In a career spanning 40 years, Brenda Blethyn’s star began to shine brightly in the 1990s in career-defining roles in Secrets and Lies (1996) and Little Voice (1998), both of which bagged her Oscar nominations. She’s also given memorable turns in A River Runs Through It (1992) and Pride and Prejudice (2005) and in recent years has charmed audiences as the frumpy, irascible Geordie TV detective DCI Vera Stanhope in Vera, which returns this week for a seventh series.
Brenda, 71, tells Boundless why she loves returning to the role of the Geordie detective…
Boundless: How do you get back into Vera's character and accent?
Brenda Blethyn: Before we film, I’m working on it for six weeks beforehand. I go through the script and study it, so I’m already in the mindset. I’ve only just got to think of Vera and I go into the voice and because it’s filmed there I’m surrounded by people from Northumberland. After a break of six or seven months it’s nice to go see an old friend again – that’s how I feel about her.
Vera has lost a few cast members over the years, particularly David Leon, who quit as DS Joe Ashworth. Is that difficult?
I was upset David left, because I thought we had a great rapport and I think people only decided to like Vera because that character liked her. She’s a bit abrasive, not easy on the eye, snarling at everybody, but because they liked him and he liked her, people sort of thought, ‘Let’s have a closer look at her. She’s alright.’
It was sad when Wunmi [Mosaku, who played Holly Lawson] went and, of course, Cush Jumbo [DC Bethany Whelan] went. That’s what happens when you get a big US television job – you don’t mind getting shot! [Cush joined US hit The Good Wife and now stars in its sequel The Good Fight.]
You’ve said that Vera’s hard to like, but do you have to like her to play her?
No matter whether it’s a good or bad character, an actor has to like being that person. I do like Vera. I think she’s decent. She’s not vain. She commands respect and I’d work hard for her if she were my boss.
Picture: Brenda Blethyn arrives at the 1999 Oscars, where she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the film, 'Little Voice'. In 1997, she had been nominated as Best Actress for 'Secrets and Lies'.
How are your detective skills after seven series?
I think they were good even before Vera. We didn’t have a TV growing up – we didn’t have a wireless a lot of the time because we hadn’t paid the bill and they’d cut it off – and my dad used to set us puzzles to do. They’d be brain teasers and anagrams and we’d all race each other [Brenda is the youngest of nine children] to try and solve it. My brothers and I are members of The Times Crossword Club so we race each other still. I just love hard cryptic puzzles and solving things as a problem.
An inevitable part of being famous is being asked to be a contestant on reality TV shows. Have you been asked?
I was asked to go on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, and I said no. I’d be no good in the jungle. I was once invited to do the Christmas special of Strictly Come Dancing, but I was in the middle of filming Vera, but that would have been fun. I’m not going to win anything, but how nice to be given those brilliant teachers and that tuition.
Your Twitter account has lots of photos of your 18-month-old cockerpoo, Jack. What has he brought to your life?
I got him for my husband [retired graphic designer Michael Mayhew] because I’m away for five months and Jack’s a bit of company for him. But Jack would be sewn to me if he could – he doesn’t like me to go out of his vision. Jack’s just got his silver certificate at obedience school and I showed him the certificate and he ate it!
Picture: Brenda Blethyn with her co-stars from 1998's 'Little Voice': Michael Caine, Jane Horrocks and Ewan McGregor.
You’ve done seven series of Vera and signed on for an eighth. Have you thought about quitting the role?
Well, I was thinking the seventh series would be the last one I’d do, but, you know, a couple of months go by and you think about it and think, ‘I’ll do a bit more Vera.’ And people kept asking me, ‘When’s the next series coming on?’ and say, ‘I hope you do loads more.’ It wears me out, I have to say, but I enjoy doing it and people love watching it, so let’s do some more!