How TV detective Vera Stanhope came to life on the page

Author Ann Cleeves talks Brenda Blethyn, the origins of the "bag lady" and future story lines she's plotting...

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Actress Brenda Blethyn, who plays shambolic, sharp, brilliant Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, surprised author/creator Ann Cleeves by revealing to her the date of Vera’s birthday – 21 April.

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“I’d never though of that,” laughs Cleeves.

Indeed, nowhere in any of Cleeves’s seven Vera books is her heroine’s birthdate mentioned. But it’s all part of Blethyn’s attention to detail and her actorly need for a full backstory for her characters.

“I think it’s because she’s worked with [director] Mike Leigh. It’s all about developing characters, and knowing things about the character that nobody else knows, and which might never come up on screen.”

Brenda Blethyn’s Vera Stanhope arrived on ITV in 2011 in a first series of adaptations (the fifth starts tonight) that were to cement her as a comfortable, witty, straight-talking Geordie favourite, with ratings routinely hovering around seven million.

But Vera had been born on the page in 1999 in Cleeves’s novel The Crow Trap. Her arrival, as she burst through a set of church doors to interrupt the funeral of a murder victim, came out of the blue for her creator: “I was stuck on The Crow Trap. It was never going to have a detective in it; it was just going to be about three women working on an environmental survey right up in the hills of Northumberland.

“It was always going to be a crime novel, but in a Minette Walters, psychological suspense way. I’d written the first three parts and couldn’t think what i was going to do with the rest of it.”

So Cleeves, a former probation officer and bird observatory cook, fell back on the cast-iron, hard-boiled advice of the great Raymond Chandler, who said: “If you are stuck with a book, have a guy burst through a door with a gun.” Says Cleeves; “I don’t do guns, of course, but I was writing this funeral scene and everything had started and the door burst open and there she was, like a bag lady instead of a detective. And I had the name, too.”

Thus, fully formed Vera Stanhope (named after a County Durham village) was born. through if you read Cleeves’s first description of her, then look at Blethyn’s Vera, you might pause: “She was a large woman, big bones amply covered, a bulbous nose, man-sized feet…Her face was blotched and pitted.”

Blethyn is porcelain pretty and not remotely ungainly. But that’s TV casting for you. Does Cleeves imagine her original Vera or Blethyn when writing new stories? (The seventh book, The Moth Catcher, comes out in September.)

“When I’m writing Vera books I see my Vera, who was based on the middle-aged women I knew growing up, formidable spinsters who’d lost men in the war or who had never married but became independent. They always wore dreadful clothes and didn’t care much what they looked like.”

And yet: “Wherever I go, people, mainly middle-aged women, say to me, “I love Vera,” and I think they mean that they love Brenda’s Vera, though she is very pretty even when she’s padded up, but she can still give the impression of shambolic and ungainly, which she isn’t in real life. I think what they mean is they love having this strong, competent, authoritative woman they can identify with who doesn’t mind putting people down and doesn’t need a man in her life to be independent and happy.”

Though Cleeves was born in Devon, she and her husband Tim made the North East their home in 1987. She writes all her books, including the hugely successful Shetland crime novels, also adapted for TV, at the kitchen table of their little house in Whitely Bay. They moved there after giving up their jobs when Cleeves became a full-time writer.

“Why would we want to move? I think there’s a real danger –politicians do it– of leaving everybody and becoming grand and never travelling on a bus or shopping in Morrisons. But where would I get my stories from? They all come from listening to people and if the only people you meet are well off or other writers or artsy people, it must limit your access to narratives.”

Remarkably, Cleeves never knows what’s going to leap onto the page, as she never plots her novels in advance. “I leave my mind a bit blank and see what ideas come into it. I don’t have an agenda. What’s the point if you know how it’s going to end? I’m much more free and easy than a lot of writers who have a vague plan in their heads. Once they get a couple of chapters in, they really want to know what’s going to happen towards the end. But I know it usually works itself out.”

Though the muse occasionally flutters, bringing suggestions. “I’d really like to see Vera as she was when she was younger, maybe take her back and do something around the miners’ strike, or a case that troubles her from those days when she was a young detective.” Cleeves still adores her Vera, even after all these years. “I still have ideas about situations I want to put her in.”

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This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine, April 2015