It’s six years since writer Anne Cleaves spoke at OxLitFest to what one reviewer described as “a small but knowledgeable” audience about the genesis of Vera Stanhope, her acerbic but essentially good-hearted detective who was about to make the leap from page to small screen.
Colin Dexter always remained closely – perhaps too closely – connected with his most famous creation, Inspector Morse – a bit like a controlling parent who won’t let go of an adult child (is it me or does “adult child” sound a bit weird?). Anne Cleaves, on the other hand was ready, even at that point, to let go and allow Vera’s character to be developed by the pens of other writers and, of course, the more than capable hands of actor Brenda Blethyn.
This business of seeing fictional characters as independent actors in their own story is something I’ve commented on before. One writer explained how his latest novel ground to a halt for two weeks after the central character decided to go on holiday. According to Cleeve, Vera just turned up at a funeral one day of her own accord, fully formed.
So, as the seventh series of Vera draws to a close, how’s she faring? Quite well, I would say. The whole thing is tightly written.
The writers have continued to avoid making Vera too quirky or eccentric – the antithesis of Morse, Holmes and a whole host of fictional detectives. They’ve also avoided that other great pitfall of fictional detection – the temptation to include too much about the personal lives or personal histories of Vera or any other character (wherein lies the slippery slope to soapdom).
Visually, things work brilliantly, but there’s a realism to everything – they don’t try to make central Newcastle look like the Lower East Side and they capture the rugged beauty of the Northumbrian countryside without turning it into an advert for the regional tourist board.
They even manage to keep the body count down, realizing that good drama doesn’t depend on the automatic introduction of a second victim after about 20 minutes. Serial killers are mercifully rare in the rural Northeast.
There is one slightly quirky feature, though and that’s the number of black and Asian actors in the series. I say “actors” rather than “characters” advisedly. You don’t get a character played by a black actor because it’s integral to the story or lends authenticity (an Asian shopkeeper or an area with a large ethnic minority community) or because you can “get away with” a black actor in that particular part. No, these are mainstream characters with regional accents and “English-sounding” names who are simply played by black actors in what appears to be colour blind casting. It’s an interesting development and something I’ve not seen before outside London-based dramas -certainly not on this scale. It will be interesting to see whether the practice spreads and whether we will start to see the emergence of significant numbers of black actors into the top flight of the profession.
Links and picture credits:
May Day debut for Vera Stanhope (May, 2011)
Anne Cleeves: The Vera Stanhope Novels (Oxford Literary Festival, 2011)
Screenshots from Vera (ITV) reproduced on the basis of fair comment