Monday, 30 November -0001

‘My first impression of Vera? She looked like a bag lady’

As she returns to our TV screens as DCI Vera Stanhope, Brenda Blethyn speaks to Richard Barber about becoming a no-nonsense detective, finding new love and playing Mr Darcy’s ‘mother-in-law’

Written by Richard Barber
Ten years ago, when Brenda Blethyn heard there was to be a new film version of Pride And Prejudice, she crossed her fingers and hoped she’d be approached to play Mrs Bennet. ‘I was a bit disappointed when no one came near me,’ she says, ‘but what can you do? Onwards and upwards, that was my attitude.’

On the Isle of Man not long afterwards to make a TV drama with Timothy Spall, Brenda was called by her agent. ‘The director and producer of Pride & Prejudice wanted to see me about the role of Mrs Bennet. I was thrilled.’ But then it all went quiet.

Two days later, the agent rang again. ‘I was told I really should make my mind up about the part. I couldn’t understand what I was hearing. I said that of course I’d love to play it. I hadn’t realised they were waiting for me to say yes. I thought I was waiting for them.’

BrendaBlethyn-Apr17-02-590Brenda with Philip Jackson in Little Voice

This is classic Brenda Blethyn. At 69 years old, one of our most cherished and popular actresses has never quite got used to the idea that the world is happy to beat a path to her door. Ever since her Oscar-nominated performance in Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies and a string of subsequent hits – such as Saving Grace, Little Voice and Girls’ Night – Brenda’s name has been a guarantee of quality. And yet, she all but pinches herself when a new work of quality is dangled before her. But even she has grown used to the idea of playing DCI Vera Stanhope in the small-screen version of Ann Cleeves’s bestselling thrillers about the no-nonsense Northumberland policewoman. A fifth series is being aired on ITV on Sunday evenings (four feature-length episodes this time round) and, next month, Brenda starts shooting the sixth, not completing the task until October.

When she first read the book of The Crow Trap in preparation for playing Vera, she was slightly nonplussed, she says, to encounter ‘a scruffy, lumbering woman who looked like a bag lady’. She giggles. ‘Why on earth did they think of me?’

But she loves the character now.

‘Yes, she can be a bit caustic but that’s only if she comes across someone not doing their job properly. She can also be kind. And she is good at what she does, which I like. I think talent is always attractive.’ Which may go some way to explaining Brenda’s seamless success.

But she came to the business by the most unremarkable of routes. She was born Brenda Bottle, the ninth of nine children of a bus driver and his wife, and raised amid much laughter but precious little money in Ramsgate on the Kent coast. A naturally clever student, she nonetheless was sent off to Thanet Technical College to train as a shorthand typist. ‘Girls from my background,’ she says, ‘weren’t encouraged to pursue further education.’

BrendaBlethyn-Apr17-03-590-quote

At 19 she married Alan Blethyn, a graphic designer for British Rail in London. When he announced he’d like to enrol on a three-year graphics course in Watford, it was decided that Brenda would become the breadwinner. ‘I got a job as a typist with British Rail at Euston. It was £10 a week, with free travel. And I really enjoyed it.’

BR had an active amateur dramatics society and, in time, Brenda was asked if she’d stand in for someone at the last minute for a production called His Other Love. ‘I was told they were desperate – not very flattering! – but I said yes and, to my surprise, I found I could do it.’

She and her husband relocated to Chichester where, in time, he fell in love with a neighbour and left Brenda.

‘In my mid-20s, I enrolled at drama school in Guildford, which was quite a brave thing to do,’ she says. ‘I’ve never been out of work since, except through choice. You never know how life’s going to turn out, do you?

‘My dad used to take me to the cinema once a week. I never dreamed in a million years that one day I’d be up there on the screen.’

Her success, though, was gradual.

‘And isn’t that the best way? When I reached my 60s’ – she will be 70 next February, yet could easily pass for a decade younger – ‘I happened to mention in print that I was thinking of retiring. I couldn’t believe it. I was inundated with scripts. In fact, some of my best work has been since then.’

BrendaBlethyn-Apr17-04-590In Secrets & Lies, Brenda won a Bafta and a Golden Globe

Her successful career is matched by an equally happy home life. She and Michael Mayhew have been together now for almost four decades, although they only married in 2010. The former creative force behind the posters and programmes for the National Theatre, he’s now retired.

‘He’s the love of my life – and I know he feels the same way about me. The last few years, for some reason, have brought us even closer together.’

He sometimes visits her on set in Northumberland but, as Brenda appears in every scene of Vera, there’s little point, she says, because they’d barely see each other. In the event, he stays in their south London house or their place by the sea in Brenda’s native Ramsgate.

She likes her job, she says, not least because she can carry on working as long as they will have her (‘I’d never give up Vera,’ she says firmly) and, unlike an office job where she would have to turn up five days a week, she can work intensely and then enjoy the benefits of home life. She gets a week off between filming episodes of Vera and makes sure she keeps in reasonable shape by exercising and gentle jogging.

In 2002, 2003 and 2004, she completed the London Marathon. ‘I did it for me but also for a children’s cancer charity. It took me more than six hours but, apart from not being able to walk the next day, it leaves you with a wonderful sense of achievement.’

BrendaBlethyn-Apr17-05-590As a small-town widow in Saving Grace

As a treat to herself, she’d like a new home gym, ‘although I’d need enough space to accommodate it and someone, of course, on hand with a tray of iced drinks.’

And if she had a lot of spare cash? ‘I’d put it towards Project MotorHouse in Ramsgate. My friend, Janet Fielding – she was once one of Doctor Who’s sidekicks – is the project coordinator and she’s helped take over what used to be West Cliff Hall, an old music hall. When it’s renovated, it’ll have a couple of cinemas, a theatre, a conference hall, function rooms and, most importantly, facilities to mentor young people who are starting out on their careers.’

Spend any time with Brenda and a sense of deep contentment comes off her in almost palpable waves. ‘Well, I’m lucky,’ she says, ‘because I’m happy at work and at play. But then I’ve always lived by the credo contained in the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”’

It could have been written for Brenda Blethyn.

Vera is on ITV, Sundays at 8pm.


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