Brenda Blethyn is fresh off the Eurostar. She’s spent the last three days in a Paris hotel promoting a film she’s in with Forest Whitaker. He was there, and so was her husband, Michael Mayhew, though her workload confined them to meeting in the evenings. But he did buy her some shoes. “Hang on, I’ll show you,” she says, producing a pair of elegant black-and-white numbers. “Spats! That’s what me and him call shoes! Isn’t it a nice word?”
It’s lunchtime, and the actress takes a seat in the bar at London’s National Theatre. She looks spruce and lively, younger than her 68 years, her hair russet red, a blue scarf around her neck. It’s on her way back home to south London, she says, and anyway, she’s done enough plays here that the place makes her feel comfortable.
Right on cue, an old colleague notices her and delivers a giant hug. It’s exactly now I realise the batteries in my tape recorder are dead. Blethyn is eager to help – and a National Theatre sound engineer is dispatched to find me new ones. It would be useful to have her with you all the time.
She is frequently funny, occasionally pensive. Married life is still a novelty – she and Mayhew were together 35 years before they wed in 2010. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how lucky I am to have him.”
Her best-known role is probably still Cynthia, the troubled heroine of Mike Leigh’s 1995 film Secrets & Lies, for which she was Oscar- nominated – but it’s one accompanied by four decades’ work on stage, film and TV.
Today she’s actually here on behalf of Vera, the ITV detective drama set in Northumberland that’s about to begin its fourth series. Playing the lovably dishevelled DCI Vera Stanhope, a woman unlikely to have French spats in her wardrobe, the show has struck a chord with viewers. A fifth series has already been commissioned.
“I’ve got my teeth into it now,” she says. She talks fondly about the setting – “the people up there are so warm” – and Vera herself is someone she respects, “a female of a certain age without lipstick.”
She doesn’t want to be mistaken for her, though. A publicist arrives with potential photo- graphs for this article. In one, she winces, she looks more like Vera than herself. “Oh dear. I look like my mum in this one.” Interviews in general strike her as “funny. I don’t like being up on a pedestal.” But they are, she knows, part of the job, and to her the job is important.
Acting appeals to the side of her that’s fascinated by other people. “If I’m on a train, I’ll do this thing where I look at someone and think, ‘Did they sleep well last night? I wonder how much money he’s got in his wallet? Is she happy?’” She uses a similar process building a character.
There has never been any plan behind her career. “I have no ambition. I’m devoid of it!” Brought up in Ramsgate on the Kent coast, she worked for a decade as a secretary for British Rail. In her early 20s, she was asked to help out the Euston Players, British Rail’s am-dram society. A spark was lit – and three years later, she left for drama school.
“It wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I hadn’t made it as an actress. I enjoyed being a secretary.” Now, she’s never not busy, a one- woman two fingers to the old showbusiness rule that good roles for actresses dry up after 40.
Still, she is, she says, careful with money. “I hope I’m generous, but I make sure the bills are paid. And that there’s a bit over at the end of the week, if you know what I mean.”
She was once Brenda Bottle, the youngest of nine children from a mother then 42 and a father in his 50s, born when Victoria was still Queen. Her parents met while they were both in domestic service. She was a maid, he was a chauffeur. “My mum and dad were funny. They rowed like cat and dog, then the next minute they’d be laughing. But making ends meet with all those kids…” She trails away. Her parents’ age used to make her “morose. I’d get frightened and sad, and my mum would say ‘What’s the matter, ducks?’ And I’d say ‘You’re going to die!’”
Childhood was hard. “We had sod all. One cold tap in the house. No heating. Gas mantles for light. Do you know what a gas mantle is? I’ll draw you one.” She grabs a piece of paper, sketches a shapeless gauze bag. “But everyone was in the same boat, on our street anyway.” In 1961, the Bottles moved to a council house, complete with indoor toilet. “I used to listen to the cistern filling. It was heaven.”
When she watches Downton Abbey, she can’t help but think life below stairs has been “a bit glamorised. I love the show, but you don’t see how cold it is in the kitchen.”
What did her parents want for her? “To have some change in my pocket. And to be respectable, don’t put yourself as number one. Share things. Be happy to share things. And it’s funny, because they always voted Tory but I wanted to vote Labour, and it seemed like their values were more Labour, really.”
She worries about the state of Britain. She wants people in charge “that can help people who need help. I’m not clever enough to know how to do it. But I did always think someone could have helped my parents more.” She pauses. “I wish I could have helped them more, but I didn’t have the money when they were here. It makes me sad sometimes.” Does she still think of herself as working class? “Oh, I’ll always be working class.
She never had children. “It just didn’t happen. Maybe it’s selfish. It just never seemed… appropriate.” She doubts she had the “commitment” to be a parent. With eight siblings, there’s always been an army of nieces and nephews, regular visitors. “And that’s lovely, because I love them. But then you send ’em home!”
She’s been in her patch of south-east London for 35 years, in the same house almost 20. These days, there is also a place back in Ramsgate. The whole area brings her to life – “lovely Broadstairs”, “poor old Margate,” her hometown itself.
“I love Ramsgate. Love it!” She asks where I grew up, and I tell her Brighton. “Nah, Ramsgate’s better than Brighton. Brighton always seems a bit in love with itself. Ramsgate tolerates itself!”
She says the Kent coast is changing. “But the problem now is you’ve got everyone, not just kids, on the computer, on the games, staring at their phone. When I was growing up, people talked, danced, went to the skating rink! You could interrelate. Have a conversation. Letter writing! You could be eloquent in a letter.” She refuses to text. “I will not abbreviate.” Right on cue, her phone goes off. Her cab is outside, ready to take her and her new shoes home.
“Which way are you going? Do you want a lift?” I tell her I’m staying in town, and she sticks out her hand: “Good luck! Good luck!”