Interview: Brenda Blethyn – “I’ve never been ambitious, ever”

Aged 65, Brenda Blethyn has landed the lead role in ITV1 crime drama Vera

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“Did you see Brenda Blethyn? She’s really let herself go.” With one of the throaty chuckles that regularly punctuate her conversation, Brenda Blethyn speculates on possible viewer reaction to her role as DCI Stanhope in ITV’s new four-part police drama, Vera.

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As the role requires Blethyn to make a passable impersonation of a bag lady who’s been dragged through dense foliage in reverse, the Geordie detective’s look is a long way from, say, the tight perm and heavy eyeliner of Jill Gascoine in The Gentle Touch.

“Vera looks better in the series than her description in the books,” Blethyn reasons with reference to writer Ann Cleeves’ acclaimed crime novels. “I do wonder what went on in the casting room when they read the character description and said, ‘Well, Brenda Blethyn, obviously!’ But I don’t really have a vanity about that, and just because one is dressed in that way, doesn’t really make her ugly.”

Aside from the lack of glamour in the role, Vera also says something about the way female detective roles have changed on TV in recent years. When Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison arrived in Prime Suspect in 1991, her success at work was at the expense of her neglected personal life, but 20 years on Vera doesn’t seem to bother.

She seems as single-minded about her detective duties as any rumpled, middle-aged male detective from Columbo (whose mac she may well have borrowed) to Wallander. Which is equality of sorts. Blethyn sees the series as speaking to a new generation of older, independent viewers.

“It’s about time those people were catered for,” she argues. “Because I think things are generally aimed at much a younger age group. I think they’ll see Vera as one of them. What’s attractive about her is she can talk to anyone. She does put on an act sometimes, to get people to talk, but mostly she’s genuine.”

The reference to “those people” perhaps suggests that, like of all of us, Blethyn doesn’t think of herself getting older, but she recently celebrated her 65th birthday.

“I didn’t have a party,” she demurs. “But I got an iPad! I love it, but not as much as I love my… oh I call it a winkle, it’s not a winkle… a Kindle! Listen, I thought I would hate a Kindle, that I’d always love to hold a book in my hands but I love it. I’m in love with my Kindle!”

Also uppermost in Blethyn’s affections are the North Eastern locations where Vera was filmed. “It took my breath away,” she rhapsodises of the Northumbrian coast, which calls to mind the stark Scandinavian beauty exploited so expertly in Wallander.

“And each episode embraces something else about the area. I feel that Vera is different from other detectives you might see on the box, but there’s also the fact that the series is geographically different as well from all the fast-paced stuff you have going on in London.”

She picked up the Geordie accent by “loitering in shops, striking up conversations with people” and has warmed to Cleeves’ well-written character, in particular her relationship with her junior, Sergeant Joe Ashworth (played by David Leon).

“I like the fact that there’s the chemistry of these two characters,” she says, “but because it’s not a romantic partnership, you can just get on with the business of solving the crime. And I think, perhaps, it might be more representative actually of the real thing. Besides, she’s not a shrinking violet as far as romance goes. She’s a loner, but she’s not lonely by any means.”

“They’re popular, aren’t they, detective series,” Blethyn observes with an innocence that in anyone else might seem studied. She’s referring to a new wave of crime dramas, many of which feature, as she puts it, “thwacking great roles for women”.

These include Case Sensitive based on a Sophie Hannah novel, in which Olivia Williams plays another female cop with a male subordinate, while Scott and Bailey (soon on ITV1) sees Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp as a pair of Manchester officers with a female boss in Amelia Bullmore.

Along with Vera, they could mark a sea-change in an area of drama, still predominantly seen as a male preserve. “Life is sexist, isn’t it?” she philosophises, before adding a softening qualification. “A little bit. Men have a better deal generally, workwise and I think that pay is still not equal. But, hopefully, this is a sign that, in the entertainment industry at least, the field might be a little leveller than it was before.”

Having grown up in Ramsgate, destined for traditional typing duties, Blethyn came to acting late after doing more than her fair share of humdrum office work. While it’s a source of regret that she didn’t start younger, she reasons that she wouldn’t have been the actress she is without the life experience.

“I wouldn’t have come with the same ammunition, would I?” she argues. “I think you learn such a lot going out and working in the world, in other jobs. It’s a learning curve, so I would hate to have lost that! And when I was 30, I looked about 12 anyway!

“I did temporary work for a while,” she continues. “They send you to a different place daily or weekly, and the starting point for the character I played in Secrets & Lies [her breakthrough Oscar-nominated film role] is taken from somebody I worked with at British Rail [where she was a secretary in the mid-60s].”

Although she was established in her career at this point, her success in Mike Leigh’s 1995 film propelled her to household fame and another Oscar nomination for Little Voice (1998), a role which famously saw her seduce another late-starter, Michael Caine.

“Let’s roll about,” she laughs, back in character as Jane Horrocks’ blowsy mother, Mari, and recalling her direct chat-up line. “I loved working with Michael. In fact Mark Herman, the director, was very clever because he scheduled our first scene to be the one where Mari runs out of the house. He’s in the car and she covers him with kisses, so having got that out of the way, it was plain sailing.”

In truth, she’s a good advert for the thespian life. “As a general rule, actors are kind of nice people and easy-to-get-on-with people. You come across the odd pillock, you know, but that’s more the exception than the rule.”

By way of illustration, she recalls a night spent with 007. “I remember once staying up all night with Daniel Craig, balancing a pint of beer on my head!” she chuckles. “This was before he was James Bond. It’s quite a feat, but I haven’t done it for about eight years now. This was my party piece and this was at the Dinard Film Festival. Lots of people, lots of revelry and lots of fun. It was the most amusing evening. I’m not sure if I finally drank it. I think I spilled it!”

Recognition of her services to acting followed with an OBE in the 2003 New Year’s Honours List. The subsequent ceremony she remembers with characteristic affection. “Oh, I loved it,” she enthuses of her day up at Buckingham Palace. “I had my old aunt with me. She wanted to know if she had to wear her teeth! I said not if she didn’t want to. So she didn’t!”

Blethyn remains hopeful that Vera will be commissioned for a second series, but confesses that she neither worries unduly nor plans her future too assiduously. “I’ve never been ambitious, ever, career-wise,” she laughs slightly ruefully. “I’m not one really to go out and drum up my own work. In fact, it would be kind of lovely to have a completely blank road ahead, but I haven’t had that for a long time. Then I expect I’d panic, thinking I’m never going to work again!”

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That scenario, thankfully, is about as likely as scruffy Vera on the cover of Vogue.