Based on books by Ann Cleeves, the British television series “Vera” has seven seasons so far (a discovery that helped a lot with pneumonia evenings). It features Vera Stanhope as a Detective Chief Inspector working in the far northeast of England. Probably everything written about “Vera” mentions the detective’s unlikely appearance and demeanor. Paddington Bear comes to mind.
She’s a sturdy and not young woman who wears a squashed hat like the bear’s, Wellies or sensible shoes, and a “mac” as much a trademark as Colombo’s was in the day. She drives a beat-up jeep, and addresses people as “pet” or “luv” with empathy or sarcasm, depending on the exchange. British slang words like “skint” and “scarper” sprinkle the show’s dialogue – complicated by thick northern accents.
You rarely see the murder, but each episode’s opening scene finds a corpse discovered in the landscape – beaches, moors, river canyons – or in a lonely farmhouse, stately home or Newcastle street. Under investigation the new case (and they are remarkably varied) can lead to a tangled web of family secrets and lies, and sometimes require the reopening of a closed case.
The actress Brenda Blethyn plays Vera. Her mobile face conveys both barely concealed fury and impatience with lying, or a smile of sympathy or satisfaction at a solution. She’s smart, intuitive, often sharp with associates, and in the middle of the case pulls her crumpled hat off and on in frustration. She is really, really good at her job.
It helps that she knows a lot – because of her odd childhood with a poacher father, she has experience and understanding of animals and plants inhabiting seacoast and moor. Some episodes reveal tiny bits of Vera’s past, and we get to know her staff.
Through the seasons the actors change, but her closest associate is always a Detective Sergeant, young, male, handsome, and sweet – a family guy who cares about Vera in spite of her quirks. Pathologists play a prominent role, there have been three so far, and a longtime Detective Constable who knows the criminal characters of countryside and city.
Vera cares about children and their often difficult lives, but part of her appeal is the satisfaction of watching her bark orders to her staff – and seeing them jump to.
I’m fond of the scenes back at the headquarters: the victim’s photo slapped on a magnetic board along with other bits of information, and Vera, wearing her “under the mac” almost housedress outfit with ubiquitous stringy scarf circling her neck, paces in front of the board and demands of her gathered staff “Well, what do we know?”
Maybe not much at that moment – but a lot by the end of the evening.