Brenda Blethyn pops up on Zoom with an infectious smile and a giggle. It's a Tuesday, and she's in the middle of rehearsals for the final episode of Kate & Koji season 2, which films in front of a live studio audience on Friday.
"It's quite exciting," Blethyn says of filming. "The turnover's one a week, so it keeps us on our toes. It's quite different to Vera!"
Kate & Koji is returning to ITV for a second outing, admittedly a little later than planned, as it was pushed back due to the COVID pandemic when filming in front of a live audience simply wasn't possible. As a result, original Koji actor Jimmy Akingbola stepped away from the series after a scheduling clash (he's currently in Bel-Air, the Fresh Prince reboot).
Okorie Chukwu will step into the role for the new season, and according to Blethyn, has fit in very well indeed. She praises: "Okorie is great, we all just love him. He has a vulnerability about him which is so endearing - and he's great to work with.
"I think it's great for Jimmy. We didn't start as we should have done this time last year, you know, these things happen. He was offered a wonderful job in America, and he took it - good luck to him."
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The new season of Kate & Koji picks up really where we left off – Kate is still running the Essex cafe, Koji is still holding an unofficial surgery, and the regulars are still causing mayhem. At the heart of this light comedy, however, is an important story about the difficulties asylum seekers face to gain residential status, even if they are qualified doctors.
"For all the characters, the cafe is a bit of a refuge for them all," Blethyn ponders. "[Kate] is prejudiced against ridiculous things like yodelling, things like that. But at the heart, she's a good woman and she would not stand anyone racially prejudiced. Certainly not Koji."
What's perhaps most surprising about season 2 of Kate & Koji is that really no topic is out of bounds – expect jokes about Prince Andrew, among others.
Blethyn giggles: "[There are] Home Office jokes... oh and she's incapacitated in one episode and she has a row with a curb. [Writers Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin] come up with different lines. You think you've learned it, and you go into work and they say, 'We've got a new script for you'. It's alive and living, it's great."
Outside of Kate & Koji, Blethyn is the face of ITV detective series, Vera, a role she's held for more than 11 years.
With rumours flying around in the wider press about whether she would ever hang up Vera’s mucky mac and fisherman hat, RadioTimes.com simply had to find out what the truth is.
“I haven’t got any plans to [leave],” explains Blethyn. “At the moment, all the time I’m fit and able, I’ll be visiting Vera.” That’s that, then.
In further good news for fans, Blethyn is returning to the north east in March to recommence filming. “The first [episode] I’ve read is someone found dead on a boat. So there’ll be some nice locations on that one!”
Vera makes remarkable use of its landscapes, always diving into an untapped corner of the north east, showcasing the very best of Newcastle, Northumberland and surrounding areas.
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“I love it, I just love it – I love the people up there, too,” Blethyn admits. “There is a difference between the friendliness of the north and the south, I don’t care what anybody says.”
The Geordies have certainly taken her into their hearts, and are always fond to hear Vera’s back filming. “That’s the main compliment, really, that the people of the north east like Vera.
"Every two years they have a charity concert called Sunday for Sammy, which helps young people maybe trying to get into the profession as performers. Four years ago, they had a sketch with lots of coppers off the telly and at the end, Vera walks on and honest to God, you could have heard the roof lift off. I was shocked. It was rapturous, and it was just so funny for all of us on stage. It was so lovely, I could have cried."
What’s more, the UK isn’t the only country to have taken Vera to heart. “I don’t know if you’ve clocked what’s been happening in Australia,” Blethyn asks, fighting her infectious giggle. “Season 11 has been going out in Australia on ABC and they’ve scheduled it against the Prime Minister’s [Scott Morrison] address to the nation… and Vera won! There were all these tweets saying, ‘Vera for Prime Minister!’
It would be hard to disagree with that.
Kate & Koji airs on ITV on Wednesday 16th March at 9pm. Visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight.