Meet: Brenda Blethyn
PUBLISHED: 20:02 16 May 2015 | UPDATED: 20:02 16 May 2015
The star of 'Vera' discusses her love for her childhood home of Ramsgate and her enduring work ethic
Actress Brenda Blethyn keeps audiences across the UK guessing in her role as fearsome, if frumpy, detective Vera.
She’s developed a cult fan base as the no-nonsense Geordie heroine of the series, but outside of the acting world, Blethyn is loyal to her Ramsgate roots.
Raised in the east Kent town, the youngest of nine siblings, Blethyn looks back fondly on her working-class childhood, although reveals there were times when the family struggled.
“We were poor. But we didn’t know we were poor because we were rich in lots of things. Not in material things, but in other, more important things,” she says.
“Mum and Dad had plenty of time for us; we had to work hard and they were quite strict, we might get reprimanded and get a clout, but in equal measure we got lots of loving, cuddles and lots of fun and games.”
Britain’s modern consumer mentality doesn’t sit well with the actress. “We were taught to appreciate the things you’ve got and not lament too much the things you haven’t got, or the things that you can’t have. If it’s something you can aspire to, then save up and get it. I’m not an advocate of this instant gratification,” she adds.
Blethyn reflects on how much Ramsgate has changed since her childhood days by the sea. “When I was growing up it was a very popular holiday destination for Londoners and in the summer it would be packed with tourists and visitors.
“But then came the advent of package holidays. Freddie Laker introduced cheap flights to Spain and suddenly everyone started going on package holidays abroad.
“Britain’s little seaside resorts declined in popularity. But they are just now rising from the ashes, and Ramsgate is where I like to be. It’s starting to blossom again and looking really nice at the moment.”
So nice, in fact, that Blethyn is looking to return to her roots for good. Today, she divides her time between South London and Kent, juggling her personal and professional lives. “I have a home in Ramsgate and I plan to relocate there permanently. It’s so lovely waking up in the morning to the sea. It’s why I love being up north filming Vera as well, all those lovely Northumberland seascapes. I love it.”
After leaving school, Blethyn headed straight into the working world, studying at technical college and devoting 10 years to bookkeeping. It was only after the break up of her first marriage that she decided to pursue her creative talents at a professional level, taking her amateur dramatics skills to the Guildford School of Drama.
Since graduating in the mid-1970s, Blethyn has dipped between the genres and positioned herself within the Royal National Theatre, appearing in everything from The Fruits of Enlightenment to The Passion. Her stage work has taken her to Broadway and beyond, while her cinematic debut came in 1990’s The Witches.
She’s played against such Hollywood heavyweights as Hilary Swank, but is as down to earth as her current character Vera in real life – although she insists they’re very different. The series, an adaptation of Ann Cleeve’s detective novels, has been a great success, and Brenda tries to pin down the reason behind its broad appeal.
“There’s lots of detective shows on at the moment, there seems to be a real thirst for them. But as far as Vera goes, I think it’s because she is so ordinary,” says Blethyn.
“A lot of people can relate to her; here is this ordinary woman, not fashion conscious, nor dependent, not wearing lipstick and false lashes, but one who is demanding the respect of her team in a very responsible job.
“There might be a lady who looks just like Vera sitting at home who gets a bit of jip from everybody, but might get taken a bit more seriously after watching this.”
The latest instalment of Vera, series five on ITV, saw Blethyn say goodbye to her working partner, DS Joe Ashworth, played by David Leon. She admits she misses him on set but is too busy to get distracted.
“Because I’m learning the next scene for the next set up. So I’m very, very busy so there’s not time to sit and dwell on it, and DC Kenny Doughty (played by Jon Morrison) is a very welcome addition.”
As grounded as ever, when we confide that Leon called Blethyn ‘a national treasure’, she laughs.
“He’s probably taking the p*ss and probably meant treasure as in ‘rusty and dug up’!” But Blethyn is far from rusty. Having come so far in the notoriously tricky world of acting – and with a 2003 OBE to prove it – does she have any professional ambitions still left to achieve?
“I’m always happy with where I am. My glass is always half full. I’ve never had any ambition, ever,” she declares.
It turns out Blethyn approaches everything with a relaxed, if hands-on, attitude. “I just did the thing that every girl did when I left school. I went to a commercial college to learn shorthand and typing and I was a secretary for 10 years before I even went to drama school. And that was by accident.”
In fact, Blethyn adds that if she wasn’t doing this job, she’d simply be doing another. “I’d do anything. I’d clean houses, I wouldn’t mind,” she shrugs. “That would be good exercise, actually.
“As long as I earn it honestly I wouldn’t mind what I do. I was a secretary and I was perfectly happy. I enjoy my work and I am lucky to be doing it. There are plenty of people who could be playing this part, but they’re not. I am.”
Blethyn has two goals: to make a permanent move back to her coastal roots, and to work as much as possible.
So that could spell plenty more episodes of Vera to come then? “If I’m not in a zimmer, then yes!” she laughs. n