No, I’m not advertising a particularly nourishing shampoo, I’m welcoming back one of the best crime dramas on television. (Speaking of crimes, I know that opening gag is essentially an imprisonable offence, and all I can do is fall upon the mercy of the court).
This Sunday Vera, the Brenda Blethyn-led detective show, returns for its tenth series featuring, as ever, four feature-length episodes. It’s a tried and tested format, and why not? If it ain’t broke… and Vera is anything but broke. In a decade that has seen terrestrial TV viewing figures plummet, it has spectacularly bucked the trend, with audiences rocketing from six million to nine million. In a 2018 poll of the greatest ever British detective shows conducted by Radio Times, Vera finished a creditable sixth, ahead of massively acclaimed series including Life on Mars and Broadchurch.
Coming sixth in the all-time detective show list is some achievement, considering that, at any given time, 90% of TV output is cop shows (source: entirely made up from my own confused head). In a TV landscape where crime dramas are ubiquitous, what is it that makes Vera stand out? How does it become a vivid wallpaper in a world of insipid magnolia?
Certainly, it does not avoid the usual TV detective tropes: The badly dressed, seemingly shambolic older detective hiding a razor-sharp forensic mind (think Frost, Morse, Jessica Fletcher, Columbo); or the chief protagonist’s emotionally complicated backstory. And if I see another curmudgeonly detective who, deep down, has a heart of gold, I think I may put my size twelves through the telly. (I’m actually a size ten, but who doesn’t like to big themselves up a bit?)
Then there’s the fact that every case seems to involve at least eight plausible suspects, and that, almost invariably, it’s the least plausible who ends up having done it. And, just to tie in with almost every other detective show in TV history, they’ve even drafted in an eccentric, sardonic pathologist (Paul Kaye) in recent series.
And yet, in spite of its enthusiastic adoption of whodunnit clichés, Vera works. Will Sinclair, who directed episodes Vera in the third, fourth and fifth series, believes that this is down to having the luxury of time. Not only is each episode two-hours long, allowing the story, and characters, to develop without having to cram in the plot, but the crew are given a relatively long time, in TV-terms, to make each episode. “If you want to go to a field three miles away to get a landscape shot of a car driving along in the distance, you can do that.” Sinclair says. “The producers understand that the landscape is a really important part of the show. Those moments are what sets the show apart – when they’re sitting at some desolate seaside resort having an ice cream, and the wind’s blowing her hat off. Those things feel very British, and very right for the show.”
Think about Vera. It is a show that oozes atmosphere, like the Scandi-noir thrillers that have influenced it. Much of this is down to the lingering shots of the landscape where it is filmed. This is where the show’s Northumbrian setting has proved so beneficial. “When you do TV, you’re supposed to film everything within an hour’s distance,” explains Sinclair. “And you’ve got Newcastle city centre, but then you’ve got Hadrian’s Wall, no end of big country mansions, moorlands, docks, beaches. But you’ve also got that industrial edge-lands, at the margins of life – you get a terraced house sitting in the middle of a field with a petrol works in the background, and scorched earth and a horse. I don’t think you get that anywhere else. We shot in Hartlepool, where Ridley Scott comes from, and there’s a big petrol works there, where he got the inspiration for Blade Runner. So we got to shoot on these amazing beaches that go on for ever, and the background is all that petrochemical works, and you can’t get your shot wide enough to take it all in. And you have these two tiny figures in the middle of it. That feels like a real Vera shot.”
Of course, all the moody, atmospheric shots in the world won’t make a show if the audience isn’t emotionally invested in it, and in DCI Vera Stanhope, the series has a central character who people warm to – nowhere more so than in the show’s heartland. “I think she’s synonymous with the northeast, she’s a hero up there. We finished series five on the Millennium Bridge,” remembers Sinclair. “So you’ve got that iconic Newcastle shot with her standing in the middle of it, and we had to close the bridge off at both sides. And people were shouting ‘It’s Vera!’ and the crowd was starting to swell. There was no complaining about the bridge being closed, because the show has so much goodwill there.”
Sinclair is quick to give credit for this to Brenda Blethyn: “She’s the big draw, isn’t she? She’s a bit of a national treasure. I think it helps that there’s a lot of crossover between Brenda and Vera. Brenda’s a real giggler and a lot of fun to be around. Quite often you’ll be in hysterics when you’re trying to film a really serious scene. She has that twinkle that Vera has. A different actor wouldn’t have that, it’s something that she has naturally, that comes through in the character.”
The first episode of the new series, called Blood Will Tell, is a labyrinthine tale of jealousy, greed, resentment, passion and betrayal, after a businessman is found shot dead in his luxury home. But, reassuringly, it’s also a tale of a doughty old bird in a dodgy fishing hat and an unflattering mac, driving around in a rattling old Land Rover, eating fish and chips out of a paper bag and dispensing wisdom and put-downs with equal gusto.
Welcome back, pet.
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