For everyone who is weary of watching sweet young things solving crime while flitting about in tight skirts and high heels, I give you DCI Vera Stanhope.
Her heels are never high, because you can’t trudge the Northumberland countryside in high heels. If her skirts are tight it’s because she’s gained too much weight. She’s a mass of personality flaws, few of which are endearing or adorable. With every step she takes she totes the baggage of her life alongside her; uncomplainingly, as one does. And you root for her and you rely on her, because—like the rugged old vehicle she drives—she might not look like much, but she’s deceptively strong and able.
Author Ann Cleeves created Vera, and ITV created a TV series based on her books. Now, that series, starring Brenda Blethyn, has been picked up for broadcast by a bunch of public television stations (hopefully with more to come).
Find Vera. Watch Vera. She’s the ideal palate cleanser after you’ve had your fill of impossibly perfect—or adorably imperfect—TV detectives.
The first evidence that Vera is the ultimate survivor can be found in the story of how the series came to be. Vera Stanhope made her first appearance in The Crow Trap (1999). The book didn’t sell terribly well and was all but forgotten until a TV development executive stumbled upon a copy of The Crow Trap on a shelf of used books in a charity shop. The exec was intrigued, people called people, meetings were taken, and a series was born.
But rewind a little more and you’ll find that Vera wasn’t ever supposed to make it that far.
As Cleeves explains about The Crow Trap:
“I had an idea for a book about three women, strangers working on an environmental survey, thrown together in a remote cottage in the Northumberland National Park. There were no plans for a detective figure, but halfway through Vera Stanhope turned up in a funeral scene. There’s a tiny church in the hills, the service has started, the door bangs open and in blows Vera, looking more than a bag lady than a cop.”
Vera proved to be persistent, and Cleeves couldn’t let her go. She wrote four more Vera Stanhope novels, the most recent of which is The Glass Room, which came out in the U.K. in September 2012.
I wouldn’t say you’ve never met anyone quite like Vera, because there’s a good chance that you have. She’s middle-aged and she’s alone; she’s had a past that she owns even if she’s not always proud of it; she’s had (and still has) health issues and bad habits that she’s too stubborn to correct… Yep, you probably have met several women quite like Vera—but you haven’t seen many women like her on TV.
Brenda Blethyn beautifully captures Vera’s bluntness, her guardedness, and her unpredictability. You’re never quite sure what she’ll do or say next. As her right hand, DS Joe Ashworth, David Leon provides the heart that balances Vera’s soul. It’s a bit of a role reversal, with the male character striving to impress his female superior and earn her trust. Joe’s the thoughful, considerate one who reminds Vera that she’s human. (She often needs reminding.)
The stories are inspired by the characters from the novels, but most of them are original to the series and not based on the books themselves. (The Crow Trap, Vera’s debut novel, is episode 3 of series 1.) Just about everything is filmed in Northumberland, which is something that pleases Cleeves greatly. The one thing she refused to sacrifice was the spirit and personality of northeast England.
The following public television stations are showing Vera now:
Series 1: IDAH-Boise ID (Idaho Public Television); KCTS-Seattle WA; KPBS-San Diego CA; KRSC-Claremore OK; KVCR-San Bernardino CA; MONT-Bozeman MT (Montana Public Television); WUSF-Tampa FL
Series 2: IDAH-Boise ID (Idaho Public Television); KCET-Burbank CA; KPBS-San Diego CA; KRSC-Claremore OK; KVCR-San Bernardino CA; MONT-Bozeman MT; (Montana Public Television); WETA-Arlington VA; WLIW-Plainview NY; WUSF-Tampa FL
American Public Television, the series’ U.S. distributor, has a “Where to Watch” button on its Vera web page. Click it to see if your local public television station has picked up the show. (If your local public television station isn’t airing Vera, ask nicely and it might.)
Series 3 is currently in production. Fingers crossed it will be making its way to the U.S. next year. We need more women like Vera to watch.
Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.