Brenda Blethyn and Kenny Doughty in VERA - Season 9| ©2019 Britbox

Brenda Blethyn and Kenny Doughty in VERA – Season 9| ©2019 Britbox

The tenth season of British detective series VERA (along with the previous nine seasons) is now available to U.S. audiences via the Britbox streaming service. Brenda Blethyn, a two-time Oscar nominee for her work in SECRETS AND LIES and LITTLE VOICE) stars as Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, a character taken from a series of mystery novels by Ann Cleeves. Vera’s team is headquartered in Northumberland, but their cases take them to various parts of England, and even Scotland.

Vera is somewhat unusual amongst female TV detectives in that she’s not only mature in age – sure, we’ve had Miss Marple and Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher – but she also really doesn’t worry about her clothing and appearance, and she tries to disarm her suspects by presenting herself as unthreatening until it’s time to reveal the steel at her core. She is spiritually akin to Peter Falk’s COLUMBO.

VERA executive producers Kate Bartlett and Phil Hunter sit down to talk about the new season and VERA’s overall history from its 2013 beginnings until now.

ASSIGNMENT X: Have both of you been with VERA since the series began?

KATE BARTLETT: No. I’ve been with it from the very beginning. I originally developed it, and made the pilot, and the first few series, and then Phil did the last four series.

AX: When you started developing VERA, did you find Ann Cleeves’s books yourself?

BARTLETT: No. I knew I wanted to develop a distinctive woman detective show, because it felt like there were a lot of men on screen, and one of the women in my team came across THE CROW TRAP by Ann Cleeves in her local charity bookshop. And we read it and went, “This is it, we found her.” So we got Paul [Rutman] to write the script, and then we took the script to Brenda and she said yes, and it went from there. So that’s where it started.

AX: And Phil Hunter came in to run VERA when you stepped back, or …?

BARTLETT: Well, it’s still Silverprint Pictures. I run that as creative director, so I was doing SHETLAND, which is Ann Cleeves’ other show, and so we needed another EP to come in to help with the show, and Phil now runs it.

VERA - Season 10 Key Art | ©2020 Britbox

VERA – Season 10 Key Art | ©2020 Britbox

AX: Do you have a theory as to VERA’s popularity, and why it’s lasted ten seasons and nine years?

BARTLETT: Yes. Rather bizarrely, we did two series almost back to back, which I think nearly finished everyone off [laughs]. Yes. That’s why it’s slightly shorter [this season]. I think the reason it’s loved so much is because of her [Blethyn], and because of the character, and I think you watch drama for characters you love, and this is why people keep coming to it.

PHIL HUNTER: Yeah, I think absolutely, Brenda’s the main draw. She’s an incredible actress, and her craft is phenomenal. She probably is the most talented actor I’ve ever worked with, and her diligence, and the care she takes with Ann’s character, is second to none. She polices the character, she keeps us on our toes in terms of the script process. So we get in the best writing talent we can to service both the [guest] and original characters, but also to give Brenda the best scripts. We start from that blueprint, and then the rest is all the incredible work the team puts in, their loyalty to the show, and that translates on the screen.

AX: Do you shoot VERA in Northumberland?

HUNTER: Yes. We shoot the length and breadth of it. We even escape it every now and again. This year, we’ve shot just over the Scottish border, and we’ve gone down as far as Redcastle, right into the steel manufacturing/industrial part of the northeast, and then we head out west towards County Durham to get huge variation in terms of landscapes. You get the coastal, Jurassic island beautiful beaches, and then you get the bleak but still incredibly compelling mood over in County Durham.

BARTLETT: But it’s all shot in the northeast. It’s not filmed half in London and half up there.

AX: Do you have soundstages, or is everything a real location?

HUNTER: All the locales that we shoot in are obviously location-based. The standing sets that we’ve got are the incident room for the C.I.D., and we have a mortuary set, which is within the same building. It’s right down on the Tyne [River], so it’s actually an old draftsman’s office for a big ship builder that was down on the side of the Tyne there. It’s a regeneration, with us renting out office space and studio space. And the other thing that we build is the interior of Vera’s cottage. So that comes out of storage each year, and we put that on its feet again, and we shoot that interior in the set.

AX: How much do you go into Vera’s life away from work? At present, the series seems very procedure-oriented, picking up some character stuff along the way.

BARTLETT: I think we did a bit more of it when we started the series, because we were establishing her as a character. When we started the series, it was just after her father had died, so there was a lot more in her cottage, and we explored that side of grief, and her coming to terms with a lot of things to do with her past. But as the series has gone on, there are moments, I think, of serial storylines, but on the whole, the case of the week is the main drama. But we always dip in and out of it, so in the final episode of Season 9, we did an adaptation of one of Ann’s books, and that definitely harked back to elements of her past. I think you couldn’t do it every week, but it’s nice to go back there occasionally and revisit for the loyal viewers.

AX: How many different supporting people does VERA have, and what’s the turnover like there?

BARTLETT: In terms of her main sidekick, it’s only been two. We had David Leon playing Joe when we first started, and he did four series, and then Kenny Doughty has played Aiden for the last six series. So that’s the main relationship. Jon Morrison [who plays Detective Constable Kenny Lockhart] has been in it since Episode 2 of Season 1, so he’s stayed right the way through. And then we’ve had other people come in and out, like Cush Jumbo [who played Detective Constable Bethany Whelan]. But yeah, the team is fairly loyal and faithful.

HUNTER: We had some changeover in the pathologist as well over the years, which is a nice kind of discipline for Vera to wrangle with, because she’s the boss, but she isn’t really the boss of that discipline, yet she is still seen to tell them what to do [laughs]. So yeah. But I think the quality, as Kate says, is quite consistent, and Kenny Doughty and David Leon have shared it across the years, so there’s a strong unit there.

AX: Vera as a character has a very distinctive look. Is that straight out of the books, or something you came up with for the series?

BARTLETT: She really is described as sort of a bag lady. When you first meet her in the book, halfway through THE CROW TRAP, she turns up at the back of a church with plastic bags and looking very disheveled, which I loved when I read it in the book. That for me was really important, that we didn’t suddenly glamorize her when we made the pilot. And the costume sort of came about through that. We’d always talked about there being elements of Columbo in this show, and I think probably the mac [raincoat] originated from there [laughs]. Brenda brought a pair of boots that she’d bought in a charity shop, I think, years before, and those became Vera’s boots. And I don’t know where the hat come from, whether that was Brenda or costume design, but it was certainly there from the very beginning.

HUNTER: Yeah. Brenda talks about the fact that, in Ann’s novels, Vera in the books is far more disheveled, and actually, she has a skin condition, and health is an issue for her. Obviously, we slightly moderated that onscreen, but Brenda seems to be all right. Ann’s version in the novels can’t be in the sunshine too much, so the idea is that the hat is a nod to the fact that Vera doesn’t like to be in the sun, when we have it in the northeast [laughs].

AX: Do you think that Vera dresses the way she does because it’s just what she throws on in the morning and she doesn’t like to think about it, or does she do it as a tactical thing, to be deceptively nonthreatening?

BARTLETT: I think it’s a bit of both. One of the other things I loved about the books when I first read them, when she turned up just to chat to someone with a whole bunch of cream cakes, and she starts feeding the suspect the cakes, and disarms them slightly, so they think, “Oh, it’s this lovely, friendly old lady,” and actually, what she’s doing is getting right under there. I think it’s a bit of that. She wants people to feel relaxed and at ease.

AX: Do you get a sense from your viewers that they appreciate Vera for being a character who dresses comfortably, and doesn’t worry about people’s opinion of her appearance, and can still do her job?

BARTLETT: Do you know, we haven’t had people sort of specifically saying that, but I think it’s a really important part of the show. We don’t want to glamorize her in any way. So we’re very careful about how much makeup she wears, because Brenda is quite glamorous in real life. But we’re very keen to make sure she feels real and authentic, because she is concerned about her job more than anything else, I think, and that’s as it should be.

AX: Do you have firm ideas about the types of crimes you do and don’t want to depict?

BARTLETT: We’re never going to go down the serial killer route, we’re never going to go down voyeuristic, dark, nasty crimes. That’s not the show. They have their place in other shows, but not in this one. I love LUTHER. Those shows are amazing. But if we suddenly did that in VERA, I think our audience would go, “What are you doing?” [laughs] And also it does play – in the U.K., it plays in the eight-to-ten timeslot, so it means that it’s pre-watershed. It needs to be able to play for a family viewing slot. All the crimes are emotionally driven, they’re character-driven, they are generally crimes that could happen, terrible situations, or tragic situations. But we want them to feel real and rooted in reality.

AX: What British network are you partnered with for VERA?

BARTLETT: ITV. We make SHETLAND for the BBC, which is also on Britbox, and we make VERA for ITV.

AX: Do you shoot SHETLAND in the Shetland Islands?

BARTLETT: We do, yes. Not entirely, because it’s much harder. We shoot in Glasgow, and we shoot in the Shetland Islands.

AX: So is Phil Hunter based in Northumberland, and you’re running all over the place, or …?

BARTLETT: [laughs] No. We’re both in London. But you [Hunter] go more to Northumberland, and I go to Shetland.

AX: What’s the most complicated part of making VERA?

HUNTER: Well, script development, really, from the get-go, because it’s a murder mystery that fills that ninety-minute slot. People talk a lot about the craft that you have to deploy to make sure that people don’t guess who the murderer is, but yet entertain and sustain that mystery for seven parts of the show. So there’s a lot of time put into storylining and crafting those stories and characters so that they feel authentic, feel like it’s a right and natural extension of a police investigation, and we’re not just throwing in wild red herrings. It’s got to feel germane to the story. So that’s probably the big challenge up front. Then obviously, we get such loyalty from the crew, and there are so many people who we like to refer to as the VERA family, come back year after year to make the show the best it can be. And that’s what we love about it, and ultimately, that’s sort of synergy that you get that means that the show can continue to just grow and grow in an organic way.

AX: How much time, in terms of seasons, do you need to put between similar sorts of crimes and/or motives?

BARTLETT: I think we’re quite careful across all the seasons, actually. Everyone knows the stories, so you’re very careful to try not to repeat. There might be similar themes, there might be similar arenas of murders, if that makes sense [laughs], but yeah, we’re quite careful not to do a similar story from one season to the next.

HUNTER: No, it’s tricky, what Kate said earlier about the murderers. These are normal people in exceptionally terrible circumstances, and it has to be, for the most part, an emotionally-driven crime. So the violence in any one of those stories is often about blunt-force trauma, or there’s a stabbing. We rarely use a gun as a weapon. There is some of that in Series 10, but the violence is usually in a reckless moment. It’s usually not premeditated. So essentially, you do get some similarities, but the kind of locales and the kind of character groupings and the dynamics of the characters are always different, and we police that quite readily. So yeah, I think we’ve got to try and have clear water between episodes. We only produce four a year. That takes the whole year to do that. But they have to be distinctive and different.

AX: Speaking of guns, I don’t believe gun violence is a problem in the U.K. the way it is in the U.S.

BARTLETT: There’s a lot of knife killings, especially amongst young people in urban areas, is a big problem at the moment, but we don’t have a gun crime problem in the same way, because we have gun control.

HUNTER: Of course, people can get their hands on them, but …

AX: It’s not common.

BARTLETT: No. The [British] police don’t carry guns – well, they do in exceptional circumstances, but it’s not part of general policing.

HUNTER: That said, there are two murders in Series 10 where the weapon of choice is a firearm, but they have been acquired illegally, and there’s a basis for that story. The other thing we’ve had with firearms is, often it’s a very rural [aspect] of the storytelling, so there have been shotguns used.

BARTLETT: Shotguns would be far more [common].

HUNTER: But it’s that sort of thing of, again, you go back to the basis for which the crime – the kernel of the motivation, and if you’re talking about domestic fallout, or some sort of crime of passion, unless you’ve planned to get your hands on a firearm, it just isn’t there.

AX: The weapon would be something that would just come to hand …

HUNTER: Yeah. You hit somebody over the head with a bottle or a brick or a knife [laughs].

AX: Do you look to the news for story ideas, or do you want to avoid anything that’s too ripped-from-the-headlines?

BARTLETT: Because there are so many brilliant true crime, or true-life crime dramas that are made at the moment, we try and avoid that.

HUNTER: We do pick up some relevant story territories. We had an episode in Series 9 which was based around drug trafficking. And that’s quite an organized crime, and a kind of story which we don’t do a lot of, but it was also about communities, how drugs can infiltrate a community and destroy lives, and that was very timely in terms of a lot of the U.K. press that we were getting about this kind of phenomenon in the U.K., where these kids are victimized. Not cynically – it was a story we’d been talking about for some time – but just as we were about to launch, there was a lot of press coverage on [the subject]. I think it’s important not to make it really ride on the back of something terrible that’s happening in real life, but I think the show should remain relevant and attack those kinds of storylines if it can.

AX: Do you ever have stories or situations or anecdotes where they’re actually funny, but you go, “Well, somebody got angry enough out of that to commit a murder”? Do you ever just look at friends’ arguments and think, “Oh, well, if that went two clicks further, it would be cause for homicide”?

HUNTER: I think real-life stories are kind of the basis for all of the stories, ultimately. I think the thing we do laugh about – and it’s not to diminish the serious nature of homicide – is when I’m on a train and I’m on a call with a writer, and we’re talking about killing, and I suddenly realize that people around me are looking slightly more tense than they were beforehand [laughs], and I realize. And I’ve done this most of my career, because it used to happen on MIDSOMER MURDERS as well, where you would find you were celebrating what might be the best way to kill this person [laughs], and it probably makes people a little bit awkward.  But that’s what happens in the world of fiction, I suppose.

AX: Do either of you have other projects that we should know about?

BARTLETT: SHETLAND, obviously, is one that we make, and we’ve also just optioned Ann Cleeves’s new book, THE LONG CALL, which is her new detective series, set in North Devon, which we’re in development with, but that will be a little way off. So those would be the ones.

HUNTER: And the other news we announced to everybody is that Series 11 of VERA is in development, and will be coming to us next year. Brenda has agreed to continue.

AX: And what would you most like people to know about VERA Season 10?

HUNTER: I think they can come to it with all the guarantees that they’ve had previously, which is for self-contained, amazing, compelling, original crime stories, Brenda at the helm. We do push out the regional boundaries, and we’ve gone as far as the Scottish border this year, and created amazing big design jobs to create a salmon farm on the northeast coast, which doesn’t exist. They only exist on the west coast of Scotland. So again, an amazing kind of Jurassic coastline is being shot in Series 10, and I would say the [season] finale is one of the most emotional rides that you’ll see, because it’s very compelling.

BARTLETT: I think it is more great storytelling, with Brenda at the heart of it. I think we’ve kept the standard of scripts, and directing, and the fantastic, epic landscape. That’s what works so well in every season.

This interview was conducted during Britbox’s portion of the Winter 2020 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

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Article: Exclusive Interview with VERA executive producers Kate Bartlett and Phil Hunter on Season 10 of the Britbox series

 

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