Shakespearean Veracity in “Vera”: the Working Class Cop Show from Bloody England

Still from “Vera.”

“I’ll be gone in a tic,” Vera Stanhope says and means she’ll soon scram and be out of the way. She uses words and expressions like “me backside,” instead of “my backside” and “dodgy” rather than “sketchy,” which seems to be the preferred American word to describe a lowlife character. Time and again, Vera wages psychological warfare with detainees she suspects of committing crimes, exclaiming, “Help me!” as though she wants them to feel sorry for her, turn state’s evidence and fess up. “DCI Vera Stanhope,” she barks, flashing her badge, though not all the time. Sometimes, she barges in, pokes around and asks probing questions and finds telling pieces of evidence. There’s no privacy in the world depicted in this series. The cops can and do know everything.

In the UK, “DCI” is the abbreviation for Detective Chief Inspector. In other words, Vera Stanhope is the boss, and don’t you forget it. She leads the Northumberland & City Police, a fictitious place somewhere in the north of England, West of the North Sea and east of Manchester. London doesn’t figure on the series, nor do Cambridge and Oxford. But “Vera,” as the show is called, reveals the “Other England,” or the “Real England,” as one might describe it, that doesn’t usually appear on the BBC and isn’t debated in Parliament. Still, you can count on it for veracity. It reminded me of the north of England I knew and loved when I was a student there years ago. When Vera asks a woman if she stayed in touch with her brother after he left home, she says, “Down in London you don’t really keep in touch.” The society is coming apart at the seams. DCI Stanhope connects the dots.

Available on many devices, including Netflix, “Vera” is British noir, and hardboiled in the manner of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Prime Minister Boris Johnson would call it a smear on the British national character. After all, most of the ordinary Brits who appear in the series don’t like the police, “the coppers,” and they’re all too willing to lie to them. At 93, Queen Elizabeth might not know of its existence. She has other pressing matters on her mind, though she could learn a lot about her “subjects” from watching the show, now in its 10th season and with each episode running 90 minutes: plenty of time to peel back the layers, dig deeply, explore all the angles and get the suspects to commit perjury and otherwise trip themselves up.

Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn) doesn’t carry a gun, but she carries the series with her name, that was first broadcast on ITV in England and that’s now available on DVDs. Wikipedia says that Blethyn is “known for her portrayals of working-class women.” “Vera” will amplify that reputation. Not surprisingly, given the excellent acting, “Vera” is the most popular DVD (with adults) at my local library. British TV critics have reviewed it, and, while some have liked it begrudgingly, they have not commented on its originality. Maybe “Vera” cuts too close to the bone. Maybe it presents aspects about England, now supposedly free from Europe that the English don’t want to face in the brave new Boris Johnson era. Indeed “Vera” holds a mirror up to England and reveals a society mired in crime, corruption and cover-ups. The writers, producers and directors might be exaggerating to make their baby intensely dramatic, but in its essentials it exudes a sense of veracity.

The show offers chase scenes, but they’re usually on foot. Guns are sometimes fired and people are wounded and killed, but for the most part there are no big explosions of the kind that litter U.S. TV cop shows. What a relief that is! And it’s exciting to have a rather common looking woman as the lead investigator who doesn’t speak the King’s English.

No one recommended “Vera” to me. I came upon the first DVD in the series while browsing the shelves in my local library, and, though the title and the image of the detective on the front cover didn’t leap out and grab me by the throat, they intrigued me enough to borrow it and then to go on borrowing. I have had to put my name on a waiting list, but I have found that the wait has been worth it.

The first season was shaky, the narrative lines sometimes confusing and the characters not as clearly delineated, as I would have liked. But there was enough friction there for me to keep coming back for more. DCI Vera Stanhope has some things in common with other TV cops, including a sense of curiosity and sheer doggedness, but she also strikes out on her own and redefines the role of the detective chief investigator. As a British friend of mine says: “she’s real.”

Almost everything about Vera herself is big: body, voice and mind, which works overtime, and at home as well as at the office. She almost always wears a coat, hat and scarf, and while I know I said she has a big body, you never see it, not even when she’s alone in her own house, which she inherited from her father, and hitting the bottle.

A loner obsessed with her work, she exudes a certain Shakespearean ethos. The Bard himself would find her as intriguing as, say, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, though there’s nothing royal or aristocratic about her. The episode titled “Dark Road” is as close to Shakespearean tragedy as 21st century TV can be, with an evil villain who’s “a controlling nut freak.”

Vera is thoroughly working class and has grown up around enough tough guys not to be intimidated by them or their rough language. Everyone in the cast of characters, including Vera herself, has a distinct accent. Listening to each and every one of them talk, provides a kind of amplified, authentic tape-recording of British English as it’s spoken today.

The cast of characters is multicultural and reflects British society today so much so that it seems at times to be intentionally sociological. Each episode carves out its own territory and explores it ruthlessly, sometimes using montage and sometimes following three or four story lines at the same time. “Vera” demands close attention, but that’s not hard to do, especially when the setting is the spectacular moors, a remote farm with stone barns, a thicket and the rugged coast. Indeed, the show is a feast for the eyes as well as a riot of the spoken word. You might watch “Vera,” go British for a night or two in the comfort of your own home and pray the Brits don’t allow Boris Johnson and his crew to muck up England more than they already have. If they do, send Vera on the case. She’s incorruptible.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.