Headlines in equal parts – dismay
about the dog walker who vanished, and Happy Valley. Reality and fiction. What we know of the reality is awkward, unhappy and confused. And the fiction is terrifically well written, I watched the first two series with bated breath. Couldn’t hack series three but millions did. I watched Vera. And let me say now – I don’t watch anything “obsessively”.
I began watching Vera
because I had had the great pleasure of interviewing Belinda Blethyn about an agreeable memoir. Halfway through the interview, in a station break (they play ads, you catch your breath) I said “You’re not Welsh at all, you keep talking about Margate and Ramsgate.” “Yes, well, “ she said. “That’s where the family is from.” So she changed her name? She nodded, she had. “What was it ?” “Bottle.”
No name for an actress, I could see that, and the Bottles are an old smuggling family.
“Was there a Tom Bottle in your bit of the family ?” I asked. “My uncle Tom” she grinned. “He was my father’s best friend” I told her. And we danced up and down with excitement before returning to the business in hand.
My father boxed in the army of WWI, in a detachment now largely forgotten (because of the obliterating losses in Europe) except for belated tribute to the Sikhs. And at one stage he boxed with a then famous actor,
Victor McLagen, in a town anglicised into Jubblepore. As my father came out of his corner, a voice from the crowd shouted “Come on, St. Peters !” (the village where he lived) and the voice was Tom Bottle’s. I grew up with this story.
Years later, when we walked back up the graveyard at St. Peters having buried my father, we came over a slight rise to two rows of elderly men very neat, very erect: what was left of my father’s unit. My mother and sister passed with other family members and I beamed at the man on my right. “Know that smile anywhere” he said. “And you’re Tom Bottle” I said. And he was.
I began watching Vera out of curiosity, the tension in the character between her often difficult, even unpleasant manner and her ability which was considerable and generous. Blethyn is a good actress. The series was often imaginatively cast. And the scenery is the scenery of my youth.
Strange, oddly coloured, often bleak but sometimes unexpectedly beautiful, old, waiting… The north east of England is another country.
I have always thought setting cops and robbers in the countryside changes the story before you start – distances have to be travelled, small communities are often indrawn against strangers (this was before the word police had become almost swearing), the weather has different impact. The stones and heaths may see but they don’t tell.
My parents did everything they could to make me look around me, to show me that though the town I was born in wasn’t an oil painting, some of the surrounding country was at worst interesting and at best dazzling. It’s too late to tell them how deeply those lessons have stayed with me, not just that countryside either. I should add that I am always interested in cinematography
and Vera is often terrifically well shot.
I am not going to tell you I have loved every minute of it – I haven’t. I’ve caught up with an episode I missed and thought “I could have left that.” But casting absorbed early on the lesson of people just being people instead of black people or disabled people and never lost it. Occasionally an outstanding script deals with things you and I know happen but we don’t often hear about – two men who loved each other from boyhood but never got further than dumb adoration, a distressed family with a father blamed when it was the wife who was doing the hitting and God knows what the teenage son saw or intuited. And I think a two hour script in a long running series is much more difficult than an hour and forty/forty five minutes to which such stories more usually incline.
Something on television? Really.