Vera's final bow

Vera's final bow

Thursday, 4th July 2024
Brenda Blethyn, with lowered binoculars, looks off-camera
Brenda Blethyn as Vera (credit: ITV)
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ITV’s maverick detective Vera is closing her TV casebook. Graeme Thompson hails the show’s legacy for the North East’s screen sector.

Brenda Blethyn first pulled on the distinctive fishing hat, scarf and gabardine coat back in 2010, when episode one of Vera started filming in the North East for ITV. Now, after 14 years and more than 50 episodes, the award-winning actor has confirmed that she is stepping down from the role of DCI Vera Stanhope, after filming for her final two shows wrapped in May.

It’s the end of an era. Big-budget returning dramas are the holy grail of the TV world. And, with its consistently high viewing figures and global sales, Vera is one of the UK’s most successful crime franchises.

At the latest count, the show has been sold to 178 territories, making Vera one of the most recognisable TV detectives on the planet.

Fans of the show have been taking to social media to express their dismay that the production is ending. But the creator of Vera, North East crime writer Ann Cleeves (see text box, below), is more philosophical: “I’m sad, obviously, that season 14 will be the last – but we’ve had such a good run.” 

While Vera’s small-screen adventures are drawing to a close, the Vera Stanhope novels are still going strong; Cleeves’s latest mystery, The Dark Wives, is published in August. In fact, Cleeves and Blethyn, who are friends, will be on the road together talking about their creation at literary festivals in the autumn – including one in Iceland.

The show has launched the careers of countless actors, crew and production staff. And some were there from day one, including the Newcastle actor David Leon who plays Vera’s detective sidekick, Joe Ashworth.

He left the show in 2014, only to return a couple of years later as a director. He’s now back as an actor following his character’s promotion to detective inspector.

Fahima Chowdhury is another whose career has sky-rocketed thanks to Vera. She started in the production office and is now a co-producer on the show.

Says executive producer Will Nicholson: “It is an honour to work with great people on such an iconic show. The welcome and support we have been given at every location, town and village across the North East has undoubtedly contributed to the show’s worldwide success.

“Brenda, Ann and the Vera family have created and trained a generation of industry professionals – and there’ll be more exciting opportunities on the horizon for the region’s screen sector.”

North East Screen describes Vera as the trailblazer for returning drama in the region. It has paved the way for other big-budget dramas to locate. there. The Red King, a crime series from the producer of Happy Valley, made its debut on the Alibi channel in April. The show was filmed in Northumberland and there are hopes for a second series.

North East Screen is confident that its £3.8m production fund will encourage more film and TV projects to head north to take advantage of the region’s distinctive mix of castles and coastline alongside the cityscapes of its three major riverside conurbations.

Vera’s other great legacy is the visitor economy. Earlier this year at the North East England Tourism Awards, the show received an Outstanding Contribution trophy for its role in attracting tourists to visit locations featured in the series.

Producer Silverprint has filmed in countless locations, from Tees Valley and North Yorkshire in the south to the Scottish border, taking in cities such as Durham, Sunderland and Newcastle. Vera tours can be booked in Northumberland and County Durham. Self-guided trips are available online to Vera hotspots in places such as Holy Island, Whitley Bay and Amble. And, of course, there’s the growing trend of dressing children as Vera on World Book Day.

Over the years, Blethyn and fellow cast members and crew have been a welcome fixture at the annual RTS North East and the Border Awards. They have regularly picked up programme, technical and performance trophies.

Guests and fellow nominees report that Blethyn and Team Vera are always generous with their time and proud of the role they’ve played in putting the region on the TV map. 

That map is about to get significantly bigger. The production company Fulwell 73 says preparations for its ambitious Crown Works Studios on the banks of the River Wear in Sunderland are at an advanced stage.

Work on the site is due to begin within weeks. The first phase of the £450m complex should be completed by 2026. By the time the site is fully developed, it is expected to create 8,000 jobs. 

Meanwhile, fans can look forward to seeing Vera’s final TV outing in the new year. And with repeats virtually guaranteed in perpetuity on ITV3, plus more Vera novels in the pipeline, the legacy of Northumberland and City Police force’s most unconventional detective seems assured.

Ann Cleeves: from book to screen

Ann Cleeves (Credit: Pan Macmillan)

Uniquely on British TV, bestselling North East crime writer Ann Cleeves has seen three of her detectives starring in their own series. Vera Stanhope first appeared on ITV in 2011; Jimmy Perez from the Shetland books arrived on BBC One, played by Douglas Henshall, in 2013 and, more recently, her Devon detective Matthew Venn (Ben Aldridge) featured in the ITV adaptation of The Long Call in 2021.

Cleeves’ books have been translated into 20 languages and the TV shows based on her characters are screened all over the world. She is particularly proud that the Vera books and TV adaptations have showcased North East England, where she lives on the coast.

She admits the performance of Brenda Blethyn and their long friendship has influenced her writing. Cleeves’ latest Vera novel, The Dark Wives, is rumoured to be the basis for Blethyn’s swansong in the role. Meanwhile, the BBC has commissioned two further seasons of Shetland, with Ashley Jensen as Detective Inspector Ruth Calder, for filming this year and in 2025.

Riley Jones: 14 years in the force 

Riley Jones (Mark Edwards) in Vera (credit: ITV)

Riley Jones had just completed a performing arts course in Newcastle when he auditioned to appear in the pilot episode of Vera in 2010. He went after several parts and was eventually cast in a minor role as rookie police officer Mark Edwards in the final episode of season one.

Producers liked him and he stayed. ‘Being in the show for this long is the result of lots of tiny little inconsequential moments,’ he says. ‘I’ll always remember being on set for the first time and just wanting to take everything in. We were filming in the middle of nowhere at 1:00am in the freezing cold North East winter.

‘I’d finished filming but it was a really interesting scene and I asked if I could stay and watch. I think they thought I was mad! But they let me hang around and I just took in as much as possible. Little did I know, the then-producer Elaine Collins was also on set that day and could see how passionate and interested in the industry I was. I was asked to return the following year and I’ve never looked back.

‘I’ve met some of the best people and made lifelong friends. I’m gutted it’s coming to an end as I could do this job for ever. But I’m so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on such an incredible show for 14 years – especially when I was only supposed to be in one scene!’