Ann Cleeves: TV Adaptations of Vera and the Shetland series

Ann Cleeves: TV Adaptations of Vera and the Shetland series

Some time later Elaine picked up the rights to my Shetland novels. She went on to produce the early series of VERA and to executive-produce both shows. A third series of SHETLAND begins on January 15th and VERA will be back on our screens soon after. Although Elaine has moved on to a new role with the BBC, I still think of her as my fairy godmother.

The choice of Brenda Blethyn to play Vera was inspired. She’s a brilliant actor with a wicked sense of humour and a deep commitment to the character. She does the witty and malicious put-downs in a way that shows both her compassion and authority. She stays true to the Vera of the books while making the character very much her own. When people say: ‘Oh, I do love Vera!’ they mean they love Brenda’s Vera and I’m delighted by that. If people didn’t enjoy the show they wouldn’t be tempted to return to the books.

Of course the stories change when they’re adapted for the screen. Television drama is very different from a novel, and even though VERA has a generous two hour slot, plot lines have to be dropped and characters cut. I’m quite relaxed about the changes – even when the scriptwriter decides to choose a different murderer! Partly that’s because I trust the team that makes both shows, but partly it’s because I’ve never been proprietorial about the books. Once they’re published I don’t feel that they belong to me. They belong to the readers, who bring their own imagination, history and prejudices to the story. The pictures the reader has in her head will be very different from the ones I have in mine. Seeing a director’s take on the novel on screen just makes that process more concrete.

I’m very pleased that I don’t have any creative influence on the shows. This way I have all the fun and none of the responsibility. I usually meet the scriptwriters when they do their reccies – whether that’s in Shetland or Northumberland. I can point them in the direction of places they might not have considered as settings for original stories and introduce them to people who might be useful to them. When filming starts I’m always made to feel welcome on set, but my main objective there is not to get in the way. The stars of both shows are immensely generous with their time; I’ve enjoyed appearing with Brenda at the Edinburgh Book Festival and the Harrogate Crime-Writing Festival and Douglas Henshall made the trek north recently to appear as a special guest at Shetland Noir.

But on Friday, when SHETLAND is aired on BBC1, I’ll be watching like any other viewer, losing myself in the story. And it’ll be just the same when VERA is on ITV a few weeks later. Even when the adaptation of The Moth Catcher is broadcast as episode three, I’ll be marvelling at Brenda’s portrayal of a strong, stubborn woman who’s superb at her job. It won’t feel as if it has very much to do with me. That’s the magic of good television.