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