NL Woman: Actress Brenda Blethyn returns as sleuth Vera

DCI Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn)
DCI Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn)

Her detective alter ego isn’t known for her people skills - quite the opposite, in fact - but Brenda Blethyn is always keen to put her co-stars at ease on the set of ITV crime drama Vera.

“I do joke about a bit, especially if there’s a young actor who’s joined,” says the star, who’s been nominated for two 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 [Vera] 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.”

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

Over the show’s five series run, we’ve seen DCI Stanhope 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 Northumberland and the North East, looks set to be just as intriguing, starting with a deadly fire ripping through a holiday park.

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

“Joe’s been promoted and he goes off to pastures new. 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],” says Blethyn, looking sharper than her rather unkempt character in a tailored lime green jacket.

“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.”

Acting wasn’t Blethyn’s first choice of career. The youngest of nine children in a working class family from Ramsgate, Kent, she worked as a typist for British Rail and 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.

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”.

She adds: “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. 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 plays a parole officer, with Whitaker and Keitel playing a newly released convict and local sheriff respectively.

“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 adds, 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.

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 ITV on Sunday, April 5.