It was in the depths of a freezing Kielder Forest when Kenny Doughty realised his love for the North East was true.
“The rain was hammering down on us in sub-zero temperatures. It was absolutely miserable – and we were already a few crew members down because they’d all caught the flu.
“And yet, somehow, every single crew member had a smile on their face. The banter among them was as strong as ever; everyone filled in and pulled together, no questions asked, no complaints. I just remember looking around and thinking to myself, ‘this is why I love these people!’”
And this is perhaps one of the reasons why viewers – and not just in the North East – have got a soft spot for the moody, sometimes sullen sidekick of Vera.
The ITV detective drama, inspired by the gutsy novels of award-winning crime writer, Ann Cleeves (herself a Whitley Bay resident of course), has become something of a smash-hit since gracing our TVs back in 2011, loved for its puzzling storylines, edge-of-your-seat cliffhangers and unbeatable acting.
But Kenny has also recently been in bold prime-time profile on our screens as registrar Rick Severs in the BBC TV hit series Love, Lies and Records. In this Kay Mellor-penned drama, Kenny’s character has a steamy moment with his boss on the office photocopier – which is captured on CCTV and used as blackmail material. What would Vera say?
Kenny’s role as Detective Sergeant Aiden Healy in the North East drama has proved a springboard for his career and he enjoys playing alongside the ever-brilliant Brenda Blethyn’s Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope – the striking backdrops of the North East landscapes playing their own dramatic role.
The episodes follow Vera and her team as they face a series of captivating murder mysteries, with some of the region’s most breathtaking locations serving as the backdrop, from Newcastle’s iconic bridges and Wallsend’s shipyards, to the rugged cliffs of Craster, Corbridge’s quiet cobbles and Northumberland’s moody moorland.
As a North East viewer, pointing out local landmarks and sneaky hometown backstreets from the comfort of your sofa only adds to the whodunnit appeal.
Series eight sees Blethyn once again transform into the character of Vera – the no-non-sense, eagle-eyed, raincoat-wearing detective we’ve all come to know and love. Kenny’s DS Aiden Healy is now coming into his own as her surly right hand man.
42-year-old Kenny, who has enjoyed parts in big-name soaps, stage shows and series, such as Coronation Street and Stella has played the role since 2015, when he joined the cast replacing Geordie actor, David Leon.
Bagging the job, he tells me, couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Let’s just call it one of life’s serendipitous moments,” he laughs.
“I was in the middle of doing The Full Monty in the West End at the time, which was getting great reviews – in fact, we’d just won an Olivier Award. But then, out of the blue, it was cancelled – and I suddenly found myself unemployed.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit worried. It was an unsettling time; I didn’t know what I was going to do, or what was going to happen – until the following week, when I got the call about Vera.”
Opportunity had come knocking for the South Yorkshire-born actor. Already a huge fan of the show, he said yes to a meeting with its producers and directors and soon found himself reading for the part – with a certain someone standing by to make sure he was up for the challenge.
“I wasn’t expecting Brenda to be there – but I turned up and there she was. Only then did I think, ‘right, ok, so this is really happening then!’
“We read lines and did a screen test together, but to be completely honest, about half way through, I got the feeling that it wasn’t going well. I don’t think it was my best work. Because I was already a big fan of the show, I felt a lot of pressure to nail it and prove my mettle – especially with Brenda standing right there in front of me.
“You could tell everyone was a little cautious – even Brenda. They were serious about getting the casting right and I definitely felt a sense of having to ‘earn’ the role.
“But my nerves got the better of me and I walked away absolutely convinced I’d messed it up. I remember calling my agent straight away and telling him ‘forget it – it isn’t going to happen’.”
Fate, however, had other plans. Turns out, the show’s producers, directors and indeed leading lady were all taken by the actor’s talent – and the part of smouldering on-screen associate was his. It was, as Kenny puts it, a ‘career-changing’ audition.
“I was completely blown away,” he recalls.
“I’m not under any illusions; I’m sure many people – many great actors – auditioned for the part. To have a nabbed a big role in such a successful show like Vera felt a bit like winning the lottery – and I couldn’t wait to get started.”
Kenny joined the cast for series five, journeying to Newcastle to make his mark as DS Aiden Healy – a character he was determined to make his own.
“In the beginning, two thoughts ran through my mind,” he tells me.
“The first was, ‘wow, what a honour!’ but this was quickly followed by ‘ok, so now the real work begins – I can’t let anyone down.’
“It was important to me that I didn’t try to emulate what David had done – and did so well. They were big boots to fill and I wanted to carry the flag as best I could – but try and bring something new to the table at the same time.”
Close talks with the show’s production team would result in Kenny creating a new kind of murder-solving sidekick; a cocky, leather-jacketed junior with a point to a prove and an edgy backstory that kept viewers on their toes throughout the series’ opening episode.
“Aiden’s background is an interesting one – we soon learn he’s not exactly the butter-wouldn’t-melt kind of chap,”
“He was transferred over to Newcastle from Yorkshire’s firearms department and has had his fair share of run-ins with the law; we soon discover he’s killed somebody and is battling with a complicated personal life.
“For me, it was to great stuck in to playing a new kind of partner – someone with a bit of depth and who would keep the audience guessing.
“He was a lot like me at the time too – murder aside, of course! There were definite parallels there; he was the
new kid in town, new to the job and a little out of his comfort zone.
“You watched him trying to find his feet, earn the respect of his new boss and prove his worth – which was exactly what I was doing. I saw a lot of myself in him; I feel like we kind of went on a little journey together, him and I, trying to find our place.”
He wasn’t required to master North East accent.
“It was a conscious decision of the writers not to give Aidan a Geordie accent,” he tells me. “Just as well really, because I think it’s one of the most difficult accents to master and I don’t think I would’ve been comfortable trying!
“Again, it was just another way for me to identify with the character. They were like, ‘let’s make it known that this guy is a bit of an outsider – a fish out of water.’
“He didn’t speak the same, he didn’t dress the same and he didn’t act the same – but as fans of the show will know, he soon settles in and becomes a part of his North East work family. A bit like me really – the region is like a second home now and the whole cast feels like family. I’m hoping to get my honorary Geordie badge any day now.”
Speaking of on-set family, talk soon turns to his relationship with Brenda – an “extraordinary talent”, he tells me, and one of his “closest friends”. A true double act on and off-screen, the pair can often be found mucking about behind-the-scenes – even script-reading together over G&Ts during their time away from the cameras.
“We have a genuine bond,” he says. “The writers have acknowledged that – and I think it translates really well on
“We have the same sense of humour – we’re always having a giggle between takes, singing, doing silly impressions and dancing about. One day, she attempted to teach me how to tap-dance in between takes – we were in stitches.
“We socialise together, too, which is always fun. I stay in a flat at St Anns Quay in Newcastle during filming and Brenda lives close by, so we’ll hop in the car and go to work together, then maybe spend some time going over our lines down the local pub once we’ve clocked off for the day.”
For many, working alongside an OBE, Golden Globe winner and BAFTA-scooper on a daily basis might feel like a daunting task, but for Kenny, it only makes the day job all the more exciting.
“Working alongside Brenda is by far the best part of my job,” he enthuses. “And I think most of the actors and crew members would agree with me on that.
“It’s not just about her talent. It’s her work ethic and her standards – she leads by example, raising the bar exceptionally high with every episode. The way she embodies Vera is just crazy to me – she becomes the character with every muscle in her body and can turn it on and off like a switch. She’ll often go off script and improvise if she feels like that will bring more to the scene – it’s amazing to watch.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really big names over the years, from Anthony Hopkins and Joseph Fiennes, to Geoffrey Rush and Cate Blanchett, but I can honestly say that Brenda is up there with the best of the best. She’s world-class – a proper leading lady.”
Kenny, his leading lady and around 85 cast and crew members (nearly all of whom are North East natives) spend up to five months filming every compelling series of the crime drama, with each two-hour episode taking around a month to film.
Newcastle might be their base, but when it comes to shooting, they travel the breadth of the region, bringing the show’s characters to life in picturesque locations.
For Kenny and the rest of the cast, it’s a chance to let loose and explore some of the region’s best – and most beautiful – bits, especially when the cameras stop rolling.
“Having the opportunity to film in such breathtaking locations is an experience in itself, but I love getting out and about during our downtime,” he says.
“We get a break in-between each episode – about a week as the crew need to go into pre-production ahead of each one. During this time we all get together to hang out and see as much of the North East as possible.”
“One of the first places I’ll always head to is the coast – I absolutely love Tynemouth. I’ll visit Riley’s Fish Shack, or the Surf Cafe, with friends, and head up to St Mary’s Lighthouse in Whitley Bay, as well. The locals keep telling me to look out for the seals, but I’m yet to see one – I’m starting to think it’s all one big joke!
“Blyth and Bamburgh are great places, too. In fact, I think the North East’s coastline is probably one of the UK’s best-kept, unspoilt secrets – part of me doesn’t want the rest of the country to discover it, it’s just so stunning.”
Surfing, I discover, is next on Kenny’s list of things to do while living in the region, once filming comes to a halt.
“I’m dying to get myself a board and hit the waves, but the producers won’t let me in case I get injured,” he laughs.
“The same goes for go-karting. Bowling is fine though, I’m told, as is eating my bodyweight in Italian food – both of which I take great pleasure in doing during my time off. One of our local crew members makes these amazing homemade pizzas and he invites us all round for dinner.
“He’s just one of the many friendly and hospitable people I’ve come to know while here in the North East. It’s true what they say about the Geordies – they’re some of the kindest, most down-to-earth, people you could ever hope to meet.
“There’s a real sense of community and camaraderie here that you don’t find in other parts of the country,” he continues.
As series eight launched on to our screens this January, it’s back home to North London for Kenny – but he’ll be returning to his beloved North East come February for The Royal Television Society Awards.
The gold standard of achievement in the television community, the annual ceremony shines a light on excellence across all genres of TV, recognising talented actors, presenters, writers, production teams and even programmes themselves.
Last year’s event, held at Hilton Hotel Newcastle Gateshead, saw Vera win big, picking up the award for Best Drama, while Brenda received the gong – and a roaring standing ovation – for Best Performance as everyone’s favourite, no-frills detective.
“I’m really looking forward to coming back up to Newcastle again for the awards,” says Kenny.
“We always have a cracking night – there are often a few sore heads the next morning – and it’s great to see everyone again, all dolled up and suited and booted. No Wellingtons or thermals in sight!
“We have some really big storylines and themes in series eight – there was lots for us to sink our teeth in to – from money laundering and dysfunctional families, to some really bloody murders. All good stuff!
“Oh, and David Leon directs episode two, so viewers should look out for that,” he continues.
“It was great to meet him. There was one point on-set when Brenda had both her old sidekick and her new partner by her side – her two boys! That was a cool moment.
“I really hope the North East – and the rest of the country – get behind this next series – and the ones that will hopefully follow. I think the show’s a bit like a vintage wine – it just gets better and better as the years go by. And that’s partly to do with Brenda being as amazing as ever, of course, but also the writing and the passion and spirit of our Geordie crew – they never let the standards slip.
“I have a feeling it’s going to be another big year for Vera – and I still can’t believe my luck that I get to be a part of it.”
RTS Awards Dinner, February 24, 2018, Hilton NewcstleGateshead tickets: rts.org.uk
Catch up on series 8 of Vera at: itv.com/hub/vera
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