‘Vera’ is yet another in the long list of crime dramas produced by television and was considered important enough to be aired around the May Day Bank Holiday. ‘Vera’ is Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, played by Oscar nominated actress Brenda Blethyn. ITV seems to like the idea of women in charge in various positions within this mostly male-dominated profession. You could say it began with ‘Prime Suspect’ (Helen Mirren) and ‘The Wire In The Blood’ (Hermione Norris and Simone Lahbib) through to ‘The Commander’ (Amanda Burton) and now we have ‘Vera’.
The show is located in Northumberland and the landscape is a mix of rural and urban and is an integral part of the show. The character and stories are based on the novels written by Ann Cleeves. I had not read any of her novels so did not have any preconceptions about it.
There are four episodes (each lasting two hours) that have been filmed for the first series and you get the clear impression that ITV are pushing this as another murder mystery drama with good quality production values in the mould of ‘Inspector Morse’ or ‘Lewis’. Three of the episodes are based on the aforementioned novels and the fourth has been written by Paul Rutman (who has also written for ‘Lewis’).
The first episode ‘Hidden Depths’ opens with the discovery of the dead body of 15 year old Luke Armstrong who has been strangled and his corpse ‘staged’ in a bath surrounded by wild flowers and candles. Just as the investigation gets underway, another body of a young female teacher is found on the beach with the same modus operandi as the first victim. Eventually suspicion falls upon a group of bird watchers who are obviously linked to the deaths in some way and you start to try and work out who is lying and what secrets are being kept.
Vera is a rather frumpy middle aged spinster with the dress sense of ‘Colombo’ or ‘Frost’ and she is clearly vexed by children. Of course she is clever, obsessive and has a good intuition about where to delve next. Her right hand man is DS Joe Ashworth (nicely played by David Leon) who fills in what she needs to know and follows her lead. Their relationship is one of the best parts of the show, more like a mother and son than just friends.
Apart from an enthusiastic DC (Wunmi Mosaku) there not many other characters that stand out but that was the way that ‘Morse’ and ‘Lewis’ were constructed. I assume they will try and get some well known actors and actresses for each episode to play the potential murderers.
There is a separate storyline which deals the recent death of Vera’s father and her subsequent adoption of his old rural house. I assume this will continue in the forthcoming episodes.
I did enjoy this first episode which built a nice atmosphere and was nicely paced. There were plenty of ‘red herrings’ and pieces of the puzzle to try and put together. It was a well constructed drama and was well played out.
The second episode ‘Telling Tales’ starts with prisoner (and ‘lifer’) Jeanie Long escaping from her guards during a hospital visit and subsequently committing suicide. News of her death leads to new evidence from a witness that exonerates Jeanie from her crime – the murder of her lover’s fourteen year old daughter Abigail Mantel.
Rather like the first episode it is a subsequent murder of somebody else connected to Abigail’s death that opens up more possibilities and Vera has to ride roughshod over the members of the local community to get to the truth.
I did not think this story was as good as the first episode and it began to feel a little repetitive and not so fresh. I would have thought it would have been prudent to show fortnightly rather than weekly. If you really like ‘Lewis’ then you will probably enjoy this program as well but there is nothing really ground-breaking about the show. Brenda Blethyn is good but is not as striking as ‘Morse’ or ‘Frost’.
The ratings have been good (although not as good as ‘Lewis) and if ITV decide they are going to continue with the show then by next year there will be another two Vera Stanhope books written by Ann Cleeves for them to base their stories on.
ITV also has six episodes in the pipeline of ‘DCI Banks’ (played by Stephen Tompkinson) based on the novels by Peter Robinson, so the Literary British Crime Novel is yet again proving to be a fertile ground for TV drama.
The UK DVD will be released on May 23rd which is extremely hasty when you consider that the final episode is to be aired on May 22nd !!
Paul (The TV Drama Club)