Brenda Blethyn: A 10th series of Vera? I've just got to get my breath back first
Famed for playing down-to-earth characters, two-time Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn is back on the small screen in a new series of hit crime drama Vera. How does she account for the show's broad appeal? Gemma Dunn finds out
ANOTHER year. Another dose of Vera. Following the huge success of series eight, the British crime drama – based on Ann Cleeves's novels of the same name – is back for a ninth run. As is Brenda Blethyn's matchless portrayal of the unorthodox but brilliantly perceptive Vera Stanhope.
But with four chilling feature-length episodes – and plenty of crime – to tackle, it's far from a happy new year for ITV's favourite detective chief inspector.
"Our opening episode, Blind Spot, focuses on a trainee forensic psychologist who is found murdered," begins Bafta and Golden Globe-winner Blethyn (72), who has famously led the north-east-England-based hit since its inception in 2011.
"In Cuckoo, episode two, a teenage boy is found dead in a coastal town far from his home; and Vera and the team are faced with the body of a partygoer who is found drowned in episode three, Cold River.
"And in the final story, adapted from Ann's latest novel of the same title, The Seagull, a skeleton is discovered during some building excavations of a notorious nightclub and the team discover a link to a recent murder."
It's a chain of events that initially takes the dogged detective and her team to a landfill site – a far cry from the beautiful seascapes and landscapes we've come to expect from Vera.
"It was rank," Blethyn recalls about having filmed in the height of summer. "It was really hot and windy, there was dust blowing, and oh the stench of methane!
"I couldn't help thinking, 'There probably is a body in there somewhere.' Imagine if we happened upon it."
The two-time Oscar nominee – who hails from Ramsgate, the Kent seaside town that's at the centre of a Brexit ferry controversy at the moment – continues: "We all had specific instructions to wear special boots in case a nail went through our footwear.
"[But] we made light of the situation and it was a real eye-opener. [There's] so much waste. Surely we can all cut down on that and become better with how we recycle?"
Joining her here – and in more glorious locations such as Holy Island, Lindisfarne and Spanish City in Whitley Bay – is Kenny Doughty, who returns as Detective Sergeant Aiden Healy, Jon Morrison who plays DC Kenny Lockhart, Riley Jones as DC Mark Edwards, and Ibinabo Jack who joins as Vera's newest recruit, DC Jacqueline Williams.
Paul Kaye – known for his time as satirical red-carpet interviewer Dennis Pennis in the 90s, or more recently as Thoros in Game Of Thrones – also enrols as pathologist Dr Malcolm Donahue.
"Oh, listen, he is gold dust. He is just terrific!" Blethyn says of his appointment. "The man himself, he's a joy to work with. But [his character] has got no time for Vera,' she adds, laughing.
"Malcolm is very stern, which can often come across as him being rude," she teases. "He is there to get a very serious job done so he doesn't hold back if he feels Vera is overstepping the mark or cross-examining his work.
"They try to tolerate each other, but it's an interesting addition to the chemistry."
Other actors appearing across the four episodes include the likes of Mark Addy, Elizabeth Berrington, Robert James-Collier, Natalie Gumede and Daniel Ryan.
As well as "brilliant newcomers, namely Louis Healy [who is the son of actors Denise Welch of Corrie fame and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet's Tim Healy], Kathleen Cranham and Josie Walker", Blethyn notes.
She adds: "When the young actors come to us, our job is – because they might have only seen Vera on the telly, as this monstrous scary woman – to make them laugh."
How? "Oh all sorts," she says, admitting the cast and crew spend much of their time laughing behind the scenes.
"Something even as basic as having a funny walk – any old thing just to break the ice, so that they know it's OK if they go wrong," she explains. "Or I deliberately go wrong just to put them at ease!"
The DCI's mac and hat combo must raise some smiles too – given that it's become so iconic that even a stall in Newcastle is selling Vera-inspired headwear?
"I take my hat off for that. They told me they do a roaring trade," Blethyn says.
"Once when I stopped to chat, a couple stopped at the stall and explained they'd come to Newcastle for their anniversary – they'd met at Newcastle University – and they were hoping to see some Vera locations.
"They nearly fainted when they saw me standing there at the same stall."
But aside from the "fashion" and high drama, Blethyn – whose major career breakthrough came in the shape of Mike Leigh's 1996 drama Secrets & Lies, for which she received her first Academy Award nomination (the second was for Little Voice) – has her own take on why the show is such a stellar success.
It's all down to the fact that it's fun for all the family, she says.
"We did a night shoot, I think in North Shields, and there was hundreds of people there waiting all night to watch us. Slippers on, pyjamas on," she recalls.
"And the minute we wrapped, whoosh, they all wanted to come over, but our producers said, 'OK, get your cameras ready and we'll set up a shot for you.
"So they all got a photo, but it was a bit scary actually.
"And we were also doing this crime convention in Harrogate and someone at the back stood up.
"It was a young boy and he said Vera is his favourite show, and all his friends' favourite show. And I said, 'Don't mind me asking, how old are you?' He said, '12'.
"I thought, 'You what? Why do you like it?' And he said, 'Because she's bossing all those men around and she's funny'."
With such inter-generational demand, then, will Vera be back for a 10th chapter?
"I mean it's always wait and see," Blethyn says, having enjoyed some downtime with husband Michael Mayhew and dog Jack in her hometown of Ramsgate over Christmas.
'They're talking about it, but I've just got to get my breath back first. It's like a feast and you've stuffed yourself with it – 'Please, I want nothing more, Vera, please go away.' But then you get hungry again..."
:: Vera is on ITV, Sundays. Catch up on itv.com