Fans of such shows as A Touch of Frost and Inspector Morse can add to their collection of slightly odd, yet very good, British detectives with Vera, an ITV show based on the novels of Ann Cleeves and available via Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Brenda Blethyn plays the title character of Vera Stanhope, a Detective Chief Inspector in the fictional Northumberland & City Police department. It’s a clever location choice by Cleeves as it mirrors the real-life Northumbria Police area and encompasses the cities of Newcastle, Sunderland and Gateshead along with the more open countryside up to the Scottish border. Regular viewers of A Touch of Frost will note the similarity that this mixture of city, suburbs and rural settings allows, giving the most opportunity to be creative with the storylines.
Stanhope is another in a long line of those deeply flawed, yet ultimately successful characters that are standard in the genre. The show breaks no new ground from a dramatic standpoint, but it is also a solid all around production that is thoroughly enjoyable.
Blethyn gives a robust performance that sometimes borders on over the top with the character’s brusque manner and short temper always to the fore. Having not read the books I can’t say as to whether this is an accurate portrayal of Stanhope as written by Cleeves or an interpretation. That being said there are some lovely moments, such as when Stanhope finds an old cassette tape that had belonged to her father and smells it. I’ve done the same with an old scarf of my Mother and that small act conveyed so much meaning. It would be wonderful to learn that was improvised.
The local accent in the area is known as Geordie and Blethyn, who hails from Kent in the south of England, gives it a good shot from a stereotypical standpoint. It’s not ‘right’ in terms of a true local accent as those in the Northeast generally run their words together very quickly, use a lot of slang and have a very distinctive way of pronouncing certain letters and numbers – the number eight in particular. However that being said, the realities of television, the national market in the UK and international sales such as to PBS stations here in the US, do dictate a smoother version of the accent. Occasionally watching the show you can catch a character actor speak in a much more natural Geordie accent. Such is the case in Episode 1 of Season 2 when a doctor is trying to save a patient.
David Leon plays the long-suffering Detective Sergeant Joe Ashworth and is a good counter point to the grouchiness of his DCI. Leon comes across very well and it is rather ironic that the one area where the series suffers is when it tries to show Ashworth’s family life. There’s essentially nothing wrong with the actors as individuals, but there’s no spark between Leon and Sonya Cassidy as his wife and as a viewer all you want is to get back to the case.
The talented Wunmi Mosaku, who was last seen in The Body Farm, is Detective Constable Holly Lawson and I was sorry to see her leave the show, as the character appeared to have some serious potential. Cush Jumbo, best known in the US for playing Lois Habiba in Torchwood: Children of the Earth, replaces Mosaku in the cast as DC Bethany Whelan and is unfortunately under utilized.
Paul Ritter is on board as Dr. Billy Cartwright and the writers give him at least one, and normally a couple of superb lines whenever he is on camera. One of my favorite actresses, Gina McKee, turns up in the first episode as the mother of a murdered child and as usual shines. I’m sure Ms. McKee has had a bad performance somewhere, but I’ve yet to see it. Also of note is Hannah Britland, who looks like one to watch for the future after an excellent performance in Episode 2 of Season 2.
The fourth season just finished up its run in the UK earlier in the month with a fifth reportedly on the way. Currently only the first two seasons are available here in the US where they can be streamed on Hulu and Amazon Prime. Netflix on the other hand streams just the first season.
The Twitter accounts of Ann Cleeves and some of the cast and crew can be found in the following twitter list
– Wallace Poulter