Vera, Shetland and the North: Ann Cleeves talks to Northern Soul
“She’s driving from her home towards Newcastle but that’s the Holy Island causeway and that clearly isn’t right.”
So says my Dad (repeatedly) who is, like me, an avid viewer of Vera, the Northumberland-based TV series based on the novels by Ann Cleeves.
Listening to my Dad shouting at the tele when Vera is on has become (and don’t tell him this) a rather nice part of my return to the North. I’m a Mancunian by birth but my entire family are Geordies and, not withstanding a 14-year sojourn in London, my Northern heart beats stronger than ever. I like that shared history, that ‘yeah, that’s the North East beach we went to as kids and ate egg sandwiches with sand in’.
Having said this, on initial viewing I balked at Vera, mainly because Brenda Blethyn‘s accent grated on my senses. Before Vera, I’d loved her in Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, I’d admired her in Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It, and I’d seen her up close in Edna O’Brien’s play Haunted at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. But as someone whose entire family are proper Geordies, I just couldn’t watch an actress putting on the accent.
Ann Cleeves, author of the Vera books, concedes that the Geordie accent is difficult to get right.
“Brenda would admit that for the first series her accent wasn’t brilliant. But I think she’s spending so much time here now and working with local actors that that has changed.”
Cleeves adds: “There is such a variety of North East accents. Vera is rural Northumberland which is different from Newcastle. And if you go to places like Ashington and Blyth they are very, very different again. I’ve had people say she’s not authentic but then you think, well, she might not be your accent but I have heard people speak very like her.”
Originally from North Devon, 62-year-old Cleeves now lives in Whitley Bay, a town on the North East coast. Although she is a long-time resident of this part of the world, her early years were spent much farther afield in Fair Isle, the most remote of the Shetland islands and the inspiration for her series of novels about the area. The recent BBC adaptation of her Shetland books has generated many new readers and fans.
“What I do with my writers is take them up to Shetland to show them Shetland,” she says. “I had a list of things that Gaby [Chiappe, lead scriptwriter on Shetland] wanted to see and do this time. Overall, that’s really been important over the last couple of series because it means that Shetlanders are very positive about it because they know that it’s authentic and people have taken the trouble to get it right.”
The desire for accuracy is perhaps most apparent in the most recent epiosdes of Shetland. Although the first two series were based directly on Cleeves’ books, this last one was a standalone script, spearheaded by Chiappe. It’s fair to say that this was the most disturbing – and moving – of them all, not least because it involved the rape of one of the main – and much-loved – characters.
Cleeves says: “Often sexual assault or sexual violence is used as a way of shocking people and there’s a very close line between that and it becoming almost titillating. Gaby was the lead writer on it. I’ve know Gaby for a number of years, she did some of the Vera episodes too, and she did some of my favourite adaptations of Vera, and she’d worked on Shetland before. To have her do this completely original story was amazing.”
She adds: “Alison [O’Donnell, who plays Tosh in Shetland], Gaby, Claire the script executive and Elaine the executive producer spent a day at Rape Crisis talking to them about what they would really like to see in the show and what they would hate. Alison and I did Hay-on-Wye together and we got so many people coming up afterwards saying ‘that happened to my daughter, you got it right’ or ‘I was a police officer working in that field and you got it absolutely right’. The fact that the men were so sympathetic was very well done I think. And it was very much written that these people were all friends and were all trying to support her.”
I’m chatting to Cleeves ahead of her first appearance at the Manchester Literature Festival. A hugely successful author, she is well used to travelling up and down the country to promote her writing. Her new book, Cold Earth, is her penultimate Shetland book (and the seventh in the series). As she tells Northern Soul, sometimes it’s OK to call it a day.
“Series have an arch just as stories do and sometimes you get a feeling that it’s time to bring it to a close,” Cleeves says.
For readers and viewers alike, Cleeves makes incredible use of landscape. I wonder how important this is to her?
“I don’t think about the landscape when I start to write but it is very much a part of it because as an adult I’ve always enjoyed those wild, bleak places. Shetland is obviously unique and if you write traditional crime fiction which I do then that sense of an enclosed community is very much a part of that tradition. Northumberland is a bit different because what I love about setting stories here is you have such a wide palate to choose from of backgrounds. So you’ve got the bonny bits with the beaches and the uplands and Hadrian’s Wall and Holy Island but you’ve also got the post-industrial landscape so the ex-pits, the shipyards. So that’s great for a writer because you could set one book in a small market town, another in the city or a town which is suffering real deprivation.”
Needless to say, her books are rooted in a sense of place. “Place has always been important to me and I love travelling vicariously through my reading as well. If you can do that for other people, that’s grand.”
The seventh series of Vera will air early next year. Cleeves says: “What a commitment from ITV bringing the whole cast and crew up for six months every year to film up here. They employ as many local people as they can. And it’s obviously much more expensive than having a production office in Manchester or London. But it does make a huge difference.”
Vera‘s popularity goes without saying but what of the literary tradition of female detectives? Are they are all chain-smoking, smoking-hot women like Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison? I ask Cleeves what she thinks about the female detective heritage.
“If they are women then they are quite attractive and they tend to get blokes and Vera’s not a bit like that really. I wanted an antidote, especially to the central characters of the American series like CSI. They go onto crime scenes in their heels and long hair and you just know it would be absolutely nothing like that.
“I was born in the mid-50s so I grew up knowing lots of strong, single women who’d either lost men in the war or who had come into their own in the war and suddenly got responsibility. They were the first generation to decide they didn’t have to be married because they could work, they could be hospital matrons or they could be teachers. I knew lots of single women who were like that, who were formidable, and didn’t care at all what they looked like but were really, really good at what they did.”
As for Shetland, there’s a lot of love for Douglas Henshall’s Jimmy Perez – not least from Northern Soul which was glued to the screen throughout – but the sheer longevity of Vera propels that character to the fore. So, I ask Cleeves, how much is the success of Vera down to Brenda Blethwyn’s portrayal?
“A lot, I think. I think she’s terrific. I think she’s very, very committed to the character. With both shows I’ve been so fortunate. The actors read the books and their characters are my characters. Brenda is very, very protective of the character. I had an email from her just a couple of weeks ago saying ‘remind me about Vera’s education, and how old was she when she joined the police’. She was obviously having a battle with a new scriptwriter who maybe wanted to change direction or something, and Brenda is there battling on my behalf to make sure it’s still my Vera.”
Vera fans will be glad to hear that Cleeves is on the cusp of finishing the first draft of her next Vera book, which will be out next year. At present, however, she has something else to celebrate.
“Cold Earth, my Shetland novel, is a bit special because it’s my 30th book and my 30th year of being published.”
That’s some achievement, and a far cry from Cleeves’ early 20s when, after dropping out of university, she became a bird observatory cook on Fair Isle. It was there that she met her husband Tim, a visiting ornithologist. She began writing when the couple were living on Hilbre, a tiny tidal island nature reserve in the Dee Estuary. Today, she clearly loves living in a Northern seaside town with its own ambitions for the future.
“There’s a ‘from the bottom up’ sense of regeneration in Whitley Bay,” she says. “I like the fact that I can walk to my local and be chatting to university professors and doctors but also to people who still take boats out from Cullercoats, and fish, and who used to work in the shipyard and whose dads were pit men.”
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