A gripping, if oddly titled, detective series.


Why on earth has ITV called its new detective series Vera? Technically I know why: its heroine, played by Brenda Blethyn, is one DCI Vera Stanhope, of the Northumbria Police. But as titles go, Vera (Mondays, 8pm) reeks, not of excitement and mystery, but of Yardley talcum powder and lint-encrusted toffees.

Tall and peculiar great-aunts are called Vera, not brave and cunning detectives. When her name appeared at the beginning of every ad break, picked out in shades of green, it was unintentionally comical. Ooh, Vera'll be back on in a minute! I wanted to call out, in my best camp northern voice. Pop the kettle on, love, and stick a few garibaldis on that doily.

The pity of it is that it's also misleading. Vera is no Hetty Wainthropp. She's a repressed old bag, kind when she wants a witness to spill, but sour as a lemon the rest of the time. Lonely, dishevelled and too keen on cake and booze, she has a possessive, mean-spirited Inspector Morse drill going on with her DS, Joe (David Leon), with the result that he was lucky to attend the birth of his new daughter (a predictable routine by now, but at least this is a middle-aged woman bossing around a sexy young man).

At the end of the first episode, we left her in her late father's remote Northumbrian farmhouse, surrounded by rotting guillemots (Pa was a keen birdwatcher and an even keener taxidermist) and a pair of his old long johns, neither of which, one gathered, smelled pleasantly of lily of the valley.

Still, bad name or not, I enjoyed Vera. There is lots in its favour. The series is based on the novels by Ann Cleeves and shares with them a keen sense of place. You could never forget - even putting aside all the Geordie accents - that this was the north-east. A scene on a park bench took place against the startling backdrop of a huge white ship; a row of hunkered terraces was suddenly rendered a cul-de-sac by a rumbling freight train; and the North Sea, grey and forbidding, was never far away, playing its own crucial role in the first case. Newcastle was pictured in the round: the Sage as well as the Tyne Bridge, the university as well as the estates. Why, I wonder, does it still come as a surprise, and a relief, to see television set in a city other than London?

ITV has paid viewers the great compliment of casting excellent actors even in relatively small roles. Juliet Aubrey was a flirty art teacher, and Gina McKee a lonely single mother (it was weirdly shocking to have McKee's native accent fitting in for a change). It was this, combined with some rather nifty dialogue - "wrong postcode for dyslexia", said DCI Stanhope waspishly at one point - that made the first case so involving; only in the last five minutes did both the identity of the murderer and his motive come to seem preposterous, which is about as much as one can hope for in home- grown crime drama these days.

I won't say too much, in case you are saving it up for later, but seriously: are middle-class, middle-aged men so loyal to their mates that they will indulge in weird ritualised killings on their behalf? Personally, I blame John Everett Millais for the preponderance of a decorative use of hyssop and cow parsley in British television murders.

And what of Blethyn, on whose shoulders this series will stand or fall? I sometimes find her performances irritatingly mannered - this is why Mike Leigh likes her, I suppose - but here she was just right. Beady and shrewd, she radiated a delicious cynicism, particularly when faced with a bunch of bed-hopping lit­erary types.

It is as though, perversely, the character's own social and emotional isolation has only heightened her ability to spot human failings in others; Blethyn's Stanhope regards their antics in much the same way as my granny used to watch soaps, with much rolling of the eyes and rubbing of the hands. Her disgust, when it came, felt sincere enough, but it was also tinged with satisfaction. Even her Geordie accent is OK. She sounds like a Clanger only occasionally, and I think I can live with that.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis