Brenda Blethyn is back on our screens in Vera, but will she be dusting off her mac and hat for series 10?
'People like Vera because she is bossy and funny at the same time'
Another year, another dose of Vera. Following the huge success of series eight, the crime drama - based on Ann Cleeves's novels of the same name - is back for a ninth run. As is Brenda Blethyn's matchless portrayal of the unorthodox, but brilliantly perceptive, Vera Stanhope.
But with four chilling feature-length episodes - and plenty of crime to tackle - it's far from a happy new year for ITV's favourite Detective Chief Inspector.
"Our opening episode, Blind Spot, focuses on a trainee forensic psychologist who is found murdered," begins Blethyn (72), who has famously led the north-east-based hit since its inception in 2011.
"In Cuckoo, episode two, a teenage boy is found dead in a coastal town far from his home; and Vera and the team are faced with the body of a partygoer who is found drowned in episode three, Cold River.
"And in the final story, adapted from Ann's latest novel of the same title, The Seagull, a skeleton is discovered during some building excavations of a notorious nightclub and the team discover a link to a recent murder."
It's a chain of events that initially takes the dogged detective and her team to a landfill site - a far cry from the beautiful seascapes and landscapes we've come to expect from Vera.
"It was rank," Blethyn recalls, having filmed in the height of summer. "It was really hot and windy, there was dust blowing, and, oh, the stench of methane. I couldn't help thinking, 'There probably is a body in there somewhere!' Imagine if we happened upon it."
She adds: "We all had specific instructions to wear special boots in case a nail went through our footwear. But we made light of the situation and it was a real eye-opener. There's so much waste. Surely we can all cut down on that and become better with how we recycle?"
Joining her here - and in more glorious locations such as Holy Island, Lindisfarne and Spanish City in Whitley Bay - is Kenny Doughty, who returns as Detective Sergeant Aiden Healy, Jon Morrison, who plays DC Kenny Lockhart, Riley Jones as DC Mark Edwards and Ibinabo Jack, who joins as Vera's newest recruit, DC Jacqueline Williams.
Paul Kaye - known for his time as satirical red carpet interviewer Dennis Pennis in the Nineties, or more recently as Thoros in Game Of Thrones - also enrols as Pathologist Dr Malcolm Donahue.
"Oh, listen, he is gold dust. He is just terrific," Blethyn says of his appointment. "The man himself, he's a joy to work with. But his character has got no time for Vera," she adds, laughing.
"Malcolm is very stern, which can often come across as him being rude. He is there to get a very serious job done, so he doesn't hold back if he feels Vera is overstepping the mark, or cross-examining his work. They try to tolerate each other, but it's an interesting addition to the chemistry."
Other actors appearing across the four feature-length episodes include the likes of Mark Addy, Elizabeth Berrington, Robert James-Collier, Natalie Gumede and Daniel Ryan.
As well as "brilliant newcomers, namely Louis Healy, Kathleen Cranham and Josie Walker", Blethyn notes.
"When the young actors come to us, our job is - because they might have only seen Vera on the telly, as this monstrous, scary woman - to make them laugh," shares the Ramsgate-born star.
How? "Oh, all sorts," she says, admitting the cast and crew spend much of their time laughing behind the scenes.
"Something even as basic as having a funny walk - any old thing just to break the ice, so that they know it's okay if they go wrong. Or, I deliberately go wrong just to put them at ease."
The DCI's mac-and-hat combo must raise some smiles, too, given that it's become so iconic that even a stall in Newcastle is selling Vera-inspired headwear?
"I take my hat off for that. They told me they do a roaring trade," Blethyn says. "Once, when I stopped to chat, a couple stopped at the stall and explained they'd come to Newcastle for their anniversary - they'd met at Newcastle University - and they were hoping to see some Vera locations. They nearly fainted when they saw me standing there at the same stall."
But, aside from the "fashion" and high drama, Blethyn, whose major career breakthrough came in the shape of Mike Leigh's 1996 drama Secrets & Lies, has her own take on why the show is such a stellar success. It's all down to the fact that it's fun for all the family, she reasons.
"We did a night shoot, I think in North Shields, and there were hundreds of people there waiting all night to watch us. Slippers on, pyjamas on," she remembers. "And the minute we wrapped, whoosh, they all wanted to come over, but our producers said, 'Okay, get your cameras ready and we'll set up a shot for you. So, they all got a photo, but it was a bit scary actually."
She adds: "And we were also doing this crime convention in Harrogate and someone at the back stood up. It was a young boy and he said Vera is his favourite show and all his friends' favourite show. And I said, 'Don't mind me asking, how old are you?' He said, '12'.
"I thought, 'You what? Why do you like it?' And he said, 'Because she's bossing all those men around and she's funny'. So, bossy and funny at the same time."
With such a generational demand then, will Vera be back for a 10th chapter?
"I mean it's always wait and see," Blethyn quips, having enjoyed some downtime with husband Michael Mayhew and dog Jack in her hometown of Ramsgate over the festive period. "They're talking about it, but I've just got to get my breath back first.
"It's like a feast and you've stuffed yourself with it. 'Please, I want nothing more, Vera, please go away. But then you get hungry again."
Vera, ITV, Sunday, 8pm