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Vera Series 11 | Interview with Brenda Blethyn – DCI Vera Stanhope

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Q: You were due to begin work on four new Vera films in March 2020 when the pandemic halted all filming. What was your experience of the first lockdown?

“Apart from living in London I also have a home in Ramsgate on the south east coast. I happened to be there gathering my last bits and pieces to take up to Newcastle with me for filming when the lockdown happened. So, I couldn’t go home. My husband was in London and he couldn’t come down. So we were apart for however long that was. 12 weeks was it? Fortunately for me I had Jack the dog with me for company.

“I’m someone who likes to be busy. So when my dog jumped on the sofa with his big muddy paws, it wasn’t too much of a chore to remove the covers and wash them. Except they shrunk pretty badly. A friend told me to wash them again and stretch them whilst wet but that didn’t work. So the only thing for it was to make new covers. It’s a big sofa with quite complicated cushions but I was up for the challenge.

“Fortunately I had a bale of fabric I could practice with. I ordered a sewing machine online along with all the accoutrements and set to it. All those sewing lessons I had at school many moons ago all leapt into focus. I was amazed at the result. The covers turned out brilliantly, prompting me to send photos to my friends. A mistake, because I then got several requests to make covers for their sofas too. Not likely! But one of my friends was fixing an emergency leak for me, and instead of payment he also asked me to make some sofa covers. He already had the fabric which cost £100 a metre. I was petrified. In trepidation I measured, double measured, triple measured and gingerly cut into his fabric. Even if I say so myself, I did a really good job and he and his wife were delighted.”

Q: The announcement in August 2020 that six new episodes were to be filmed was a real morale booster for Vera fans. Did you get a lot of reaction to that?

“It was hugely gratifying to hear that the people in the North East were excited to know that Vera was returning to film more episodes. Something to look forward to in a dismal time.

“I was glad to be starting work again for lots of reasons. But at the same time I was nervous of it. We were in the middle of a global pandemic and nobody was safe really. But when it was explained to me about all the precautions to be set in place – and my word they were very very thorough, I became a little less nervous. I was quizzed on the phone by a Covid detective, and medicals were carried out to make sure I wasn’t too vulnerable. Medicals are necessary anyway for any filming for insurance purposes. They really just want to know you’re going to make it to the end of the shoot!

“Covid did make it more difficult to film. It lengthened the filming time of each episode by about a week. To start with the Covid protocol made it a little bit inhibiting but we soon got used to it. It became a sort of dance. If somebody approached you, you naturally stepped backwards. And if anyone did forget, the Covid marshals were over to you with a long stick. Not to hit you with but to make sure you were the appropriate distance apart.

“On the first day back filming I think everyone felt a huge sense of pride. That we had all come together, we were all putting our best foot forward to try and get this done. We all knew it would be difficult with all the restrictions.

“The other thing of course is that it was difficult to recognise anyone with all the masks and visors on. Covid also forced technicians to be a little bit more creative in how a scene was shot, so that it didn’t look like we were all separating and keeping our distance. We all tried our best in very difficult circumstances.

“There were plenty of people sitting at home who would have given their eye teeth to go to work and they couldn’t. So, nobody in the cast or crew were moaning, even though we were nervous and didn’t want to catch Covid. We knew we were in a fortunate position in being able to work. If you looked on the catering list for lunch each day there would be something like 75 to 80 people involved.”

Q: What else did the new restrictions involve?

“Because Kenny Doughty, who plays DS Aiden Healy, and I have a lot of scenes together and especially in the Land Rover, it was decided we should be in a bubble. Very nice for me – not so for him! Our apartments are next door to one another. We weren’t allowed visitors. Even my husband wasn’t allowed to visit unless he’d been Covid tested or quarantined beforehand.

“Even Vera’s hat and coat couldn’t be handed to me. They are put in a special bag. So when I turn up on set Vera’s clothes will have been delivered to my trailer having been sprayed or whatever it is they put inside a hanging bag. The trailer will then also have been fogged again after somebody else had been inside it, so that I will be safe to go back in. And as I arrive on set as with the rest of the cast and crew, we had our temperature checked. And Kenny and I were also Covid tested several times a week.

“When we shot the first scene in the Land Rover, I was horrified to notice that all the rubbish that Vera has accumulated had been removed and the whole vehicle sanitised. Valeted. ‘I want all Vera’s rubbish back please!’ I cried. So they sanitised all the rubbish and put it back in. Haaa! All the empty crisp bags and apple cores. They all came back.”

Q: What about the practicalities of filming both in the studio and on location?

“In the first episode we employed different techniques when filming the police interview room scenes. Because the space is limited, and especially because of Covid, only a limited number of people were allowed in the room. Usually five. We needed to be two metres apart. So a green screen would be put to use. Which means that when Vera is interrogating a suspect, the suspect isn’t actually there! I just had to make you believe that they were. The other actor is behind the green screen and all Kenny and I could see were their feet. It was hysterically funny. And when the suspect is explaining themselves, Vera and Aiden weren’t there. We were tucked behind the green screen delivering our lines. I defy anyone to notice in the final edit. Director Paul Gay is a wizard.

“There’s also a scene in the first episode at a tower block of flats. We shot the exterior actually outside the flats, but because of Covid we weren’t allowed inside. So the interior was recreated at the studio. But, you would never know when you see it on screen.

“The only thing our audience might notice is the population of the incident room. There are normally more officers in there. But we were only allowed a limited number of people in any given space because of the Covid protocol. If an extra person wanted to enter the room, someone had to leave meanwhile. It’s also a good thing that Vera has never been one for handshakes. She’s got a natural two metre antenna when it comes to other people.”

Q: You made these two new films in the autumn of 2020 when filming would normally have finished. Did working on location at that time of year feel any different?

“We finished filming the first two new episodes just before Christmas 2020. It was a lot colder filming at that time of year. I had more layers on. In the second film I had my big winter coat on because it was just too cold to wear Vera’s Mac. Plus jumpers under that. Also a heated waistcoat! I looked like a Yeti.”

Q: People love to watch Vera being filmed on location. Does that ever cause a problem?

“We did have lots of people turning up at locations to watch filming. We always have somebody to help marshal the crowds, and the onlookers are always so co-operative. And quiet. Such nice people.

“I find the people of the North East generally very friendly anyway. What does surprise me is the age span of the people who come. You get older people but also younger – junior school age who like Vera. Their mums or dads have brought them along. One lad told me that young people like Vera because she’s in charge of all these men, she keeps them all in their place and she is funny. I’m glad they get that Vera does have a sense of humour. Apart from doing her job well.”

Q: Can you give us a taste of what’s ahead in the first new film, Witness, by Paul Logue?

“The opening of our first episode includes a lovely view of the Holy Island causeway. I love it when they are able to include that as part of the story. We also have a very impressive location – the Collingwood Monument at Tynemouth. A body is found on the steps of the memorial. A builder who appears to be an upstanding member of the community and who was due to be giving evidence in a trial that very morning. We also see him earlier on board the Shields Ferry. Sadly, Vera doesn’t get to go on the ferry but I have been on it myself as a passenger.

“The guest cast includes the wonderful Lorraine Ashbourne, who plays the victim’s estranged wife Barbara. Almost everyone could be a suspect. There are also some great new actors in the first two films. There is one young actress called Ayten Manyera who came in to the second episode as a replacement at the very last minute. Ayten was terrific. Made me laugh. We have some wonderfully talented new young actors.

“Vera also notices that Aiden, played by Kenny Doughty, has been a ‘bit off’ recently and wonders what’s going on with him. She soon discovers what it’s all about and tells him to sort it out. Kenny is terrific. He really should have his own show. He’s the most wonderful mimic. If you shut your eyes when he’s impersonating someone his voice is pitch perfect. A very funny fella. He can probably imitate me too but it would be at his PERIL! We have such a laugh.”

Q: One of the characters in the first story is a young footballer on the verge of possible stardom and we see Vera at his training ground. Are you a football fan?

“How could I not be after the wonderful performance of our England team in the Euros. I thought they were marvellous. What a team. The only actual match I’ve been to is Newcastle United at St. James Park a couple of years ago. I loved it. I’d be there every week if I didn’t have so much work to do on Vera.”

Q: September 2020 saw the publication of The Darkest Evening, the latest Vera novel by Ann Cleeves. Would you like to film that one day?

“The Darkest Evening is a great read. A terrific story. Telling a little more of Vera’s background. I would love to film it one day. There is a lot of snow in it so it would be a great Christmas special. And I mean a LOT of snow. Scotland maybe. Or Iceland? Or what about Norway? That’d be nice.”

Q: You have been working this year on four further Vera films to be screened in 2022. Can you tell us a little about them?

“One of the four new films is As The Crow Flies by Sally Abbott which includes some lovely seaside locations. A teacher is found on a very remote part of the coastline. She had made what is thought to be an exaggerated claim to social services about child protection. So we have all sorts of suspects rearing their heads. She’s a farmer’s wife so there are farmland settings as well. Vera’s got her Mac back on for that one!”

Q: Viewers were treated to lots of Vera repeats during lockdowns. Do you ever watch them again?

“People would tell me how glad they were that the repeats were on, which is very nice. I think people like Vera because she lives on the same planet as them.

“Sometimes I watch a repeat but I’m generally doing something like making cushions or trying out a new recipe. If I’ve not seen an episode for a long time I always forget who did what. You’d think I’d know, wouldn’t you?!”

Q: You also now have an off-screen co-star. Can you tell us about him?

“My dog Jack has become a bit of a celebrity and also a bit of an embarrassment after his appearance with me on This Morning. He so delighted them when he was on there, disgracing me. They later called up and said ‘Can you bring him on again?’ I said, ‘I don’t think I’ll be doing that. Not after last time. Anyway, I’m working. I’m afraid I can’t come’. And they said, ‘Well we can send somebody to pick him up and bring him in? He’ll get a fee!’ I said ‘So you only want him, you don’t actually want me?’ Cheek! Haaa!”

Q: Are there plans to film more of Kate and Koji with Jimmy Akingbola?

“We were all geared up to do another series. I finished Vera just before Christmas 2020 and they had already started some of the outside broadcast filming. I was due to start Kate and Koji in the studio in January 2021. But there were too many challenges. You couldn’t have a studio audience. I’m playing a character who is serving tea and sandwiches all day long, and because of Covid protocol, I wouldn’t have been able to pass anything to anyone else. And of course, we had to stay two metres apart. So, the producer has delayed it until after I’ve finished work on Vera later this year.

“Kate and Koji was designed as one of those old-fashioned comedies with a studio audience. And they did so enjoy it. We were accused by one newspaper of having canned laughter but we didn’t. It was real people laughing in the studio. In fact they actually had to take some of the laughter out because it made the episodes too long!!”

Q: So, no thoughts of retirement and hanging up Vera’s hat?

“At the end of filming every season I think, ‘Oh, thank the Lord I’m going home. Never again.’ But it’s like having a lovely slap-up meal. You’ve eaten too much. You couldn’t eat another morsel. And you’re shown the menu again. ‘Take it away, take it away!’ But then a week later you get hungry again. So by the time I go back to Newcastle again I’m always very much looking forward to it. It rather depends on the Covid situation and putting my priorities in order.”