Star cast unveiled for new ITV crime drama set in North Devon

The stars of the new ITV drama The Long Call.

The main stars from the cast of The Long Call: Juliet Stevenson, Pearl Mackie, Ben Aldridge, Martin Shaw and Anita Dobson. - Credit: Joss Barrat/ITV

Latest ITV blockbuster crime series The Long Call was filmed in and around North Devon, reveals CATHERINE COURTENAY, as she talks to its all-star cast 

There was a flurry of excitement in Ilfracombe this summer when filming took place for a new crime drama set in North Devon. 

Devon actor Ben Aldridge of the ITV drama The Long Call, pictured filming in North Devon.

DI Matthew Venn, played by Devon actor Ben Aldridge during filming at Hartland Quay. - Credit: Joss Barrat/ITV

Scenes featuring actors Neil Morrissey and Pearl Mackie were being shot at the harbour and an already busy spot, buzzing with post-lockdown holidaymakers, became considerably more popular as word got out. 

“I think Neil Morrissey was quite a hit in Ilfracombe that day…but no one knew who I was!” says Pearl, who’s best known for her role as companion to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who. “There was one Doctor Who fan who had come quite a long way, but mostly it was Neil Morrissey. So…I had quite a chilled day, I had an ice cream…” 

Neil Morrissey and Pearl Mackie of the ITV drama The Long Call, pictured filming in North Devon.

Neil Morrissey and Pearl Mackie drew quite a crowd when filming in Ilfracombe. - Credit: Joss Barrat/ITV

Neil and Pearl formed part of what’s been described as a ‘Rolls-Royce’ cast, an ensemble of actors that includes Martin Shaw, Anita Dobson, Juliet Stevenson and Devon’s own Ben Aldridge. They spent three weeks at various locations in North Devon filming The Long Call, a four-part ITV series, based on the book by crime writer Ann Cleeves. 

Ann is behind the internationally successful Vera and Shetland books, both of which have been adapted for television and become equally huge screen hits. In fact, such has been their success that The Long Call was optioned for a TV series even before the book was published. 

The setting, in this case North Devon, is key to Ann’s books. Being filmed in the location where they are set is the only stipulation that Ann makes with the screen adaptations, other than that, she is totally ‘hands off,’ respecting the creative ability and freedom of Silverprint Pictures, the makers of VeraShetland and now The Long Call

Actor Ben Aldridge of the ITV drama The Long Call, pictured filming in North Devon.

DI Matthew Venn, played by Ben Aldridge, arrives in Appledore in ITV drama The Long Call. - Credit: Joss Barrat/ITV

Director Lee Haven Jones says he studied the work of artists who have portrayed North Devon over the years, from Turner and Bomberg to the photographer John Hinde, to create something visually and tonally distinctive. This is not a gritty, hand-held camera, Scandi-style piece in blues and greys, Lee wanted controlled composition and colour. 

The coastal landscape of North Devon, made a big impression on both Lee and the cast. 

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“I went to university in Exeter, so I was familiar with the rather bucolic charm of South Devon but North Devon is a different proposition; it’s far more remote, it’s far more rugged,” says Lee. 

Filming at Hartland Quay was particularly memorable, thank to tumultuous weather conditions. “We experienced four seasons in one day!” says Lee. The scenes involved Martin Shaw, playing the head of fictitious religious group the Barum Brethren, enacting a baptism in the sea. 

The cast of the ITV drama The Long Call, pictured filming in the sea, North Devon.

Filming in the sea - Ben’s character, Matthew Venn, finds time for reflection by swimming. - Credit: Joss Barrat/ITV

“At one point I was up to my chest in the sea with the waves coming backwards and forwards and knocking me off balance, and it was cold and the weather was quite wild,” says Martin. They had to do many takes but, he says: “I couldn’t get enough of it. I just wanted to keep going back in the water because it was just so primal and exciting.” 

Primal is a word that resonates with Anita. “That’s how it felt…the ruggedness of it.” I absolutely loved it there. 

“It started raining at one point and we thought, oh no that’s going to be a washout, but actually it was wonderful. I hope the shots they got looked as magnificent as they did when we were sitting on that rugged rock staring out at the turmoil in the ocean.” 

It was primal, and also historic, says Juliet. “We’re an island nation with a massive coastline and for most of our history we’ve earned our livings on the sea, fishing or seafaring, smuggling - especially in Devon and Cornwall. 

Actor Martin Shaw on the set of ITV drama The Long Call in North Devon.

Martin Shaw plays Dennis Stephenson, the leader of the Barum Brethren, in ITV drama The Long Call. - Credit: Joss Barrat/ITV

“For centuries and centuries women have stood staring out at the sea waiting for sailors to come home or watching the life of the sea; watching boats coming in and out and wondering whether their men will come back. And there’s something extraordinarily atavistic about standing there watching this strange scene happening in the water. It was wonderful.” 

People associate Devon with clotted cream and picture postcard scenes, but the unique ruggedness and atmosphere of North Devon made the landscape “really present”, and integral to the story, says Ben. 

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” says Martin. “It just seeps into your self. 

“It’s a very beautiful place and there’s no other way we could have done it. It was written there and that’s where it belongs. I had a ball being there, I loved it.” 

  • The Long Call starts on ITV later in the month of October 2021. 
Writer Ann Cleeves with actor Ben Aldridge.

Ann Cleeves visited the set when they were filming at Hartland, where she met actor Ben Aldridge. - Credit: Joss Barrat/ITV

The Heron’s Cry  

The first episode of The Long Call TV drama “captures the atmosphere and sense of place very beautifully,” says Ann Cleeves, the book’s writer. 

The former pupil of Barnstaple Grammar School, with friends she visits still in Barnstaple, Ann Cleeves wanted North Devon to be the setting for her third crime detective series, the Two Rivers series, and for it to be the home of her new detective hero, Matthew Venn. 

“All my books start with setting. It informs who we are, the kids we play with, the community we grow up in, what we see out of the window – it all makes us who we are,” she explains. 

Real places are incorporated into her books – Barnstaple, Newport, Ilfracombe, Braunton and Crow Point all feature in The Long Call

The Heron’s Cry, her second book in the Two Rivers series, which was published this September, includes observational references to the now derelict former Civic Centre and police station building in Barnstaple and it manages to bring in a well-kept local secret, the Hocking’s ice cream.   

The plot for The Heron’s Cry was inspired by a visit to glassmaker Bob Crooks’ studio at Thelbridge, where Ann became fascinated with the changing texture of glass, as it heats and cools, mirroring how people can react to emotional stress. 

The book was also inspired by an encounter with a woman who worked for the NHS and was at a library event with Ann in Kingsbridge. 

Ann recalls: “She was involved in investigating negligence cases and said she always told her team that they should be like Vera - dogged, but compassionate.” 

Meeting her gave Ann the idea for a character who becomes the victim, but despite several attempts at tracking her down afterwards, Ann never managed to locate the woman to thank her. So, if she is reading this – do get in touch! 

The cast of the ITV drama The Long Call, pictured filming in North Devon.

Matthew Venn (Ben Aldridge) and DC Jen Rafferty, (Pearl Mackie) attend the scene of the crime at Crow Point in ITV drama The Long Call. - Credit: Joss Barrat/ITV

Ground-breaking drama  

The Long Call is believed to be the first prime time detective drama in history to have a LGBT lead. 

“It’s breaking ground and it feels significant,” says Ben Aldridge, who plays DI Matthew Venn. What’s also significant is that, like Matthew, Ben is also gay. The similarities run deep: not only does Ben come from Devon (he grew up in Exeter), but he also shares a similar religious upbringing. 

In The Long Call, Matthew has grown up in, and subsequently fallen out with, a religious community called the Barum Brethren. Although in this case fictional, there are many Brethren groups across the country and Ben’s parents were both brought up in Brethren communities. Ben himself was raised as an Evangelical Christian. 

Having first read The Long Call for an audio book, Ben admits: “I felt slightly paranoid – that someone had been spying on me!” 

Many experiences were the same, he says, giving him “huge empathy” for the Matthew character, however, they are very different personalities, dealing with similar issues in very different ways. 

“We were telling Matthew’s story and not Ben’s story and really our stories are very, very different; but of course, there are some emotional crossovers there. I didn’t feel like I was playing myself, I was just able to really understand the interior of what he was going through and that was really useful.” 

Ben’s family were able to visit the set to watch him filming, “which was wonderful”, he says. 

“When I was younger, we used to have caravan holidays up there, or day trips just to go surfing; we stayed at Saunton Sands a lot and we were filming in the dunes behind. It felt really familiar to me.” 

Living in London and often working in America, last year saw Ben spending many months in Devon. For the first lockdowns he was at his parents’ home on the edge of Dartmoor, likewise for the lockdown earlier this year - which was when he heard he’d got the Matthew Venn part.  

“Me and my parents went up to North Devon for a day trip and went to all of the key locations that are mentioned in the book - Crow Point, Ilfracombe, Barnstaple, the police station - we kind of scoped them all out and had this little Long Call/Matthew Venn day.” 

During his time ‘back home’ he says did a lot of walking on Dartmoor, having ‘stolen’ his sister’s dog. “Rosie is my new best friend!”  

“I spent a lot of time at Branscombe Beach, I love going there and walking up over the cliffs around Beer. Those white cliffs are really stunning - and the views from there…I love the village as well and there’s a great little pub that was open at the time. 

“I felt more connected to Devon than I had done for years.” 

He adds: “I’m quite good at going back and seeing my family, but now more than ever, after spending a year in Devon, I feel more drawn just to being there - because of the place not just the people.”