- September 18, 2021
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By Ginny Dougary
Brenda Blethyn as Vera
Brenda Blethyn, one of our best-loved thesps, says that it is Vera Stanhope — the old-mac-and-wellies-wearing, hat-like-a-crushed-cow-pat-sporting, plain-speaking Geordie Detective Chief Inspector she plays — who is becoming more like the actor than the other way round. The boundaries are definitely blurring at any rate. “There are similarities. I’m very practical,” she says. ” I don’t spend ages in front of the mirror. I’m independent. I do the right thing, I think, mostly. I always try to do the right thing, anyway.”
We laugh about an old quote of hers I found in an interview when Blethyn said she “remains hopeful that Vera will be commissioned for a second series”. That was 10 years ago. She has just completed filming the first four episodes of the show’s 11th season.
She says that she understands why David Suchet still misses the character he calls “his friend” — another cherished detective, the role he inhabited for 25 years, the Agatha Christie creation Belgian Hercule Poirot. “I’m sure that after the long seasons of work, you probably say ‘thank God for that — let’s sit down for five minutes’ or ‘No more, no more, no more … ’ but after a while you go ‘where are you? I want to come back now’.”
Brenda Blethyn as Vera and Karen Bryson as Louise Wilmott in season 10 of Vera.Credit:ITV
Vera is forever part of her life, even to the extent that Blethyn keeps an eye out for additions to the DCI’s wardrobe when shopping for her own clothes. “My husband says when I finish Vera, my body comes home a month before my head,” she says. “You never let it go. It must the same with you when you’re writing a piece. You don’t put your pen down at five o’clock and stop thinking about it, right? You might be cooking or eating your dinner, and it’s still going on.
“And with Vera, I start work on it a month before we start filming, for practical reasons, really. Because it’s not filmed chronologically, I have to know where her head is at any given time. And aside from that, I like to give my penn’orth of thoughts on the script, and if I can guess something that’s about to happen, it has to get changed because we don’t want people working it out!”
Blethyn is great fun to talk to, down to earth and doesn’t take herself too seriously. Her natural inclination is dialogue over monologue and she seems genuinely interested in what other people have to say. We are speaking on Zoom with her at home in Waterloo, south-east London. Her white cockapoo Jack — a bit of a star himself who has appeared with his owner on television — makes sure he is not left out of the conversation. As is often commented, away from her drab Vera persona, the actress is glamorous, groomed and looks fabulous at 75.
She was one of nine children born to a mechanic and cleaner — William and Louisa Bottle — in a working-class area of Ramsgate, Kent. (The hairdresser who has been colouring her hair the past few years for Vera, Max, also happens to live in Ramsgate.) Her mother was one of 14. “She was a grafter and I’m a grafter,” Blethyn says. “So was Dad. We all are — all the family. We were quite poor.” Her mother preferred to make this distinction: “We’re not poor, we just don’t have any money.”
Brenda Blethyn, who plays DCI Vera Stanhope, and Kenny Doughty, who plays DS Aiden Healy, on set at Tynemouth.Credit:Owen Humphreys/Getty
Her parents met in service when William was the chauffeur and Louisa a maid for a family in nearby Broadstairs. They had a long 20-odd-year engagement “living in sin” with all their children. “Yes, they were the first bohemians or beatniks,” Blethyn laughs. “I never really did get to the bottom of it, particularly as we were all Dad’s children. My sister told me it was something to do with my Mum being so close to her Mum that she didn’t want to get married until she died, which was in 1944, and that was the year my parents wed.”
Brenda married her first husband, Alan Blethyn, when she was 19 — they don’t keep in touch, but he was “a lovely fella” — and met the man who has become her second husband, Michael Mayhew, through work when he was art director at the National Theatre, responsible for designing the posters and programs. They had an even longer engagement than her parents, as the actor herself points out, enjoying 35 years together before taking the nuptial plunge in 2012.
What prompted them to finally tie the knot? “We were getting on a bit and it seemed the sensible thing to do,” she says. “Neither of us were going anywhere, so it just presents a problem if one of us pops our clogs.”
No romance about it, then? “No, it wasn’t romantic; however, it does feel rather nice being married — it’s just different. It was a lovely ceremony, and we just had Tim Spall and his family as our witnesses and they took us out for the wedding breakfast at a pub in East Dulwich. He’s an absolute sweetheart and he and his family are some of our best friends.”
She says that most of their friends aren’t actors, but one of her dearest pals is a singer, Julie Forsyth, daughter of Bruce, “and she’s a lovely, lovely lady”.
Brenda Blethyn and husband Michael Mayhew in 2013: 35 years together before taking the marital plunge.Credit:Dave M. Benett/Getty Images
There was never a moment where Blethyn felt a pressing desire to have children. “You hear people saying that they have just got to have children but that never happened to me,” she says. “It did enter my head — not now obviously — that I might think of adopting some children, simply because they are there and they need a home.”
So was that ever a serious consideration for her? “No, not really but if it had crossed my mind that I do need to have children, I would probably have gone down that route.”
‘You hear people saying that they have just got to have children but that never happened to me.’
I tease her about getting her dog into the series but not her husband. “It’s only his photo,” she laughs. “You couldn’t get anything done if Jack was actually on set — he’d keep hanging on the back of my leg!”
She says that she feels lucky to have Michael as her husband. “Well, he’s just so talented and clever and I think ‘what’s he doing with me?’ What I mean is, we’ve got nothing in common at all. Well, apart from a sense of humour.”
It was Michael who got her into the television crime thriller Line of Duty and she watched all the seasons in one go. “It’s fantastic,” she says with enthusiasm. “It’s in a class of its own, really. It’s different to all the others. And Vera is different to all the others, too. I love the fact that things aren’t in competition.”
She finds our thirst for murder and crime shows surprising. “Maybe it makes us feel fortunate that we’re not in that awful situation and sitting on your sofa at home with your cup of tea or half a lager or whatever, it is so far removed from you that you feel lucky?
‘You do see some gruesome things but with Vera, that is avoided at all costs. You never see the nitty-gritty or any of the bad injuries…’
“But it’s quite disturbing, really. You do see some pretty gruesome things but with Vera, that is avoided at all costs. You never see the nitty-gritty or any of the bad injuries that might be described. There was an episode where someone was found in an incinerator in a meat factory and we carefully placed things in front of the body so that the audience wouldn’t be offended.”
The drive to the set in Newcastle takes five-and-a-half hours each way; three-and-a-half by train. But because of COVID-19, Blethyn has been taking the longer route. The first couple of years she stayed in a hotel “but I was climbing the walls. All I wanted to do was go and boil an egg.” Now she has a permanent apartment with everything she needs for the long months of filming.
Blethyn (Vera) with David Leon, who played offsider Joe Ashworth for four series.
Michael comes up on the train normally with Jack and stays during the shoot; five months has become six with all the lockdown protocols on set. She describes how bizarre it was filming this latest season. (I have watched only the first feature-length episode called Witness, in which a well-respected builder is found beaten to death on the steps of Tynemouth’s famous Collingwood Monument.)
Some of the time, she would be, for instance, cross-examining a suspect and the actor wasn’t even there. “You just have to stay absolutely focused and imagine they are there,” she said. “There was another moment when I’m pointing at something on the incident board and talking to the other people in the room, but they weren’t there either. So you just have to adapt and pretend.”
Her breakout performance was playing the lead in Mike Leigh’s 1996 powerful drama Secrets & Lies, which won her rave reviews and many awards, including Best Actress at Cannes, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination. (She received a second Oscar nomination for her role in Little Voice, two years later.)
Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Hortense) and Brenda Blethyn (Cynthia) in Mike Leigh’s 1996 movie Secrets & Lies.
I watched Blethyn in conversation on stage in Canterbury and was impressed with her facility for remembering names (especially when she says she is “hopeless” at it normally) which other actors might find more challenging. One of the films she was talking about at that event was London River by French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb, in 2009, for which she had to learn French. She plays a mother waiting to hear about her missing child after the London bombings in 2005, becoming friends with a French Muslim man whose child has also disappeared. This role was filled by the late Sotigui Kouyate , a favourite actor of the esteemed theatre director Peter Brook, who won Best Actor for his part at the Berlin Film Festival. “He was a magnificent actor, just magnificent,” Blethyn says with feeling.
She continues: “Do you want to know the truth? I enjoy saying those names!” We talk about the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her character in Americanah, Ifemelu, who, having travelled to America to study, starts a blog examining unconscious racism. One of her memorable columns is a stern rebuke to those who don’t make the necessary effort to remember the names of people from other cultures because they are “too difficult”. “It is laziness, actually,” Blethyn says, then in gently mocking tones, “You know, ‘Oh, it’s so convoluted!’ ‘Why on earth don’t you change it?’”
Blethyn as Mari Hoff in Little Voice, her second Oscar-nominated role.
We joke about how even our relatively straightforward names get mangled. “Well, with a name like Blethyn, no-one can remember it. I was at some awards do or other, and I heard these people outside talking and they said, ‘what about that Beryl Boothline?’”
Since her maiden name was Bottle, we have a laugh about her going for an alliterative treble-whammy: “Yes, maybe I should be double-barrelled? Brenda Bottle-Blethyn?”
We talk about another great actor, Frances McDormand, and her rewriting the red carpet rules with her rejection of the usual make-up, teetering heels and ballgown hoopla. It makes Blethyn recall when she was playing a missionary’s wife in a Robert Redford film “so I’m meant to be out there digging the garden and I’m being asked in make-up [cue vacuous Valley Girl voice] ‘“What kinda lashes d’ya want?” And I said, “I don’t want ‘lashes’!” and I still looked well made-up!”
The actor doesn’t have a problem with ageing, saying “age is beautiful” and “I don’t want to look like everybody else”. She adds, “I really don’t. Ageing is all part of life’s experience, isn’t it? It all tells a story.”
Director Mike Leigh (second right) and The Secret & Lies team on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. Brenda Blethyn on the right.Credit:Getty
She’s reached the point in her career where she can afford to pick and choose her projects: “If I don’t fancy it, I don’t do it — but only because I have the luxury of being able to do that. There are actors less fortunate than me who have to take what they are offered. If you have to pay the bills, that’s what you have to do. I mean, I would do anything that came along if I had to.”
Despite her long having “arrived”, there’s nothing self-aggrandising about Blethyn. She is bemused by the relatively new phenomenon of actors insisting on an executive producer credit. She doesn’t have one, for instance, on Vera, even though she holds together the whole show. “I’d rather concentrate on what I’m doing,” she says. “I don’t need it.”
I wonder if she’s often stopped in the street with people wanting to call her “pet”. Yes, the actor says, it happens a lot. The other day, she was in a supermarket and was being asked for many selfies when suddenly she saw a security person aiming straight for her: “Oh my God, I thought. I’ve got my mask on, I’m not doing anything wrong. What a guilt complex!”
The security person asked her if she needed any help with her shopping, and when Blethyn said she was fine, thank you, and proceeded towards the check-out, she felt a hand under her elbow. “‘Have you finished shopping?’” she was asked. “And I was escorted right down the aisle. It looked like I’d been shoplifting! But she was walking me past all the people so they wouldn’t keep stopping me.”
I say that was quite considerate and she replies: “It was sweet but I felt like I’d been caught red-handed!”
Was she a naughty girl at school, I wonder. “No, I was a goody-goody,” the actor says. “I was maybe a little bit mischievious, perhaps. But mainly I just wanted to make people laugh.” Something Brenda Bottle-Blethyn has been doing since.
Season 11 of Vera will appear on ABC and iview next year. Earlier seasons are available on Foxtel Now or can be downloaded on iTunes.
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