by Deborah Harter Williams
Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope is variously described as cranky, driven, overweight and middle-aged, and that’s from the people who love her. Vera is based on the books created by author, Ann Cleeves, and is brought to small screen life by actress Brenda Blethyn.
Cleeves confessed that the first Vera Stanhope story was meant to be a standalone novel. But “I liked Vera Stanhope so much that I brought her back…she developed because I was so cross with even feminist writers writing female central characters who were young, fit and beautiful. Vera isn’t any of those things. She grew out of the strong spinsters I knew as a child: competent, formidable and without a trace of glamour. She’s middle-aged, over-weight and if I was in trouble I’d want her on my side.”(Shots Magazine/Cleeves’ website)
This British procedural is set far from the sophistication of London or Oxford. In Northumberland, the weather and landscape – windswept moors and isolated cottages – provide dramatic background and become characters themselves interacting with the plot. It is the northernmost county in England, bounded by the Scottish border on the north and the North Sea on the east.
Vera’s clothes, rumpled anoraks (think Columbo) and “wellies” are appropriate for the clime and the colors are said to reflect the setting which leaves her wearing shades reminiscent of a 70s kitchen – pumpkin, avocado and harvest gold. When the weather or the going gets tough, Vera drives her late father’s old Land Rover (picture Rosemary & Thyme) instead of her posh assigned vehicle.
And she can run! No high heeled boots for her. When the situation calls for it Vera comes on like a Mack truck. She may wheeze a little but she more than keeps up.
At heart, Vera is a loner, the daughter of a bird taxidermist who provided a bleak, unloving childhood, but left her with a cozy house on a hill outside of town. Loneliness is an ongoing theme – Vera recognizes it well in the people she interviews and has an uncanny knack for getting them to confide in her. As she has noted, “Loneliness is not for the faint hearted.”
Produced by British ITV since 2011, the show has evolved from the early characters taken directly from the book – Joe Ashworth, Vera’s right hand, family man and sometimes surrogate son; Holly, the smart one, eager for Vera’s praise and Charlie, the old-timer barely hanging onto his job. She manages her brood with alternate bullying and cajoling, encouragement in the form of a “There, love,” “Come on, pet”, and the occasional pastry or pint. If you fancy British-isms, wry humor and convoluted plots, Vera is your gal. Suffice to say the culprit will be the least-likely-suspect.
In its 5th season there is a new right hand, Aidan – young and attractive, who will require some bringing along; Bethany – tall, black and athletic – Kenny as the new, older sad-sack copper and Helen, a feisty wheel-chair wielding computer expert.
The series is seen in 14 countries around the world plus the UK and the USA. You can find Vera on PBS and Netflix as well as Amazon Instant Video.
This just in – July 17, 2015 2:36 p.m. PDT Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate, England, The Lee Child Award for Best Loner or Detective: Vera Stanhope.
Television or Books? Which is the real Vera?
As the seasons go on, the show has taken its own path diverging from Cleeves’ original vision and she is fine with that: “The TV adaptations are very often very different from the books. Scriptwriters cut some characters and add others. They also cut big chunks of plot and sometimes even change the murderer! I’m very relaxed about that. Prose and film are different forms. The book stops being mine every time someone reads it. Each reader brings their own imagination, history and prejudice to the story and each writer has to learn to let go.”
For example, Tess Gerritson, author of the Rizzoli & Isles books experienced the confusion that can happen when the books exist in a parallel universe with the television versions. Recently she was chastised for saying that Maura Isles had black hair when a reader was sure she had made a mistake based on what she had seen on TV.
In the books we are privy to Vera’s internal monologues and Cleeves’ marvelous descriptions. “Vera swam slowly. An elderly man with a bathing hat pulled like a fully stretched condom over his head went past her…she was the sloth of the swimming world…almost faint with the effort of moving, with pulling the bulk of her body through the water.”
Television is for show and Blethyn more than lives up to the challenge of presenting this complex character. You’ve seen Brenda Blethyn, though you may not remember, as she disappears into her roles and has worked on productions from Australia to France to the US acquiring the appropriate accents as she went along.
Originally she attended a technical college and became a stenographer and bookkeeper while trying her hand at amateur theatre. In 1976, she made it to the London stage at the age of 30, and in the 90s got small supporting roles in some big films like The Witches (1990) and A River Runs Through It (1992). It was Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies (1996) that brought her to the world’s attention. Since then she has appeared in films big and small, including Little Voice (1998), Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). On US television she had a guest role – as the mother of Julia Louis-Dreyfus on The New Adventures of Old Christine.
Ann Cleeves also took an unusual route to success. She studied English at college but dropped out and took various jobs from cook to auxiliary coastguard, childcare officer to library outreach worker as well as probation officer. As it turns out those were just the right jobs to provide her with plenty of characters and crime situations. Her husband is an ornithologist so there are frequent and detailed bird references.
Her first book was A Bird in the Hand (1986), featuring George Palmer-Jones, an elderly birdwatcher, and his wife, Molly. The New York Times Book Review calls these birding mysteries “classic.” The prolific Cleeves wrote eight George and Molly books between 1986-1996.
The seven Vera Stanhope books start with The Crow Trap in 1999 and come up to date in September of this year with The Moth Catcher. Also adapted for television is her Shetland series featuring Detective Jimmy Perez – six books written from 2006 to 2014. Another six books feature Inspector Ramsay (1990-97) and are also set in Northumberland where Cleeves lives.
Northumberland Note: Kevin Whately, the actor who plays Inspector Lewis was born there and Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) was raised in Blyth, Cleeves hometown.
Summation: Vera – bossy motherly, sarcastic, lover of fish and chips with a whisky bottle close at hand. Atmosphere that is grey, wet and tricky, or as Goodreads reviewer Rae said succinctly – “Cranky DI. More characterization than strong mystery. Very British. Birds too.”
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