Crime pays for North East creator of TV's Vera
PUBLISHED: 17:04 03 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:30 20 February 2013
ITV1's Sunday night crime drama, Vera, is showcasing the North East landscape in all its splendour, and that makes Ann Cleeves, Vera's creator, very proud. Pauline Holt talks to the Whitley Bay author about her new on-screen success
Ann Cleeves is sitting on a squashy leather sofa, sipping dry white wine in a restaurant overlooking the picturesque harbour of Cullercoats in North Tyneside. Nobody would ever guess shes a woman with murder on her mind.
Modest, mild-mannered and quietly spoken are the sort of adjectives you reach for with Ann, yet she makes her living conjuring up crime scenes and the characters surrounding them.
Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, one of her most compelling creations, is currently being portrayed by the wonderful Brenda Blethyn in Vera, ITV1s new murder mystery drama series on Sunday nights.
While Vera is new to television, she is well known to Anns legions of devoted fans worldwide who were first introduced to the redoubtable female sleuth 12 years ago in her book, The Crow Trap.
Vera later appeared in Telling Tales, Hidden Depths and in Anns latest novel, Silent Voices, published by Macmillan in February.
So how did Vera come to be selected for stardom? Well, according to Ann, thats all thanks to the woman she dubs her fairy godmother, the TV producer Elaine Collins, and a visit to an Oxfam shop.
Ann recalls: In 1999 I was told the Crow Trap was going to be my breakthrough novel and then it was left out of the publishers catalogue. I think it was only reviewed by the Peterborough News.
Then a few years ago Elaine Collins went into an Oxfam Shop in Londons Crouch End where she found a second hand copy on the shelf. She was working for ITV and was looking for a strong female leading character.
Coincidentally, Elaines assistant, Ben, was a friend of Anns youngest daughter, Ruth, and Ruth became her mums unofficial go-between.
I kept getting these strange messages via Ruth, like: Ben wants to know if there are other Vera Stanhope books? Eventually, I just said, Tell Elaine to get in touch.
Glaswegian Elaine, who is married to The Thick of It actor, Peter Capaldi, came up to the North East and she and Ann immediately hit it off.
She developed the first episode and referred the idea of an adaptation to
I suggest it must take a leap of faith to submit your work for adaptation but Ann says she always felt secure in Elaines hands.
The spirit of the words and the stories is there in the television series and I think that is because of Elaine, Ann confides. Shes amazingly well read and is passionate about the stories.
Script writer, Paul Rutman, has also got under the skin of Anns characters in his adaptations and has written the fourth and final episode of the series, Little Lazarus, himself.
Meanwhile, if a second series is commissioned, there is now Silent Voices and a new Vera mystery, The Glass Room, due to be published next year, all ready to roll.
Success on this scale has been a long time coming for Ann, who is 56, with her first novel, A Bird in the Hand, hitting the bookshops way back in 1986.
It was the first shed completed and her then publisher, Century Hutchinson, gave her a 1,000 advance, which came in very handy as it meant she and husband, Tim, could finally afford to get their ailing car fixed.
Tim, 60, is an ornithologist who used to work for the RSPB. They first met at the bird observatory on Fair Isle in Scotland where Ann was working as a cook one summer after dropping out of university. It was one of a series of quirky temporary jobs Ann enjoyed which also included being a child care officer, womens refuge leader and an auxiliary coastguard - before she returned to college and trained to work in probation.
Ann likes to joke that she was attracted less by Tims hobby than the bottle of malt whisky she saw in his rucksack when she showed him to his room.
Soon after they married, Tim became warden of Hilbre, a tiny tidal island nature reserve in the Dee Estuary. They were the only residents, there was no mains electricity or water and access to the mainland was at low tide across the shore. If youre not heavily into birds - and Ann isnt - theres not much to do on Hilbre and that was when she began writing seriously.
Her first detective was an elderly naturalist, George Palmer-Jones and shes created others along the way - Inspector Ramsay and, most recently Jimmy Perez who, in 2006, won her the the biggest crime fiction award in the world, the Crime Writers Association Duncan Lawrie Dagger, presented for her book Raven Black.
That carried a 20,000 prize. Ann says: It was a huge amount of money that bought me a years writing time. Raven Black, the first in my Shetland Quartet, turned out to be the breakthrough book that everyone had said the Crow Trap would be.
While Ann has a real affinity with the Shetland Isles, she says if she could have chosen which of her detectives got their own series first, she would always have picked the bluff Northumbrian, Vera, as the North East really holds the key to her heart and shes delighted that the region she loves is being showcased to the rest of the nation through the TV series.
I hope it will make people in the South see the North East in a different light. Paul Rutman, the script writer, came and spent a bit of time up here and I showed him round the patch. I really think hes captured a sense of the place.
Its not a stereotypical view of the North. It does show middle class people in posh houses. And within the first two seconds you get the Angel and the Tyne Bridge - all those iconic things. The Crow Trap was filmed on Alnwick Moor at a time when the heather was out and you see Dunstanburgh, Newton and Holy Island.
Tim and Ann first moved up here, to the little village of Holywell, in Northumberland, in 1987, and it was here that they brought up their two girls, Sarah and Ruth.
It was just great for me as a writer because suddenly there was a place where I could write the kind of novel I wanted and be credible. In the South, if youre talking about a village, it is full of commuters, people who dont really know who their neighbours are. But in Holywell everyone knows each others business. I could write these almost Thirties-style detective novels but with a contemporary twist because there was a mix of people living there. In the North East people are just more engaged and theres a sense of community which is a very interesting thing to write about.
That surely accounts for why Vera is such a three-dimensional character and why she may well fill the vacuum left by Inspector Morse.
Shes a strong woman who isnt a conventional lead character. Shes not beautiful. In fact, shes a bit of a bag lady. Even Helen Mirren, though shes in her mid sixties, can still get a bloke and is still fit but Vera isnt any of those things. Shes single and quite sad, but played absolutely brilliantly by Brenda.
She captures that combination of strength and loneliness, that ambiguity about being single.
Ann was delighted ITV chose Brenda for the lead. Brenda is such a sweetie. She came to my book launch (of Silent Voices) in London and stayed until everyone had left, talking to everyone you wanted her to talk to. Shes lovely. She loves crime fiction and mysteries. She does crosswords and is a great puzzler. Shes said shes turning down more work in the hope of doing more of Vera and keeps telling me to write more books. Shes just so positive and lovely.
Originally from Ramsgate, Brendas had to work hard on her Northern accent. Ann says: She was asked at a press conference how she perfected her Geordie accent and she said, I just listen to Cheryl Cole. Well, what a great soundbite. The tabloids loved that.
But she actually went to loads of shops in Newcastle and sat in cafes listening and picking up the dialect. David Leon, who plays her sergeant, Joe Ashworth, helped her too because hes from up here.
Anns devotion to the North is especially touching as she was born a Southerner, in Hereford, and spent her early life in North Devon, where her dad was the village schoolmaster.
She puts her love of books and writing down to her parents, both great readers and her grandfather, a Welsh miner. I can remember him telling me stories and just encouraging me to think about the way stories were made. I also remember going to the library when I was really young and that buzz of excitement when there was a book you hadnt read before.
Despite the success of the TV series, Ann is not about to rest on her laurels. Writing is such a precarious business. Ive had friends whove had things adapted into one series and its never happened again and they go back to writing. You just cant think, Oh, this is it, I have a meal ticket for life, because it doesnt work that way.
And thankfully the discipline of writing is no hardship to her. It was always
indulgence time - it still is. I get so cross with writers who moan about writing.
Let me tell you, its a lot easier than a lot of jobs. If you think this is hard, go and be a probation officer in Birkenhead. Thats tough! n
To learn more about Ann go to www.anncleeves.com