How a sense of humour and a complete lack of ambition took her all the way to the Oscars
Billowing mac, bucket hat and beat up Land Rover, telly detective DCI Vera Stanhope is back on the small screen this week, mopping up murders. Acerbic, down to earth and sharp, Vera is as unglamorous and gritty as the landfill site in Northumbria where the new season of the ratings busting drama kicks off with the discovery of a body.
“Ooh, the smell of methane was terrible and you couldn’t help thinkin’ my goodness, how many bodies are there in here?” says Brenda Blethyn, who fills the wellies of the titular ‘tec. “But the landfill lent itself so well to the cinematography, I thought,” she adds, being a pro with a decades long career that has seen her stack up a Bafta, Golden Globe, Cannes Best Actress Award, British Comedy Award and OBE.
Nearly eight and a half million of us tuned into the last season of the ITV’s most watched drama and Blethyn is joined again by Kenny Doughty, Jon Morrison and Ibinabo Jack and the rest of her loyal team. The four two-hour episodes are based once more on the novels by crime writer Ann Cleeves, who also writes the BBC’s hit crime series Shetland.
In person Blethyn is nothing like the brusque Vera. Petite (she pads up the layers under her mac), charming and funny in a Kent accent that drops the g’s and h’s rather than Vera’s Geordie, honed by listening to Cheryl. It’s a voice that ranges from girly to fairground to maternal – she voiced Raymond Briggs’ mum in his animation Ethel and Ernest.
“I don’t shy away from things,” she says, of the landfill. “If something needs doing so be it, get on with it. What are you waitin’ for, someone else to do it for you, get it done!” She laughs. “It was the height of summer, so when it got bad we had masks. But later in that episode we filmed in a hostel that was so dreary and depressing you almost longed to be back on the landfill. How lucky we don’t have to live there. But there were people living there and it was so sad. Your heart goes out to people who have to endure those circumstances,” she says.
Blethyn is counting her blessings at being able to curl up on her sofa at home in London as she “takes a bit of a breather” after filming this ninth season. After seven years as Vera, Blethyn puts its success down to well conceived plots, quality writing and high production values, as well as the character of Vera herself.
“I think audiences like her because she’s not a threat to anybody. She’s not reliant on lipstick, she’s not a fashion guru, she doesn’t ask you to like her. Take her or leave her, and if you leave her that’s OK. In fact I don’t think audiences did like her to start with. But they did like Joe Ashworth (her first sidekick played by David Jeremy Leon before the arrival of Doughty as DS Aiden Healy), and he liked her.” She laughs. Blethyn laughs a lot, a breezy throaty laugh that bursts through her words and makes her gasp mid-story. “And because her team like and respect her, I think the public started to think, well, there must be something going for her. She’s grown on them.”
Vera’s grown on Blethyn too but when she was first offered the part of the dowdy detective she was slightly affronted. “I read the script and thought why have they picked ME?”
Now that she knows Vera better, she’s protective and rushes to defend her sartorial credentials. “Those gilets are Barbour, you know”, she says and tells me Vera’s winter coat (for when it’s too cold for the mac) was modelled on one of her own, run up by wardrobe in a bigger size in “a nice tweed”. “All of the things she wears are very, very nice,” she says. “It’s just the way she throws it all together –and doesn’t look in the mirror.”
As someone whose long career has taken her from Cannes to Buckingham Palace to the Oscars to collect awards, Blethyn on the other hand scrubs up well for the red carpet and looks way younger than her 72 years. “Well, thank you,” she says. “All my family look younger. There’s something to be said for meat and two veg growing up, and having rather a poor upbringing; it’s probably good for you.”
One of nine children born to a mechanic and cleaner in working class Ramsgate, Blethyn uses experience to shine a light on run of the mill characters living everyday lives, their fragilities and strengths. She evokes the extraordinary among the ordinary and the memorable within the mundane. She also has an eye for detail and having inhabited Vera for so long, has become attuned to Ann Cleeve’s character as it moves from the books to the TV.
“Sometimes someone will say oh, why doesn’t Vera find romance? Why can’t this and that, but it’s not going to happen. The writers are all good, but if they suddenly take her off tangent, I say ‘no, no, no, we must keep Ann’s creation’. Ann knows I’ve got me eyeball on it. I’m her policeman on set, keeping it as it’s intended,” she says.
Blethyn doesn’t have Vera’s bite either, despite suddenly barking at her playful cockapoo, mid-sentence.
“‘Ere, Jack, leave that!” she shouts, then laughs and softens immediately. “Oh, you can keep it, s’alright. E’s got a plastic bag. Won’t swallow it though, just rip it up. He’s a sweetheart.”
As far as similarities with Vera go, Blethyn says, “well, we’re both 5ft 2! We both have a sense of humour, and I like to think I’m kind to people and well, just a normal human being. And I’m naturally inquisitive and a puzzle solver too,” she says.
She’s not talking about crime, more crosswords and puzzles, a passion she’s had since childhood when her dad would set all the kids brain challenges. “I still race my brothers with the Times crossword every day, rattle off the concise one in the morning, and I print them off for Make Up and anyone else who might want one. I’m teaching Kenny [Doughty] to do the cryptic one – he’s really into it. So I do like to work things out and I suppose I’m a lateral thinker, which you would need in that job.”
Blethyn can’t see herself swapping acting for law enforcement after going behind the scenes back in 2014 when she headed out to New Mexico between Veras to film Two Men in Town with Harvey Keitel and Forest Whitaker.
“I was playing a parole officer and got to hang out with one in action. My goodness me, that was quite an eye-opener, terrifying! She was smaller than me, twice the size mind but shorter, and was dealing with HUGE offenders. I would think ‘I don’t know how you’re going to do this’ then suddenly she’d have her baton out and was shouting ‘On your knees!’ And quick as lightnin’ they were. She told me you can frighten them with your voice if you mean it. Oh my goodness, she frightened me to death. I was on me knees!”
Born Brenda Bottle in Ramsgate, Kent in February 1946, she was the youngest child of William and Louisa (nee Supple). William was a mechanic and driver for the council and Louisa had ‘four or five jobs, cleaning, menial jobs and worked at the amusement arcade – roll up, roll up!’ “She worked very hard.”
There wasn’t a lot of cash, but there were plenty of laughs and love and it’s obvious from her entertaining 2006 memoir, Mixed Fancies, that Blethyn adored her parents.
“When I didn’t have a party dress to wear to the school party and wore me uniform, dad said ‘ah, you’ll be the prettiest one there.”
Without a telly the family made their own entertainment, with parents who were natural story-tellers and Blethyn was in her element.
“Dad used to regale us with stories, and he couldn’t tell one without standing up to act it out. All these little faces looking up at him, rocking with laughter.” She’s laughing now at the memory. “And mum heckling him from the side...
“They gave me a sense of humour. If you have a sense of humour and can laugh at yourself you can get through most things, even hardship and really sad things. It’s a huge asset. And they gave me a work ethic, the idea that you don’t get anything unless you work for it.”
After leaving school Blethyn worked for ten years as a shorthand typist at British Rail where she began doing amateur dramatics to oblige when they were short of players.
“I never dreamed I’d be an actor, it didn’t enter my head. I didn’t know any actors. But it’s just how you get ambushed in life. These things come along and you’re asked to help out, you do it as a good turn, and look what happened.”
She had married her first husband Alan Blethyn at 19, but with Brenda out acting, “he met somebody else,” she says. “But she was nice, too.” She is devoid of regret, being happy with second husband Michael Mayhew who she met through work and married in 2012 after a 35 year engagement.
Although she “was a good secretary, a fast typist and I can still do shorthand,” Blethyn reinvented herself and went to Guildford School of Acting at the age of 27, not immediately telling her parents what she was doing. But her career took off with theatre, then TV and film work, and they were proud to watch their youngest child.
“They used to come to the theatre. I don’t like knowing where someone I know is sitting but I would know where THEY were. As soon as I walked on stage, I would hear my mum, ‘that’s her! that’s my girl!’”
But no matter how many red carpets Blethyn sashayed along, her parents couldn’t help keeping her feet on the ground.
“I was once late to meet my mum and when I got there I said ‘I’m ever so sorry mum; these students, they wanted my autograph and to take my photo.’ She said, ‘cor in’t that smashin’. So who did they think you were?’”
Blethyn laughs and is reminded of another down to earth moment at a country fair when the compere recognised Blethyn in the crowd.
“Oh my God look who’s here,” he was shouting [she does a very loud megaphone voice], ‘oh we LOVE you, OH MY GOSH WE ABSOLUTELY LOVE YOU. Look everybody! Would you please stop and pull our raffle?’ “I said ‘I’ve only got a few minutes’ and he said, ‘we’ll do it early! This is such a THRILL for us, right attention everybody, gather round, Alison Steadman is going to draw the raffle.’
“I just went with it, thought it was best,” she says.
It’s this easy-going team player mentality that has seen Blethyn work continuously, to the extent that she has no idea how many productions she’s been in.
“It’s a lot, probably more theatre than film, but I’ve no idea,” she says. “I came into the business to work in theatre, never entered my head I’d be on television or in a film. Then I was cast in The Witches (1990) with Angelica Houston, then A River Runs Through It (1992) with Robert Redford who was very, very nice – never saw him lose his temper with anyone...mmm. And Brad Pitt before he was Brad Pitt. A very nice experience it was.”
It was being cast in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (1996) that introduced Blethyn to an international audience and took her career to a new level.
“Because of the way Mike Leigh worked, I didn’t know what the film was about until I saw it at the cinema. I knew what I’d done, but didn’t know it was the main thrust of the story. Then we went off to Cannes and I won Best Actress, the film won the Palme D’Or and I thought ‘LORD, this is a dream’. We went all over the place publicising it, South Korea, Brazil, Scandinavia, France...”
Other highlights include Outside Edge 1992-4 again with Timothy Spall, for which she won a British Comedy Award for Best TV Comedy Actress. “I’m pretty pleased with that one, and I’m proud of the Globe and the Cannes Film Festival ones too.”
There was Little Voice (1998) and Pride and Prejudice (2005) as the gloriously garrulous Mrs Bennet, with Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Rosamund Pike and Donald Sutherland. “What more could you want? A lovely summer, glorious actresses and Donald Sutherland. Donald Sutherland!” she says, her voice rising through the octaves to a squeak.
Getting the OBE in 2003 was such a surprise that Blethyn mistook the letter for a tax demand. With her mum and dad deceased she invited an elderly aunt to accompany her to the Palace. “She said, ‘would I have to wear…’ and I thought she was going to say a hat, but she said ‘me teeth?’ I said not if you don’t want to.”
At 93 and frail, she came with teeth, and a wheelchair suggested by Blethyn, as the day would involve a lot of walking and standing.
“We wheeled her right up to the front and when the trumpet fanfare started for Prince Charles arriving to dish out the medals, she shot out of the chair and stood to attention,” says Blethyn. “I said ‘What are you doing? Sit down! Sit down! Everyone will think you’re at the front under false pretences!’ Then when I wrote my memoir, she said ‘are you gonna put in about when the Queen gave you the BO?” Blethyn dissolves into giggles on the couch and sets off Jack who joins in, barking.
Another Vera series looks likely, after Blethyn has got her breath back. “You have a Vera feast then you feel like ‘oh take the menu away please!’ But after a month you’re hungry again and you’d quite like a bit more.
“I have absolutely no ambition, never have had. But if I was pushed, I’d quite like a costume drama, someone who looks in a mirror, unlike Vera. Or a new play, a period piece. Or armchair theatre with the Vera actors, move around the main characters so it’s not all me. That’s a good idea isn’t it? I’m going to pitch that to the Vera producers tonight,” she says, enthusiastic. “It would be a STOP IT!… He’s just pulled off a big lump of pig and spat it at me!” she says, indignant. “A rubber pig,” she says, by way of explanation. Blethyn has been brought back down to earth yet again and Jack needs a walk. It seems like Blethyn’s ‘little breather’ is over.
Vera returns to STV tomorrow night at 8pm.