We Go Behind the Scenes as Vera Returns for a 13th Series
Award-winning author Ann Cleeves’ much-loved character DCI Vera Stanhope has been brought to life by award-winning actress Brenda Blethyn, and her devoted fans have been hooked on 12 series of ITV’s crime drama Vera. Never straying far from our beloved region, the series has become something of a tour of the North East and crowds follow Brenda and the crew in droves throughout filming – and that’s very much been the case for the upcoming series.
Locations manager Andrew Edwards is North East born-and-bred, having lived in the region all his life. ‘Vera is the biggest job going locally,’ he says. ‘So it’s certainly desirable in that regard.’ He joined the crew around series nine in a slightly more junior role. ‘This is the pinnacle of film production in the North East at the moment. It’s that sort of desire to work on a show of this calibre, whilst working locally.’
Andrew’s role as locations manager is always varied. ‘In the first instance it’s getting the episode script, which won’t be the final script but certainly a working draft, and it’s about reading it, understanding it and breaking it down,’ he says. ‘Ultimately, my responsibility is then finding the locations and overseeing the legal and logistical considerations that come with that. Sometimes it’s very straightforward, but other times it’s complex and nuanced, especially if we’re dealing with larger organisations like the Port of Tyne or the local authority.
‘What I enjoy most about what I do is, very simply, the North East. I’m from here, and while I enjoy the show and really enjoy being a part of the show (and it’s something to be very proud of), I think working in the North East, getting to know areas better and meeting people is it. On this series alone I think I’ve met and got to know around 300 people just in the course of the three episodes. You have to be a people person. The real achievement is delivering an episode and then ultimately delivering a series. It’s quite a colossal undertaking. It means getting to work in the different landscapes (rural, urban, coastal) and overcoming the different challenges you face in each of those, and then of course there’s the bespoke nature of each location.’
The three new feature-length episodes see the return of Newcastle-born actor and director David Leon as Joe Ashworth, who featured in series one to four. ‘When it was first announced internally, I think we all recognised that that was quite a good move,’ says Andrew. ‘Here we are at series 13 and we’re trying to keep it fresh and in some ways returning to an old character like that is a good idea. The social media reaction from fans spoke for itself really!’
Each episode is very varied. ‘The core focus of each episode is very different, so each one has its own unique feel,’ Andrew explains. ‘We’re definitely covering the length and breadth of the region on this one.’ In the opening episode, titled Fast Love, DCI Vera Stanhope is called to a quiet country lane where a young man has been found dead following a collision with a car. Vera discovers that the victim is a popular market trader and heads down to his pitch to start her investigation. ‘Each episode has a core location. The first episode was very much based in Hexham town centre, and we were there for just over a week (and also at Hagg Bank Bridge in Wylam, which is just down the road). Visually I think it’s going to be really interesting. Hexham is beautiful anyway and I think to put that on film is going to be incredible.’
Hexham was an obvious choice for episode one. ‘Sometimes you read the script and it just leaps out at you,’ says Andrew. ‘Sometimes in the writing process, right from the start, the executive producers working on the script have a location in mind. Our executive producer is local and so knows a lot of the area anyway so when he’s developing a script, he often has a place in mind. Hexham is an example of that. The only other big location we might have considered would have been Alnwick, but he wanted to set it in Hexham so we went to see if we could make it work, and we could. It’s a combination of what fits the visual you’re looking for. You want to get into the head of a character – where might this person live and why do they live there? What car do they drive and why? Where do they work and what does their workplace look like? It’s about really getting into the nitty gritty of the demographic of the character, and their place in the world. That’s normally a good place to start.’
Filming in such locations doesn’t come without its challenges though. The crew had to engage with traders and essentially ask them not to trade, while making sure they were looked after. ‘Me and my team speak to all of them and make sure that hopefully everyone is happy, but at the very least they have a line of communication with us if there are any problems,’ Andrew says. ‘Wider still, we work with the local authority first of all for general permission to be in the area and also things like parking, which in Hexham is quite tight! Beyond that, it’s security considerations as well as the actual filming side of things.’
Originally from Stamfordham, Andrew knows Hexham well. ‘Getting to work in and around Hexham at this sort of level was a real treat. Egger is a timber factory that sits on the edge of the town and as children we’d know it as the cloud maker because it’s got a big chimney which shoots steam into the sky. I’ve driven past it countless times. A wood chip plant was referenced in the script and I thought “this is Egger”. We got ahold of the guys there to get inside to photograph and ultimately work on a scene in there. It’s colossal. Massive, very clean and very well presented. Safety is such a big deal for them but they were so accommodating to us, and getting to film in a location like that was one of the crown jewels locally for me. What was really nice was we obviously came to an understanding about compensation for them and they actually just donated it straight to a local charity. They recognised us, our position in the North East, and their position in the North East, so I think in that regard it really demonstrates just how good filming can be for a local community.’
The big location in the second episode was around a railway track. ‘It may not surprise you but filming on a railway track is almost impossible to do,’ Andrew explains. ‘Network Rail are understandably very safety conscious and it’s very difficult to make that work. We ended up looking at heritage railway sites around the North East and unfortunately had to break away just a little further and ended up in Wensleydale.
‘The big location for the third episode was Redcar. We were right down on the promenade in the middle of August, the summer holidays, and we closed a chunk of the road every day. To make that work we actually had to write to the Secretary of State for approval because the road had been closed one too many times this year already. There were quite clear stipulations on how we could and couldn’t do it and sure enough we attracted crowds of hundreds at any given moment! It’s really funny. I’ve worked on some of the biggest productions in the world and I’ve never been papped so much in my life as I have on Vera. The local desire for it is so strong.’
For one of the episodes, scenes were set on a hospital ward, which had its own challenges. ‘Hospitals are of course quite tricky to film in because what’s going on in there is far more important than what we’re doing,’ says Andrew. ‘While we have several hospitals in the North East and most of them are actually very approachable and open to filming, sometimes our requirements are just too great – it’s not that they don’t want to help, it’s that they physically can’t because of the risk to their day-to-day operations. We have a great relationship with the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Gateshead and we were planning on using one of their wards but unfortunately the ward was too small and it wasn’t quite right for us, so we realised in that moment that we probably weren’t going to be able to film the scene in a hospital at all. We could still use the front of the hospital, but the ward scene ended up being shot at the University of Sunderland, which has a trainee ward which we were able to have full control over. There was also a stairwell scene which we ended up shooting in Northumbria University, and an underground car park which we ended up using Newcastle Civic Centre for. Because of necessity and the way the scene may be blocked and the visual aspect, one location could actually be four or five places. Each of those then have their own set of requirements and all the negotiations that come with it. That was quite a challenge!’
Andrew is always impressed by the fans’ reaction to the show, and its popularity doesn’t seem to be dying down. ‘For series 13 of a police drama to still pull in the audiences that it does is incredible,’ he admits. ‘It’s obviously doing something right. I’m obviously hoping they’ll react positively, but I’d be stunned if they didn’t because the quality of what we’re putting out there is consistent as ever. It’s simple really – it’s the perfect storm of a tried and tested TV formula. The UK is very good at producing crime dramas. Be it Inspector Morse, A Touch of Frost, Taggart; Vera is another show that’s a part of that family. Obviously we have Brenda too – an Oscar-nominated national treasure with a huge following. People are very interested in her. And it’s the locations. Vera is absolutely the flagship show of the North East right now. It’s really championing the North East.’
What does the future hold for Vera? ‘Well,’ says Andrew, ‘it’s impossible to say at this stage. I don’t mean to be coy, but we really don’t know!’ he adds. ‘Last year, we did episode 50 and I thought (and I think everyone thought) that’s it! What a great way to wrap it up. Yet here we are another series later. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.’