Brenda Blethyn is used to getting surprised looks when fans of her detective series Vera meet her in the flesh. ‘This is other people’s words,’ she says, ‘but they see me and look shocked and say, “Oh, you’re pretty!” and “Why do they make you look like that?” And I say, “Well, that’s Vera. I’m not Vera.”’
It’s understandable she gets confused with DI Vera Stanhope, the character she inhabits so completely in the ITV smash-hit drama, which returns tomorrow to continue its 11th series. It’s also true that without Vera’s bucket hat and unkempt hair, Brenda looks way younger than her 75 years.
Perhaps quitting the booze last autumn and embracing a healthier lifestyle is contributing to her fresh-faced look.
‘I’ve given up alcohol for a few months now and I feel the better for it,’ she says. ‘Not that I had a lot anyway. The reason I stopped was because of Covid.
Brenda Blethyn, 75, is returning as DI Vera Stanhope for 11th series of the Northumberland set drama. Pictured: Vera with DS Aiden Healy
‘We have to do all we can to keep ourselves healthy. You’re not going to get any fitter not looking after yourself, are you?’
Brenda certainly needs stamina to endure the gruelling six-month shoots on Vera, where days are long, the weather’s often foul and she’s in nearly every scene.
She’s been doing it for 12 years, and the Northumberland-set crime drama based on the novels of Ann Cleeves remains one of Britain’s most popular shows. Brenda attributes this not just to its twisting plots and gorgeous scenery but also to its heroine’s lack of glamour.
‘People like Vera because the viewers are not in competition with her hourglass figure,’ she chuckles.
‘She doesn’t look like she’s just rolled off a catwalk and she’s not dependent on lipstick, and I think people appreciate that. They like her put-downs too.’
The 11th series returns with four more juicy whodunnits after two of the six episodes were screened last autumn, attracting a whopping seven million viewers. The opener sees Vera called to a container port after a hit-and-run leaves a man fighting for his life.
Brenda revealed the cinematic opener is one of her favourite episodes, as it follows Vera investigating a hit-and-run that left a man fighting for his life. Pictured: A scene from tomorrow’s episode
‘It’s not something she’d ordinarily be called to because the chap wasn’t killed,’ explains Brenda. ‘Then it transpires that his son has been kidnapped. So this turns it into something interesting for Vera. I’d say it’s one of my favourite episodes. It has a cinematic feel.’
Next week, Vera investigates the death of a primary school teacher found at the bottom of a cliff.
A subsequent episode involves the murder of a GP after she left home to attend to a patient – Vera discovers the doctor had spun a web of lies. The final episode sees the death of a beloved local whose body washes ashore on the River Tyne.
Vera’s team of sidekicks including DS Aiden Healy (Kenny Doughty) are back too, and ex-Emmerdale actress Charlie Hardwick stars in the first episode as the head of a crime syndicate.
Although the rugged backdrop of Northumberland is an integral part of the drama, it does mean the actors often film in brutal cold. Luckily for Brenda, Vera’s matronly figure is achieved by bundling her in layers.
Brenda (pictured) said she was chuffed to receive the Rose d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award for her 40-year career in November
‘I’m generally the warmest one on set,’ she says. But the long, freezing shoots do take their toll. At the end of every series Brenda swears she’s going to quit the role.
‘I come home and say, “Never again! Where’s me slippers?” But then I miss Vera. I miss the cast and crew and so I hope it’ll come around again.’
In a recent poll, Vera Stanhope was named the fifth best British detective of all time after icons like Sherlock Holmes. And the icing on the cake for Brenda is that in November she received the Rose d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award for her 40-year career that’s seen two Oscar nominations.
‘I was chuffed,’ she says. ‘I mean, it’s chosen by the European Broadcasting Union and covers millions of viewers. Last year David Attenborough got it, so if I’m walking in his footsteps I’m doing all right.’
Vera, tomorrow, 8pm, ITV.