Saturday, August 29, 2015

Vera: “The Deer Hunters” (Independent Television Service/American Public Television, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I got back just in time to watch Vera, the latest episode (at least for U.S. distribution) of this quite interesting British policier featuring veteran actress Brenda Blethyn as Vera Stanhope, head of the local police in Northumberland in the moor country towards the north of England. The episode was called “The Deer Hunters” and had one of those typically convoluted British mystery plots in which the murder victim — shown in the opening scenes already dead but appearing “live” in flashbacks — is Shane Thurgood, who recently moved back to his native village after a checkered career in which he published a well-received first novel, Queen Mab’s Jest, which was evidently autobiographical (it contained a dedication, “For Whom It Did Concern”), but typically got blocked on his second one and left behind only a file on his laptop and two notebooks full of virtually incomprehensible handwriting apparently containing the material for his sequel. All this is happening on the Thurgood family’s ancestral property and the adjacent holdings of the Peyton family, headed by Will (Richard Dillane) and his wife Clara (Lisa Kay), who are keeping up the place by hosting “stalking” tours in which hunters are allowed to chase after the deer on their lands but not kill them — though, not surprisingly, the large number of deer around have attracted poachers who do want to kill them. The Peytons’ prize attraction is a mystery stag whom they refer to in their advertising posters as “The Emperor Hadrian” (for those of you less up on Roman imperial history, the real Emperor Hadrian was the one who in the first century C.E. finally conquered the British Isles for Rome after previous attempts, including Julius Caesar’s, had failed) though the Peytons, recognizing how pretentious a name that is for a deer, refer to him as “Brian.”

Suspicion falls first on the Peytons’ gamekeeper Allen Barnes (Clive Russell) and his two daughters, one of whom is Clara Peyton and the other is a single woman named Sass (short for “Saskia) (Charlotte Hope). Suspicion also falls on the Colleys, husband Donald (Robert Morgan) and wife Bella (Anna Francolini), who published Shane Thurgood’s first novel and paid his rent in hopes of leaving him alone to write a second one — though they’re also under suspicion themselves for tax irregularities writer Steve Coombes (whose script is based on characters created by Ann Cleves — it’s often a bad sign when shows like this are based not on the original author’s stories but on ones cooked up by the TV producer’s own writers) doesn’t stop his thriller plot long enough to explain. In fact, suspicion falls on a lot of people — like most British mystery writers, Coombes tends to err in the direction of creating too many suspects rather than (the American weakness) too few — and it’s hard to keep track of them all, though at the end the killer is revealed to be Allen Barnes’ third child, son Louis (Aiden Nord), a queeny little twink who was ridiculed by his dad and the Peytons for not being good at the “stalking” game. He claimed to have seen the Emperor Hadrian but no one else believed him, and when Shane challenged him while Louis was holding a gun, they struggled, the gun went off and Shane bit the big one. I’ve seen better episodes of Vera but the central character is still a treat — as is Brenda Blethyn’s portrayal of her — and the show’s producers had the smarts to surround her with good-looking guys, including her assistant Joe Ashworth (David Leon, who alas left the show after this 2014 season) and a tall, striking-looking blond who works in Vera’s office and is the only one who can successfully decipher Shane Thurgood’s manuscripts.