ONE of my earliest encounters with Brenda Blethyn was when she played Miriam Dervish in Outside Edge.
She gave full interview value then and has done so ever since.
While retaining that mischievous twinkle in her eye and ability to giggle.
We met up again earlier this year to talk all things Vera – ahead of the drama’s return to ITV1 at 9pm this Sunday night.
My feature was in last weekend’s Sunday Express – and is also below.
Followed by a few extra quotes from Brenda.
IT’S not unusual for Brenda Blethyn to put others at ease. From taxi drivers to knights of the realm.
A nervous Sir Tom Jones needed some gentle prompting from the Oscar-nominated actress when he arrived to play his first ever acting role.
Brenda recalls: “He came in the door and I said, ‘Shall we start rehearsing Tom? You start.’ And he says, ‘Ooh right, sorry, yes, right. You want me to start now? Sorry.’”
She smiles when telling the tale about filming her role as career woman Nina in Sky Arts drama King of the Teds, reunited through Facebook with old flame Ron, a redundant bottle factory worker played by the Welsh singing legend.
“He’s such a peach. Honestly. You see people throwing knickers and you think he might be a bit arrogant. Not a bit. He was such a gentleman,” explains Brenda, who co-stars with Alison Steadman portraying Ron’s wife Tina.
The Voice coach Tom eventually found his own and made quite an impression. “There’s nothing egotistical about him at all. He was adorable. It’s so refreshing for someone who is such a mega star to be so amenable and so down to earth. Lovely.”
Before that viewers will seen the Ramsgate-born Secrets and Lies star in the second series of ITV1 murder mystery thriller Vera, featuring Northumberland’s D.C.I. Vera Stanhope.
Brenda revealed last year how she got the Why Aye Factor for the Geordie cop’s accent by listening to Cheryl Cole on The X Factor.
Did she have to re-visit her inner-Cheryl before playing Vera again? “People are so nice up there. I got into a taxi and the driver said to me, ‘You look just like that actress who plays Vera.’
“I said, ‘That is me.’ And he said, ‘They said that you’re a southerner? I thought Vera was from here?’ He got a tip. I do feel like an honourary Geordie. They’re so welcoming.
“They say, ‘We love that Vera.’ It’s never just Vera. It’s ‘That Vera’. Maybe it should be called that.”
In the first of four films – The Ghost Position – Vera has a health scare. That leads others to worry about her lifestyle and diet. “She doesn’t eat the right things, she drinks, she’s always working. And she doesn’t look in a mirror.”
Off screen Brenda likes to take care of herself. “I might not look like it but I do like natural food. Plainly-cooked, simple food. Green vegetables and fish.
“Having said that I have got into making old fashioned bread pudding lately. My mum used to make it but a bit of fag ash would fall in as well. My brother said that if I make it, I’ve got to have a fag in my mouth.
“It’s industrial supply portions. I stow it in the freezer and slice it up into slabs. A piece comes out every day. My husband Michael loves it.”
One scene features a mocked-up newspaper photo of a young Vera taking part in a charity run. It reminded Brenda of her own athletic record, completing three London Marathons between 2002 and 2004.
“I wanted to do the Great North Run but at the last minute the Vera producers said, ‘Brenda, please, we would respectfully ask you not to.’ Because I’m slouching around like Vera I think they’re convinced that’s what I’m really like. I’d trained for it but it was down to insurance.”
Vera sprang from the novels of author Ann Cleeves and the pace of the TV version is more marathon than sprint. “I like the fact that it’s not bombarded with music. It also allows viewers to get a real feel for where they are up on that north east coast. It’s so beautiful, almost like another character.
“There are lots of women of a certain age who applaud the fact that Vera is on because there aren’t many characters on television that are representative of certain women.
“When I look as an audience member, I think, ‘Ahh, I wish Vera had someone go to home to.’ But she doesn’t think that. She’s not lonely. She’s a loner.”
The youngest of nine children, Brenda, 66, went into acting relatively late in life at the age of 27, having worked as a secretary and bookeeper.
Maybe that is why she still has her feet firmly on the ground and is about as far from a showbiz diva as it is possible to get.
“Probably if you’ve spent more time in the real world than the pretend world, it’s got to enrich what you do in that pretend world,” she reflects.
Her advice to young actors? “To take chances. To never think of yourself as more important or more interesting than the character you’re playing. And don’t confuse success with stardom.”
“That Vera” was driven to the set during the first series by a former senior police officer who had left the force. “On the way to work we composed the perfect crime,” laughs the ever-mischievous Brenda. “I’d fox everybody.”
Vera, ITV1, Sunday 8pm.
King of the Teds, Sky Arts, Thursday May 3.
Returning to Vera?
“It was really nice because they managed to get most of the crew back again. It was like a bit of a family when we made the series last year. You can get on with the work straight away. You haven’t got to be bothered with all the rest of it, getting to know someone. And there was immediately trust with all of the crew. And so lovely working with David Leon. He’s a joy to work with. He’s such a nice bloke. He’s so supportive. He’s from the area so he helps with the accent.”
How is Vera’s relationship with his character developing this time?
“I wouldn’t say it’s developed any more. You find out a little bit more about each of them. But it was already well developed. They don’t become lovers or anything. (laughs) Mind you, that’s a good idea! They’ve already got a very good rapport. You learn more about their own individual circumstances.
“There’s a new character comes in on episode two, played by Cush Jumbo. (Plays D.C. Bethany Whelan) She’s great. She’s at the National Theatre at the moment.”
Vera has quite a fractious relationship in the first episode with Holly?
“She just thinks Holly could do better. She thinks she’s a good police officer and Vera thinks that Holly is too unsure of herself. She wants a pat on the back all the time. And gets focused on things that are not overly-important. It’s not a competition. We’re all here to do a job.”
She’s a bit of a bag woman?
“Well she is. But I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, you don’t get promoted in the police looking like that!’ Well I defy anybody…people who say that have obviously spent a lot of time in a police station to have come up with that knowledge. Or have gleaned all of that information from watching dramatised TV things, which as good as it may be doesn’t give you the full picture. It cannot. And there are people looking like Vera in superior positions in every job.”
Smartened up her act this series?
“It got so hot doing all that running with layer after layer on. So they’ve gone back on it a bit. It’s the same clothes.”
Is she more vulnerable because of the health stuff?
“You’ve already seen what causes that. She doesn’t eat the right things, she drinks, she’s always working, everything has got to be done now. And it’s just not good. You see her running all over the place. She just doesn’t take good care of herself. She doesn’t look in a mirror. She often sleeps in her clothes. That’s not to say she’s dirty. She’s not. But just sometimes she’ll find herself in a situation where she’s got spare things in the office that she can put on if she’s been there all night. She doesn’t follow the normal patterns.”
Lot of sadness for Vera?
“But she’s not a sad person. When I look as an audience member watching it, I think, ‘Ahh, I wish she had someone to go home to.’ But she doesn’t think that. She’s not lonely. She’s a loner. She grew up in that environment, in that messy house with her dad who was stuffing birds – taxidermy. In that wild environment where layers of clothes would be put on to stay warm. Because it’s so remote there. It’s just what she’s used to with her dad. Her mum wasn’t there. She died when she was young. And not really being appreciated by her father. She’s always felt he would think that she was a woman in a man’s job and would frown upon it. So she’s grown up with that. That’s why.”
Do you watch yourself on screen?
“I always watch the programme. I’ve seen it way before it’s finished. I’ve seen all the bits put together. Sometimes I see something and I think, ‘Oh, is that right?’ Or if I think it sounds odd, I say, ‘Can I alter that in the post-synch?’ They’ll either say, ‘Certainly,’ or, ‘It absolutely sounds right that.’ Because they have a vested interest, I believe them. They want it to be right too. I care. I don’t have to see it but I’m interested to see it. I see rough cuts and it gives you an idea of how the director is thinking. We’re fortunate to have two directors come back for the new series. So you know what their modus operandi is. But if you don’t it just gives you a little clue as to the way they’re thinking. It’s a learning curve, really.”
How different is it to return to a character?
“To have a sense of continuity is really nice, actually. I would quite like it if – when we get to season four, five, six or whatever – that it’s more focused on the crime. Because it’s still sort of in its infancy we’re still discovering more about the characters. I prefer a more enigmatic take on it. We are learning little things. But I don’t think you should know everything about somebody because in real life we don’t. We can all make up our minds, surmise about things. I used to do that as a hobby. I still do. You look at somebody on a bus and you wonder what they’ve got on their mind today. I wonder if they’ve got money to jingle in their pocket? I wonder if they’ve got friends? And then if you sometimes get to meet the person, really, after making all these assumptions, how wrong you are on nearly all of them. But it’s interesting.”
“Quite often our paths have crossed before. And that’s nice. Julie Graham, who I’ve worked with, and Ron Cook, it was absolute heaven working with them. And she is mad. Such a tonic.”
Stunts / action scenes?
“I always do the driving. I nearly killed everybody in the last series. They said, ‘You’ve got to jump out of the Jeep quicker.’ I said, ‘I can’t. I’ve got to take it out of gear, put on the handbrake, turn it off, open the door, take off the seatbelt. I’ve got to do all those things.’ They said, ‘Don’t bother with the handbrake.’ And of course I jumped out but I’d left it in neutral. So it started rolling towards the camera crew. (laughs) There were these burly grips holding the thing like this.
“The cinematographer was with us again on this series and they said, ‘Just drive up as close as you can.’ And it literally was stopping that much in front of the camera. I said, ‘Are you sure? Remember last year?’”
Four new films include one called Silent Voices:
“There is a stuntwoman in that episode. She is fantastic. It was freezing. It was so cold. I’m swaddled up in duvets and if I had a packet of Polos in my hand they’d be rattling. I was so cold. She dived off the top of this rock into a freezing cold waterfall. Spectacularly shot. And then she proceeded to act out a scene. She was a character. She was so brilliant.
“And there’s some big, big stunts. And David in that episode has a mega stunt. I was so proud of him. He has to go and save someone out of this big lagoon. He was wonderful. He was under the water for ages. I thought, ‘Someone’s got to check him out.’ But up he came with the actress as well. She wasn’t a stunt person. Just fantastic. I was so proud.”
Battling the cold one of the harder things when filming?
“Yes. But it’s easier for me because I’ve got so many clothes on. It’s tougher for the rest of them. But, you see, when you play that scene and go back to the station…so we go back into the warm and I’ve still got all this on. So I am then dropping dead with the heat. So I started saying to the wardrobe people, ‘Can you just sew a sleeve on to that bit so it looks like I’m still wearing it.”” (Laughs)
Do you put on the accent when not filming?
“Sometimes. Not so much put it on but I’m just thinking of it and so it just comes out that way, especially if I’ve got a big scene the next day. You’re going through it when you’re walking along the street and then if you’re interrupted, yeah, that will come out.”
Feeback to Vera?
“Occasionally, when we’ve got the squad who come in and bash down the doors – they’re real policemen. And I get talking to them. They give me very useful and helpful advice. And there’s often policemen on set. In fact my driver in the first series, in a previous life was superior to Vera. And on the way to work we composed the perfect crime. It was great.
“I said, ‘Every time you see a detective at the scene of a crime, they’ve all got their hands in their pockets. Why? Are they trying to look cool?’ He said, ‘It’s so they don’t touch anything.’ Basic! Unless you’ve got gloves on. If you’re going to handle a piece of evidence the gloves go on. My hands are not always in the pockets but I’m aware, always.”
“A hobby of mine is solving puzzles. I’m with the Times Online Crossword Club and I race my brother every day. But we also send each other teasers, posers, to try and work them out. My sister too. We’re addicted to it. I’m not very quick. It’s the race the clock one. My quickest time is three minutes but the fastest is – I saw one on there the other day, it was less than one minute, which I think is physically impossible. I’m a fast typist so I might solve the puzzle slower than my brother but I can type it in quicker. So I get a faster score.”