TV Interview: Phil Hunter – Vera, Or Restrictions And Renewal

February 9, 2022

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Season 11 of Vera is now available for streaming on Britbox. Brenda Blethyn returns in the role of DCI  Vera Stanhope. Heading up a team at Northumberland and City Police, Vera is obsessive about her  work and dogged in her desire to uncover the truth at the heart of each case she  leads. Unconventional and unglamorous maybe, but Vera has a wry sense of humour and faces the world with caustic wit, guile and courage. Phil Hunter is the show’s executive producer.


The news that Vera would return was a real morale boost for  fans. Did it feel like that to you?

Absolutely, a huge boost. It was something we had been working on for months. The day we were signed off to say we could start filming two new episodes with  four more to come was overwhelming. You are in a situation where this matters  so much to the 70-strong crew and all of the talent involved in that process, and alongside that, I was surrounded by the desire to deliver the show to the fans. Vera has such a loyal following. We wanted to bring new content to the screen and also  put people back into work after a long industry shutdown. It’s a lot about  content creation but, it’s also about people’s jobs. There was overwhelming relief and joy when I could ring my producer and Brenda and say, “If you’re still up for it, we’re on.” It was amazing. We were going ahead with the confidence that we had everything in place to keep everybody safe. And the hope is we’ve been able to shoot shows that everyone will appreciate when they hit the screens. Restarting the show has meant so much to so many people. Regionally, there was a great response from the fans in the North East. It was a real good news announcement and a positive message that we could come back  and film safely and within the government guidelines. It’s not just about protecting the cast and crew, but also the general public in the North East and the location owners we work with. This was a success story but it had to come with the  reassurance we were doing it in a safe way.


What were the practicalities of filming under new restrictions?

One of the things we’ve had to do is allow more time. We shoot an episode over 28 days during Covid versus the usual 25 days in normal times. We’ve allowed more time for people to put the show together. We’ve also got a dedicated Covid team who oversee all of the decisions we make. The protocols we put in place are far-reaching. All in line with government and industry guidance and also ITV’s health and safety department. But specifically, at a production level, we set these  guidelines in motion for every single contributor to take responsibility for their  own wellbeing. We ask people to protect themselves then look after their colleagues and ultimately look after the viability of the show continuing. That involved daily self-declarations in terms of any symptoms. You need to have  a digital green pass and you don’t turn up to set unless you have one. A lot of  measures were put in place on the shoot and within the production office itself  including daily temperature checks with two different kinds of measures – a contactless and a contact measurement. All departments of the crew were put in cohorts. So, you reduce the numbers on set. And you don’t have inter-departments working on set any more, you have them in different shifts to get everything organised. We were choosing bigger locations so the population within a set at any one time was within the guidelines and within safe parameters. And then we had really strong messaging on hygiene and distancing and the use of PPE, including face coverings, which in most cases involved both masks and visors. In terms of monitoring it all, we had a specific track and trace system if anyone presented any symptoms and a risk-based approach to testing. Everyone played their part diligently sticking to these protocols but obviously we were lucky as well. We could control the risk in the workplace, but you could go out one day  and catch it in a supermarket. There’s no guarantee. Importantly, we were able to  keep the show running and also reassure everyone they were coming to work in a  safe environment. We don’t get the best from anybody if they turn up to work and  feel compromised in any way. And there’s nothing more compromising than  feeling like your health is at risk. That goes right through from the crew to the cast. The way we worked with the cast was looked at in great detail. We had a specific  plan which made sure we kept our cast two metres apart in as many scenarios as  possible; except that is with Brenda and Kenny Doughty, who plays DS Aiden Healy. They worked in a close contact cohort because they are in so many scenes  together and ultimately have to sit in the Land Rover together. The scenes couldn’t function without the two of them being in a close contact cohort. But everywhere else, we were making sure that Brenda was kept at a distance from all of the technicians and the guest cast who formed their own close contact cohorts. There was use of careful blocking, but also, we adopted some green  screen shooting. For example, we shot interview room scenes in two halves so the artists were never breaching that two-metre distancing. Again, it’s just to make  sure that when everyone is on set they can feel confident they are as safe as they  can be. Vera’s Land Rover is regularly sanitised. And from a costume and make-up perspective, actors are dressing themselves and doing their own hair and make-up wherever possible. The department heads, supervisors and make-up artists were then allowed limited time for checks and adjustments where masks and visors are used by the crew. Credit goes to everybody who has supported this new way of working. We  wouldn’t have been able to continue if people hadn’t adopted that.


Did you have to make many script changes?

One of the benefits of the way the show is constructed is that a lot of it is shot outdoors. Vera is a character who is almost carved from the rock of  Northumberland and likes to be outside. A lot of the script didn’t need a great deal of alteration. It was how the director blocks the scenes and how Brenda  interacts with the rest of the cast that was important. Where it becomes a bit more problematic is within the domestic settings. I know a  lot of shows have been struggling with this, because you need the team to keep their distance. We choose bigger locations and bigger houses than we would normally choose, so you have enough space for technicians and the artists to work in the room safely. Then, if there is a smaller space required, like a flat, we’ve been building sets for those smaller locations. While it appears to be small on camera, we’ve actually got removable walls so you can operate safely. There were also times when I would encourage writers to re-stage scenes outside where we could. In terms of some of the action where maybe Vera would make physical contact with a guest artist, you would take that away. Something like putting a hand on a  shoulder. That would be removed. But generally speaking, if you watch any episode of Vera, the character will normally give a respectful distance when she is  questioning somebody. It actually wasn’t too difficult to make that happen. It was more of an operational challenge than an editorial one.


The North East public loves to try and spot Vera during filming and sometimes  gathers to watch. Does that cause you any problems?

Pre-pandemic, there were times when we’d be spotted on location and we would get an enormous number of people turning up, including families with their kids, to stand on the sidelines and watch. Brenda and the rest of the cast really value  this support. The love the region’s fans have for Vera is wonderful. It doesn’t really cause a problem in terms of the attention it gives us, as long as the crowd  stays out of shot and of course quiet during each take. Seeing people’s enthusiasm for the show is a lovely thing. We have had to be a little more cautious during the pandemic. When running a Covid-compliant shoot and filming during lockdown, we couldn’t be responsible for  encouraging gatherings that shouldn’t be happening. Again, that’s about wanting  to keep people safe. It doesn’t cause too many problems, but we do need people to keep their distance from each other and from the unit.


What is it like working with Brenda Blethyn?

It’s a huge privilege to be working with such an incredibly talented actress. Look at her career. It’s phenomenal. When you start working with Brenda, you soon appreciate not only how complex and brilliant her performance is, but also the amount of preparation and care that goes into that. Brenda will finish a 12-hour day of filming and go back that night to learn her script for the next couple of days, it’s non-stop for her. It’s wonderful to  work with an actress with such a strong work ethic, always looking to bring refinement and deeper understanding to the script. Brenda immerses herself in every episode and wants to know the story and the investigation forensically. For me, it’s such a joy to have a lead actor who challenges the script and has a constant dialogue with the director, with the editorial team and at times with the writers. This means there is no part of that script or investigation Brenda’s not fully immersed in. You can see that in the way that translates on screen. Every day when I watch the rushes – having watched thousands and thousands of hours of Brenda being Vera – there is still something  that takes me by surprise in terms of the nuance and how she renders her character. And she makes me laugh, her warmth and humour between takes is wonderful and brings a smile to everyone’s faces. Brenda knows and loves that character better than anyone else and she grapples with the material, which means there are no questions unanswered before she steps on set and can deliver that performance.


It must be a huge responsibility for her to lead such a major production?

Brenda takes that responsibility very graciously. Filming involves long days over a long period of time. It is hard work. But what comes shining through alongside that hard work is a wonderful sense of humour and her love for the show and the crew. Everyone who works on the show ends up loving it just as much and that’s why you get the camaraderie we have. We enjoy the commitment of a lot of people coming back year on year because they love Brenda and the  show. That’s quite intoxicating as well; when you work on something that has so much  enjoyment at the heart of it. I always hope that when people see the show go out they can be proud of what they have achieved and have enjoyed it along the way, as well as putting in the hours.


How long does it take to develop a script until it is ready to film?

From an original idea it’s about six to eight months until a script is ready to film. The quickest you can do it from an idea to screen is four months, but you are slightly flying by the seat of your pants there, because they are quite weighty scripts – 100 to 110 pages. We spend about three months just working on the idea and the storyline and the writers don’t go to script until we have literally  hammered out every detail of that plot and the storyline. The hope is that this unlocks an enjoyable writing experience and avoids having to solve any major problems once the script is written. The key element is to make sure we do early development with all of these ideas because they take time to craft and get right. To make sure the scripts are polished up and they are the best version of the story that the writer wants to tell before we hand it over to production and of course to Brenda.


The relationship between Vera and DS Aiden Healy is central to the drama.  What does Kenny Doughty, who plays Aiden, bring to that?

Kenny plays a crucial role, second in command to such a formidable DCI. Kenny is wonderful. DS Aiden Healy has to be that constant for Vera, no matter what mood she is in. She is completely wedded to the job, whereas he’s got a more complex domestic life with his wife and his child. But Vera expects the same discipline and support from him, day in, day out. Vera has plenty of heart, and she will of course look out for him and all of her team. But she expects Aiden to be there and on the ball. Kenny pulls that off from an actor’s point of view brilliantly. It’s great to see how their relationship has developed on screen. We pulled together a promo reel for the 10-year celebration screening and we picked out one of Kenny’s early episodes when there was a really bumpy start to this relationship with his new DCI. We’ve watched their relationship flourish to where it is now, both professionally and emotionally. You can see Aiden really cares about Vera. There are times he has to call her judgement into question, all in the name of protecting her. And as a  result of their bond, there are moments when Vera lets that in. Vera is formidable, and will take on anything and anyone. But there are times when she has moments  of vulnerability. When you see that and how Aiden humbly supports her, it’s great, compared to the young DS who felt like he was just getting short shrift all of  the time to earn his stripes. It’s been a lovely character journey to witness.


Vera is renowned for giving young actors their first screen break. Can you tell  us about that?

As a show we are keen to bring in a range of acting talent both established and younger emerging talent. There are plenty of actors who have come through the show and gone on to lead their own series. It’s lovely to have been part of that  journey. Brenda is keen to support and develop young talent too. The support Brenda  shows doesn’t stop at helping provide the opportunity. Once the actors arrive on set, she is incredibly generous in terms of supporting and nurturing young talent; actors who may be a bit nervous because they’re on their first shoot or because they are working with an actor with so much experience. The level of support and encouragement Brenda gives actors on set is a wonderful thing.


Vera has an ‘Albert’ sustainable production certification. What does that  mean?

Albert is an environmental organisation which aims to encourage the TV and film  industry to reduce waste and its carbon footprint. Like many shows, Vera has been  working with this system for a number of years. It’s all about environmental measures. Anything we can do to minimise our environmental impact; to ensure as much efficiency as we can to minimise waste. It always used to horrify me how much paper productions used to get through,  from call sheets to scripts. Multiple copies. You were producing 40 scripts at 100  pages a time. For a number of years now, scripts and all production memos have been paperless. Today iPads and PDFs are the way to go and most people are reading all the documents we distribute on their phones or their devices. Anything where we can be sustainable and less wasteful: that goes right through from the types of cups we use for our coffee to the vehicles we use. We try to use more  economical vehicles, and hybrids where possible. To get that accreditation you  have to submit a report and there are specific things you have to have achieved on the show. Every series is vetted.


Vera’s studio base in Wallsend is another success story. Can you tell us about  that?

Vera is based in one of the buildings near the old Swan Hunter shipyard in Wallsend on the banks of the Tyne. In terms of the standing sets, we have the police station interior there, the mortuary and the interior of Vera’s cottage. The police station is the whole width of the building. We take the props out, but it’s standing all the time. The mortuary is up on the first floor. CID is on the ground  floor. And then the interior of Vera’s cottage has moved about a bit. We put it up and then take it back down again. It’s whichever space we can fit it into. The history and importance of that site is incredible, famous not only for the 19th and 20th Century shipbuilding industry that thrived there, it also sits near the site of the Segedunum Roman fort that lay at the end of Hadrian’s Wall. One coincidence for me is that some 30 years ago, my mum started a job with North  Tyneside Council in the building our sets occupy. She was based on the floor where our mortuary set is. My mother-in-law’s partner trained as a draughtsman in that building as well. So, I have a couple of links to it. We don’t show it on screen because it’s not part of the set, but as you go in  through the door of that building, it’s got a beautiful curved elevation at each end. And when you step inside, it has wonderful aluminum bannisters designed by the  draughtsman on each side with a fish curled up at the bottom. It’s obvious that even down to the building they worked in, they took pride in its design. It’s lovely to be surrounded by that history. We rent that space and retain it series to series because we need to leave things in place. I love the fact the building has found a  new use providing work today, albeit in a different way. Our locations in the first new episode of series 11 include the Shields Ferry from South Shields to North Shields and the Collingwood Monument in Tynemouth. We also got back up to Holy Island where we shoot the exterior of Vera’s cottage. There are some shots across the causeway in episode one that are just mesmerising. It looks so beautiful.

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