Ann Cleeves’s CWA Gold Dagger Award-winning Raven Black really is superb. Her Vera Stanhope novels have been on my radar for quite some time, but I’ve not yet managed to read any of them due to other commitments. The character appeals. Here is a woman who actually sounds normal. Thus, it is taking a bit of risk to transfer her to screen. Male or female, and especially female, we are all rather hard on women. A middle-aged, weight-challenged woman may have limited appeal on screen. Less so for the Frosts and Columbos, for these equate to those cuddly, tatty teddy bears that have passed from generation to generation. Their unedifying features add ‘character’. A tatty china doll demands a severe makeover or is shown the bottom of a bin. The female of the species is simply not allowed to lose any element of control or permit any kind of tarnish to her polish. And who is interested in a middle-aged female? They are renowned for something: their invisibility.
So, what was served up in the first episode of this new series? We opened with the Northumbrian coastline clearly a feature and beautiful it was too on screen, along with the brooding music to set the scene. Immediately, we were thrust into empathy with and for the victims where we were introduced to the mother on the bus before she found her son some time after his lonely death at the hands of a murderer. Then our main series characters stepped in: DCI Vera Stanhope and her very able assistant, Sergeant Joe Ashworth. Soon, it was as obvious to them as it was to us that this was a case of murder and it didn’t stop there…
The plot was bulk standard TV crime drama fare where human beings can be motivated to engage in the most awful of actions as a result of dysfunctional minds. Being on a commercial channel, there was the need to contain all comfort sessions to the duration of the ad breaks, so as not to avoid any important clues. One of these, sadly, arrived by solo trumpet call in the form of a deus ex machina, but it’s possible to get over that for the bigger picture.
I enjoyed Vera for its gritty and down to earth quality. But, like other TV series of short duration these days, I have some reservations. Firstly, and like those others to which I refer, we are introduced to ongoing protagonists for whom we are not given enough backstory in the first episode. Drip feeding by clue as if part of the overall plot does not work. At the end of Vera, I wondered how on earth Ashworth could summon such dedication, especially to someone who, at the end of the episode, appeared rather self-centred. Where we might see a surrogate mother-son relationship, it’s also one that would form the basis of a plot in another crime drama series.
People have been critical of the wandering accents. In the majority who do not hail from the locality, I was happy enough with it. It sounded authentic enough to me. And to those who accused Blethyn of sounding Welsh on times, I’d say this: I am Welsh and more than once, outside Wales, I have come across someone and asked them if they are Welsh too. No, they replied, they were from Newcastle. This is an easy mistake to make, even if a not well-publicised one.
Yes, there was too much jolty camera work on scenes of ‘walk and talk’. With a gritty, inner-city, staccato-paced programme it might have worked. Cutting away to brooding coastlines and dark nights, it didn’t.
Some viewers have already decided they don’t like Vera. She’s slovenly and ‘eats all the time’. I beg them to see the subtle context here. In a scene where she interviews the first victim’s teenage sister on a bench, she encourages her to eat some cream cakes. The ‘awfulness’ of entertaining such stuff was apparent in a world where female teens run such risk of anorexia to fit the media mould. Thankfully, the girl was seen, at least, walking away with the package in her hands, leading to a positive outcome of sorts.
Vera is more like the female Columbo than anyone else previously on screen and it’s good to have a real woman there. For her, the case, and solving it, is the most important. She cares not for her own appearance, she uses her intellect and empathy to solve a case. If you think she’s a dirge in human form, look at these wonderful quotes:
‘Oh, these corridors must be teeming with your cast-offs, are they, Mr Craven?’
‘Then how do we like our women, Mr Parr?’ [Reply: ‘You’d be surprised.’]
‘Ah, she would be. Those in glass houses…’
Let’s give our time to Vera on TV here. I really hated the first episode of Zen, but by the time it ended I had the DVD in my hands and a passion in my heart. Vera may have lacked a few things in that first episode, but I hope, like me, you’ll stick with it. Ann Cleeves – the author of the novels – tells me the series gets stronger with every episode. She also thanks all who watched.
There are some wonderful guest actor appearances in later episodes. This is a series to watch!
I leave you with assorted comments from twitter on the night of airing the first episode:
Well, I was expecting something akin to "Murder, She Wrote" but appear to be getting the Geordie "Wallander". Good. #vera @AdamRob
Looks like I should have watched #Vera. Darn. @MarikaCobbold
#vera just what we need a female Frost. Loving it : ) @iprefercats
#vera this is stunning. @clairefrilly
Brenda Blethyn...I adore you. In everything you've done. Ever. #vera @semadivad
#Vera is a bit odd! Normally by now I've solved it on any detective type programme, but I haven't on this. @corinnechidge [Tweeted at 21:30]
Brenda Blethyn, what a treasure. She has done Ann Cleeves proud #Vera @abitnice
Just watched #Vera on ITV. A good bit of crime drama and another contender to Mirren's Tennyson in terms of character. @LeeJPrice