In my earlier review of Exile, I mentioned ITV’s big new crime detective hope Vera from the “Vera Stanhope” series of novels of Ann Cleeves starring Brenda Blethyn and rather off-handedly dismissed it by saying “I didn’t watch it last night as it really simply didn’t appeal to me.” I felt a bit mean about that, and so duly caught up with it via the ITV Player video on-demand catch-up service.
Erm … Nope, sorry: after watching the whole thing I can confirm that it really simply didn’t appeal to me. And it genuinely did come down to the central character not being believable to me as a Detective Chief Inspector. It really does feel as though they’ve tried to transplant a slightly younger Miss Marple into a police crime procedural, and the ensuing result wasn’t so much a clash of genre cultures as a head-on train wreck in terms of credibility.
The whole thing seemed like something of a wish-fulfilment exercise by the makers to show that a (rather clichéd) grumpy, frumpy housewife-type can also be a star detective in the police force. That makes it sounds like it’s a worthy blow for gender equality in some ways, but in fact it just seems to cheapen and undermine the trail blazers such as Prime Suspect, and the representation of the central character seems like some male colleagues’ crude, derogatory stereotypical view of what they glibly assume it’s like to work with an older woman boss.
I was even beginning to wonder whether this reaction to the character was a sign of some nasty strain of latent sexism on my part, so I was somewhat relieved while simultaneously horrified to read Radio Times’ Alison Graham write this about the next episode on Sunday: “she’s a straight talking woman in a difficult, male environment but I’m beginning to wonder if she’s menopausal and has forgotten to take her HRT.” Yikes. Not just me, then.
The only other character, DS Joe Ashworth (played by David Leon), is a handsome but blank cipher at this point, there to represent “normality” (he’s married with a pregnant wife and three kids, the picture of domesticity) and to hand Vera key bits of evidence to advance the plot on cue while predictably being the only one seemingly able to relate to and understand her. The plot turned out to be depressingly mundane and the suspect pool was a group of indistinguishable middle aged male bird watchers (the feathered variety!) that merged into one another. Frankly I couldn’t keep straight who everyone was, and consequently really didn’t care whodunnit.
On the plus side: the north east landscapes are gorgeously photographed, from an early scene which shows a row of houses dwarfed in the shadow of the iconic Angel of the North through brilliantly atmospheric seafront scenes and then a climactic showdown in the remains of an old fortress in beautifully shot scenes just made for tourism export. A word of caution though: the director should reign in the number of handheld sequences, and the kinetic tracking shots centred on the main character storming to or from some showdown though – those get old really quickly.
Suffice to say, there really wasn’t anything here that made me want to seek it out again in the future. But if it happens to be on, I’d be interested to see whether any of its edges get smoothed out over the course of four episodes.