Vera

Watching the detectives: Line of Duty; Follow the Money; The Team; Broadchurch; Vera

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Without question we’re living in the middle of a crime spree. Television crime, that is. While the streets have arguably never been safer in real life, the small screen is delivering a never-ending stream of criminal activity right into our living rooms – and it seems we just can’t get enough of it.

Here’s a look at five detective shows that are currently back on the evening schedules. Spoiler alert: they’re all really worth watching, providing that you can stomach the glut of nefarious deeds on display! Read the rest of this entry »

Vera – S1/E1

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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.

Exile – E1 and Vera – S1/E1

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What’s with the TV networks at the moment? Just as the summer’s on the horizon and the evenings are lighter, suddenly they’re digging out a load of drama goodies from their storeroom and flooding the schedules with new, original productions left, right and centre – after the drought of winter packed with unending reality shows and unedifying talent competitions.

So last night, we had the BBC’s Exile head to head with ITV’s big new crime detective hope Vera from the “Vera Stanhope” series of novels of Ann Cleeves. Interestingly, both had very Northern tones to them: Vera is set in Tyneside while Exile is based in Lancashire.

Exile is about Tom, a seemingly successful journalist in London, whose life and career suddenly implode for unspecified reasons (although sleeping with the boss’s wife probably didn’t help matters) forcing him to return home to his father and sister’s house in small-town Lancashire. His father is suffering from fairly advanced Alzheimer’s, immediately making you suspect this is going to be one of those worthy, emotionally-wrought issue dramas and as a result the type of show that I would normally pass.

What makes the difference here is the pedigree of the show: as Tom, John Simm is one of Britain’s best actors of his generation, while Jim Broadbent is similarly one of the greatest actors of his time, too. They’re backed by a lovely performance from Olivia Colman as Tom’s sister, and the whole story is the idea of Paul Abbott, best known now for Shameless but who also created one of my all time thriller/conspiracy mini-series, State of Play – which stared John Simm as a journalist, coincidentally.

Simm’s character here is far less heroic – in fact he’s as screwed up and self destructive as any one man could be, giving Simm a lot to work with here and he doesn’t let us down. Broadbent gets less to do by virtue of his character’s condition but then inevitably proceeds to steal any scene he’s in. It’s almost enough to pull you in, even if it were just a family drama about the effects of that horrible degenerative disease, or a story about returning to one’s childhood home and discovering all too well that “you can’t go home again” and that the past is another, very different country – moments almost everyone has been through at some point in their lives and for whom this drama will hence ring very true indeed.

But the extra dimension here is that Tom’s father was a journalist too, and seems to have been hiding a secret from the 80s that is now lost in the collapsing ruins of his failing memory. What is that secret, and what damage has it done to father and son over the intervening decades? It’s an intriguing enough premise to make the whole production spring off the screen in an unexpected way, and suggests that this might be one of the drama series of the year.

Part 2 is tonight and part 3 Tuesday at 9pm. Part 1 is still on iPlayer, of course.

As for Vera – I didn’t watch it last night as it really simply didn’t appeal to me. I might try it on catch-up video on-demand, but I’m not sure if I have the patience left for another police procedural right now – maybe that’s what makes Exile feel so refreshingly different at the moment. Most of all, though, from the brief sequences I saw, I just didn’t fundamentally believe in the central character: much though I like Brenda Blethyn as an actress, she just seems very odd for the role of a Detective Chief Inspector (not least the fact that at the outset of the series, she’s already five years older than mandatory police retirement age). Then again I’m sure Colombo was no more realistic or believable as an LAPD lieutenant, and that didn’t seem to hold him back too much over the years.