Vera Stanhope is the female British version of Columbo, the disheveled LAPD homicide detective played by Peter Falk. Like Columbo, Vera is smart and often underestimated by the criminals she eventually nabs. And like Falk, who transformed Columbo into a cultural icon, the twice Oscar-nominated Brenda Blethyn has embraced the role of Vera, making the series wildly popular on both sides of the pond. The eleventh season is now available to stream on BritBox.
Detective Chief Inspector Stanhope, of the fictional Northumberland and City Police, is nearing retirement, but has no intention of stepping back. An only child, her mother died when she was young and she had a difficult relationship with her father who often operated outside the law. When he dies, she moves into his home, taking weeks to clean out the clutter, deal with the memories, and uncover a few bombshells. She also begins to drive his dilapidated jeep,
Vera is a workaholic, by necessity (she has no life outside the police station), and by choice (she’s determined to bring justice to the victims and hold the guilty accountable). Her outfits consist of well-worn jackets and coats, loose dresses, and floppy hats. When she shows up at a murder scene, she’s frequently mistaken for a doddering busy body (even by uniformed police), until she flashes her credentials. Then the fun begins. Taking in Vera’s appearance, suspects let down their guard. How can this grandmotherly type – particularly when she addresses witnesses with endearing terms like “pet,” and “love” – be a threat? Yet behind that kind smile is a sharp mind that can ferret out the smallest details leading to an arrest.
Vera runs a tight ship, demanding hard work and long hours from her detectives, and doling out praise on few occasions. Her second in command, Detective Sergeant Joe Ashworth (David Leon), is constantly by her side, something that takes a toll on his private life. Married to Celine, with three children, Joe is called out at all hours and called out when he slips up. While Vera feels she is training him for the future, his family sees it differently. When she shows up for a family party, one of his daughters asks Vera, “Are you Mussolini?” To her credit, Vera takes the jab in stride and for a time lets up on her sergeant.
The other constant in the murder room is Kenny Lockhart (a terrific Jon Morrison), who typically gets assigned the scut work, but occasionally produces a clue that turns an investigation upside down. Vera frequently teases the divorced and single Kenny about his social life, yet reacts with anger when such comments are directed at her. Joe learns from experience that certain aspects of Vera’s life are off limits, particularly anything involving her father.
Based on the crime novels by Ann Cleeves, the series wins praise for its well crafted plots (many of the scripts written by Paul Rutman and Martha Hillier), that never fail to deliver surprises. Cinematography doesn’t dwell on the more gruesome aspects of police work, instead offering panoramic views of the countryside and seashore.
Cast changes keep the series fresh. In season five, Kenny Doughty as Aiden Healy replaces Leon’s Joe as Vera’s number two. Cush Jumbo, who played Detective Bethany Whelan, in season two, returns in season five, while Morrison stays put as Kenny.
Blethyn makes it look easy, but in her long and storied career, she’s amassed an impressive list of credits for stage, television, and film. Her major career breakthrough came in Mike Leigh’s 1996 drama Secrets & Lies which earned her Best Actress at Cannes, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and an Academy Award nomination. Her second Academy Award nomination was two years later for Little Voice.
Like her fictional counterpart, Blethyn seems to show no interested in retiring. And with this talented actor in the driver’s seat, Vera could truly be in for a long ride.
Vera can be streamed on Brtit Box