Brenda Blethyn is wearing a blue-and-white crushed velvet jacket by Eileen Fisher, a smart black blouse and trousers, heeled brogues from Russell & Bromley and a beautiful silver necklace.
She is a picture of elegance and absolutely nothing like the TV detective she plays, who looks as though she gets dressed in the dark at a jumble sale.
Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, a character created by novelist Ann Cleeves, huffs around Northumberland upholstered in seemingly endless layers of shapeless blouses, a scruffy old mac that even Columbo would have rejected and a battered fishing hat.
Blethyn as Vera, in the angler’s hat she found in a Newcastle fishing tackle shop. ‘In the books she has a skin condition and doesn’t like going in the sun, so the hat I wear is a wink towards that’
Blethyn laughs when I mention Vera’s, ahem, ‘low-key’ sense of style. ‘No, she’s definitely not interested in labels,’ she says. ‘I reckon maybe someone in her village has a catalogue and that’s where she gets her clothes from.
‘In the books she has a skin condition and doesn’t like going in the sun, so the hat I wear is a wink towards that. I bought it in a fishing tackle shop in Newcastle.’
We’re meeting at ITV in London ahead of the return of Vera for its tenth series of four feature-length episodes. It is one of the channel’s flagship crime dramas, going out in a prime-time Sunday-evening slot and pulling in huge audiences. It also sells all over the world. Vera is big in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Not bad for a cop who’s getting on a bit and is grumpy, rude and exasperating. ‘I think women of a certain age all over the world like the fact that Vera’s in charge of a load of men,’ says Blethyn. ‘And part of the appeal is the fact that she isn’t manufactured. She’s a real person. There’s no vanity there.’
Blethyn came to professional acting in her late 20s, having worked in a bank and as a British Rail secretary. ‘I really enjoyed my job as a secretary,’ she says. ‘I don’t feel it was time wasted. I think life experience is a great thing. And I didn’t know all this – acting – was round the corner.’
A love for amateur dramatics led to her quitting her job and enrolling in drama school. She got into the National Theatre and rose through the ranks, from understudy to minor parts to lead roles. ‘I’ve done a lot of corsetry work,’ she admits. She went on to star in a huge range of films, both big-budget Hollywood productions (such as A River Runs Through It, directed by Robert Redford and starring Brad Pitt) and small independent movies. She has twice been nominated for an Oscar, for Secrets & Lies (1996) and Little Voice (1998). The former bagged her a Golden Globe and a Bafta. She was awarded an OBE for services to drama in 2003.
Brenda Blethyn as Mari Hoff in 1998’s Little Voice, the role that earned her an Oscar nomination
After all her success, is there any part she hasn’t yet played that she yearns to do? ‘No. I’ve never, ever had any kind of ambition,’ she says, dismissing the question with more laughter. ‘Though it’d be fun to do another period piece, like Pride And Prejudice.’
Back in 2005 Blethyn played Mrs Bennet, obsessed with marrying off her five daughters – played by Keira Knightley, Talulah Riley, Rosamund Pike, Jena Malone and Carey Mulligan – in Joe Wright’s version of the Jane Austen novel. ‘What a glorious summer that was. Before we began filming at Groombridge Place in Kent, we all went down – all of the Bennet girls – and played hide and seek for the whole day so that we would know that house inside out. It was a great idea of Joe’s because it was so liberating for all of us.’
She began playing Vera in 2011 and has become intrinsically linked with the character, just as David Suchet will forever now be associated with Hercule Poirot. Ann Cleeves, who has become a friend, insists she can’t imagine anyone else in the role. ‘Brenda’s Vera is my Vera,’ she says. ‘Witty, independent, authoritative.’
Blethyn with Marianne Jean-Baptiste in 1996’s Secrets & Lies. The film bagged Blethyn a Golden Globe and a Bafta
Vera might look shambolic but she has a mind like a steel trap, and in this respect at least, Blethyn does resemble her. She’s a cryptic crossword fiend. ‘I race my brother every day to finish the cryptic crossword [in the newspaper]. My record is 40 minutes – not very quick,’ she says modestly. Those of us who struggle even to finish it might disagree. She can polish off a concise crossword in three-and-a-half minutes.
Her love of puzzles comes from her childhood in Ramsgate, Kent. She was the youngest of nine children. Her father was a chauffeur, her mother a maid. ‘We were pretty poor as kids,’ she says. ‘We didn’t have a telly, we didn’t always have a wireless and my dad would set us little puzzles to do. All the family do puzzles. When I used to go and visit my late sister in Florida we’d play games from morning to night. She could do The New York Times’s puzzle, which I can’t.’
We didn’t have a telly, we didn’t have a wireless and my dad would set us little puzzles to do
She was 19 when she married her first husband, but they separated a few years later when he fell in love with a neighbour. They parted amicably, but before she left what had been their shared home she papered the walls with topless photographs of herself.
‘I still don’t know why I did that. It was idiotic,’ she wrote in her memoir. Years later, she asked her ex if he’d a good laugh when he saw them and was mildly offended when he said he couldn’t remember them.
Blethyn in 1977. Blethyn came to professional acting in her late 20s, having worked in a bank and as a British Rail secretary
She met her second husband, art director Michael Mayhew, at the National and they married in 2010. They live in London but Blethyn moves to the North East when shooting Vera and maintains an exhausting schedule, working 16-hour days. ‘I try to get enough sleep and I hardly drink,’ she says. ‘Kenny Doughty, who plays my sidekick, is a great pal. We generally live quite close together so that if there’s a big dialogue scene we can go through it at night. Sometimes after a day’s work we’ll come into my flat, plop down on the sofa, put Coronation Street on and not a word is spoken because we’re so tired.’
A couple of years ago, Blethyn, now 73, considered hanging up her fishing hat and quitting. Thankfully, she changed her mind.
‘It’s like when you go out for a slap-up meal,’ she says. ‘You’re having the best time, you’re in the best company – and you stuff yourself. And when someone says, “Want another profiterole?” you say, “For God’s sake, take it away. I don’t want to eat for a month.” But then you get hungry again…’
‘Vera’ returns to ITV on January 12 at 8pm