful young actors in that, and there are some wonderful young actors in this new series of Vera.

TKT: Is that what keeps it fresh?
BB: Really, series like this only work because of the strength of the guest stars. They know all about Vera and her team. That was a special storyline, when Beverly (Cush Jumbo) got shot – it ran into the next episode, and that doesn’t normally happen in Vera. Meeting new people is always good, and very valuable.

TKT: So what can you tell us about her first case in the new series?
BB: Well, it’s a bit of a departure. Not least because she’s on that boat in the first place. She doesn’t turn up to every death or every case or drowning or road accident. The forensics go and they have to have a look at the body, and her sergeant goes to see if there’s cause for suspicion. And if there is they’ll call Vera. On that occasion, she goes out to that island because she used to go there as a kid with her father, as we find out later in the episode. Not perhaps pleasant memories, but it’s a beautiful island. Also, there’s a new pathologist so she thought she’d go and cast an eye over him. But she wouldn’t normally go out on that boat. She did think there might something suspicious because she did know a boat was missing.

TKT: Were there challenges with this location at all? This isolated island?
BB: Well, there were… because it was raining birdshit [laughs]. Thankfully, someone just kept popping up with a flannel [laughs some more] [carries on laughing]. We were bestowed by good luck! It wasn’t seagulls though, it was puffins. It was nice seeing the seals close up, though. But the puffins seemed to time it when they did their business… they’re obviously used to people filming up there so they know when to drop a load. It was like the Blitz! [laughs]

TKT: So where is Vera emotionally this year? Bethany’s death hit her hard in the last series…
BB: She quite often… hold on. She looked so sad and on a downer on that boat at the end of the last series, you longed for some bird shit! A big splat! A drop of good luck on Vera! [laughs] But you’re right, it was a rather forlorn ending. But where is she? She’s a survivor, she always has been. She took Bethany’s death very hard because she felt responsible. She also felt guilt because she’d put aside Bethany’s request for promotion. But she was right to do that, as we found out.

TKT: Do you relate to Vera at all? Do you think you’re like her?
BB: I’m like her in the fact that I like solving puzzles and riddles. Quiet analytical. I’ve always been like that. When we were young – I was part of a big family – we didn’t have television (actually we didn’t know anyone with a television). Actually, we didn’t have a wireless… that’s a radio [laughs], so my dad used to set us brainteasers. But I do like her. I think I might be a bit too frivolous for her, but I would like her. She’s no-nonsense, says what she thinks. Actually, I’m a bit like that, too. I never imagined that I’d be playing her at all, let alone for this long. When I heard that ITV wanted to send me to play a detective, I thought “that’d be nice”. So I read Ann’s books, and the book that Vera is introduced in is called The Crow Trap, set out in the country with some conservationists. And I’m half way through it and there’s no sign of this Vera character. And I thought it might be a bit part or something. Then there was a scene, which said something like, ‘And the door banged open and in stumbled this great galumph of a woman, with carrier bags full of shopping…’ And I thought, that’s not her is it? [laughs] And then I thought: why did they think of me for this? [laughs] As I sat there in my Armani suit [laughs]. Of course, I absolutely loved her. I do like that about her – she’s not dependent on approval. Or lipstick.

TKT: Has playing her changed the way you approach your own life?
BB: Well, I don’t wear much of all that fancy stuff anyway. I’m wearing it today because I was coming to see you lot. It’s nice to be turned out well occasionally. I can’t say I’ve carried much of Vera away with me… I’ve carried a bit of me on. I did provide the boots for series. Actually, sometimes I’ll be out shopping for myself and I’ll see something and think, “that’ll be great for Vera!” So I’ll buy something for Vera. My husband will ask, “what’s all this you’ve got here?” and I’ll have to tell him that’s it not for me, it’s for Vera!

TKT: Are you most recognised for Vera?
BB: To tell you the truth, the thing I’m most recognised for is a comedy I did ages ago with Simon Callow called Chance In A Million. I’ve been in a jungle in Borneo and a cave in Australia and people have recognised me for that. But the roles I’m most proud of, film-wise, are In The Winter Dark, Pride And Prejudice and the one I did recently, the cartoon, Ethel And Ernest. The Raymond Briggs story. There were so many echoes of my own childhood in there. I mean, loads of people used keep coal in that bath – you never washed in there. I remember, clear as day, coming home from school every day and seeing my dad have a wash in the kitchen sink.

TKT: Do you watch many crime dramas?
BB: Yes, I do. I like Foyle’s War. I think Michael Kitchen is a wonderful actor, who takes his own time. I like period dramas anyway. I liked Apple Tree Yard, that was intriguing. And Rillington Place. Who directed that, was it an Italian fella? Hmmm… that was the one with Tim Roth? Yeah? I was glued to that. Dark. I do binge watch some things. I’ve watched Breaking Bad end-to-end. My husband hid me car keys because I’d been up all night watching that! And the one with the dragons. [makes swooping noises and hand gestures] Game Of Thrones!

TKT: This is like charades! Some of the Downton actors said they play games on-set to relieve the boredom. Do you do that?
BB: [laughs] We play Olympics. Someone has to go past the open door miming an Olympic event, and the people inside have a split second as you pass that open door to guess what event it is. [laughs] [proceeds to tell a story that cannot be printed]

TKT: Where does Vera fit into the current crime drama landscape?
BB: Well, you don’t know an awful lot about her backstory. It’s so crime-based and solving-based, I think people have warmed to the character. I don’t think they liked her too much when it first started because she was rather abrasive. It’s natural not to like an abrasive stranger who comes into your life. I think people changed their minds about Vera because of her sidekick Joe, because Joe was easy to like. But Vera isn’t bloodthirsty or gory. The family can watch it. My nephew and his family watch it, and in the commercial breaks they discuss what’s going to happen. They’re good stories, too.

Vera: Sunday 19th March, 8pm, ITV

 

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