The makers of Blue Lights on the light and shade of their Belfast police drama

The makers of Blue Lights on the light and shade of their Belfast police drama

Wednesday, 3rd April 2024
Martin McCann (Stevie), Siân Brooke (Grace), Katherine Devlin (Annie) and Nathan Braniff (Tommy) sit and stand around a desk in police uniform in a police office
Blue Lights series 2 (from left): Martin McCann (Stevie), Siân Brooke (Grace), Katherine Devlin (Annie) and Nathan Braniff (Tommy) (credit: BBC/Two Cities Television/Todd Antony)
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon

Matthew Bell hails the return of Blue Lights, the Belfast-set cop show whose local following transcends the sectarian divide

A year after Blue Lights launched to five-star reviews, Belfast’s rookie cops are back out on patrol in Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn’s wonderfully human BBC One drama.

Second time around, the police officers are less green and more frazzled, but still trying to keep the peace in a city flooded with cheap drugs peddled by paramilitary gunmen turned gangsters.

Lawn accepts there is a “huge weight of expectation on our shoulders because the first series was such a success, but we were conscious that we couldn’t keep on repeating the same old tricks – it has to evolve. All the great returning shows we’ve loved, primarily The Wire, do something different with each season.”

Patterson admits to making that very mistake when he and Lawn, who met on Panorama, were working in current affairs: “That’s what we ended up doing in documentaries and it was partly the catalyst for our exit from that creative form. We’d be fools to fall into the same trap once we’ve broken into the drama world.”

The second series of Blue Lights, made by Two Cities Television, begins a year after the distressing death of Constable Gerry Cliff (Richard Dormer), a father figure to the rookie cops. “The show’s about the consequences of violence and we needed to show dreadful violence to explore that. Gerry’s spirit lives on in a big way in series two,” says Lawn.

Summarising the differences between the two series, Lawn says, “Season one is what it takes to do the job and season two is what the job takes from you.”

Siân Brooke, who plays social worker-turned-cop Grace Ellis, explains: “In series one she’s a newbie, wide-eyed to this world, uncertain, trying to find her feet. With series two, it’s a year on… you’re more experienced but maybe more ground down.

“[Originally], the thing that attracted me to [playing Grace] was that she’s an optimist, trying to make things better; but in this series she’s a bit more of a realist.”

One constant is the “will they/won’t they” flirting of Grace and Stevie Neil (Martin McCann), who share a patrol car and the food lovingly prepared by Neil.

“You have to retain the things that people love. The Stevie and Grace relationship landed well so we wanted that to be a central part of season two,” says Lawn.

The new series features different directions for existing characters – Jen (Hannah McClean) is now a solicitor and more likeable – and new cast members, including Constable Shane Bradley (Frank Blake), who may be more than just a beat cop.

The setting also changes, from Catholic West Belfast to the Loyalist East. “Criminality has no borders,” notes Patterson.

“Lee [Thompson, played by Seamus O’Hara], our main loyalist character, is an idealist. While he does terrible things, you kind of like him, or at least understand him,” says Lawn, with Patterson adding: “That speaks to our general philosophy about all our characters – we don’t want to define people as good or bad.”

Such exchanges are typical of the duo, whose first TV screenplay, The Salisbury Poisonings, was the BBC’s most-watched new drama of 2020. They are a double act, constantly honing and expanding each other’s thoughts.

Adam Patterson (left) and Declan Lawn
(credit: Khara Pringle)

For series two of Blue Lights, they are taking on directing duties, helming the first three episodes of the six-part series. When scripting, Lawn takes the lead, as Patterson explains: “Declan is the natural dialogue writer – it just flows out of him. We realised that early in our writing partnership.

“Declan will always do the first pass on the dialogue: he’ll send it to me; I’ll have ideas and suggestions for changes; and then we start smashing it together as it goes back and forward.”

With directing – which they first tried on the short film Rough and then on their debut feature, Rogue Agent, starring Gemma Arterton and James Norton – the roles are reversed. “Adam leads the directing. I’m there helping him and advising him, but a ship can only have one captain,” says Lawn.

McCann, who grew up in working-­class, nationalist West Belfast, has been pleasantly surprised by the show’s reception across the divide. “On both sides of the community… it’s been received with open arms, which was never really guaranteed.”

And by the cops: “In the city centre, I got pulled over by two Land Rover police… it was selfies this and selfies that – that was quite surreal.”

Both writers and actors believe Blue Lights has changed public attitudes to the police; inevitably, says Lawn, “writing a character drama about police officers… humanises the faces of the people behind the uniform.”

Patterson amplifies that thought: “I’ve had people talk to me about the police in a way that I don’t think they ever would have before – they see how difficult the job is when previously… they would’ve had a reticence and resistance to the police.

“I’m not saying Blue Lights has torn all that away, but I think it’s making people… consider a bit more.”

In West Belfast, says McCann, “being a police officer is not only just not thought of, it’s not really an option… If you’d wanted to be one, you would have had to have move out of the area… This is only a show but there are effects, especially among younger audiences.

“For the first time, people in the likes of West Belfast are being introduced, and not in a propaganda way [to] what a police officer is. A few of my friends have said to me that they loved the show and they hated the show – they loved the show because it was great and they hated the fact that it made them love cops.”

Belfast, like many British cities, is broken by poverty, homelessness, addiction and the collapse of mental health services; as Constable Annie Conlon (Katherine Devlin) says at the start of series two, “Everything is just fucked”.

The writing of Lawn and Patterson, though, is notable for its optimism, in stark contrast to the often grim surroundings their characters inhabit: “We truly believe there is decency and civility everywhere… even in the darkest places, there is cause for hope. I think it’s being born in a place that was in conflict and is exiting into a peaceful transition,” says Patterson.

“There’s a lot of TV that is dark and miserabilist, and I think the world is heavy enough. It’s important to be respectful of how difficult the world is but also show there is light.”

Lawn adds: “As Adam says, most people are good and trying to do their best…. There are a lot of reasons why our partnership works, but our ethical sensibilities are very closely aligned.”

The BBC recently recommissioned Blue Lights for a third and fourth series in the wake of its rave reviews and ratings. Lawn, though, is quick to credit other Northern Ireland series for preparing the ground: “We’re standing on the shoulders of other shows: The Fall, Line of Duty, which wasn’t set in Belfast but filmed there, and Derry Girls.

“Without those three shows, Blue Lights probably would not have been greenlit.”

Belfast, added Patterson, “also had to be in a certain place to accept a contemporary series looking at itself…. Blue Lights shows that we are ready as a people to look at ourselves and that is a big step forward – it couldn’t have been done five years ago.”

Siân Brooke as Grace Ellis (credit: BBC/Two Cities Television/Todd Antony)

Made in Belfast, reflecting Belfast

The idea for Blue Lights came from Belfast-based executive producer Louise Gallagher, who grew up loving Cagney & Lacey and Hill Street Blues. She explains: ‘We have a police force that’s very polarising and I’ve always been fascinated by the people who choose to do that job. [The idea] was based on two people I met who were originally social workers and had joined the police in their late thirties.’

Gallagher took her idea to Stephen Wright, then Head of Drama at BBC Northern Ireland. ‘We had a wee bit of a false start with it, but Stephen recognised there was something there,’ she recalls.

As is often the way with TV, time passed before Gallagher and Wright – by now Creative Director of Two Cities Television and also an executive producer of Blue Lights – met Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn and got things moving.

Gallagher produced the duo’s award-winning short film Rough, in which Belfast paramilitaries pass a death sentence on a dog, and then the BBC commissioned Blue Lights.

‘A police story lets us tell the story of the place where we live in a way that allows a wider audience in. They’re going to come for the cops and they’re going to see the characters and the city; the tensions, the difficulties, all the wrinkles – the stuff that makes it messy and interesting,’ says Wright.

Both execs moved to Belfast in their late teens during the Troubles: Gallagher, from Derry, to take up a job at the BBC and Wright to study.

Belfast has since been transformed; peace came with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and, a decade later, when Game of Thrones came to town, a TV and film industry began to grow. Hit crime series Line of Duty and The Fall, both ordered by Wright at the BBC, followed and now there is Blue Lights.

‘Returning series give people a sense of stability because the [industry] is freelance,’ says Wright. ‘[It] has grown over 15 years, bit by bit. I’ve seen people come up, gain experience and become brilliant at their jobs.’

Gallagher adds: ‘The crew are proud of Blue Lights.… It means something to them because it’s us telling our story.’

The soundtrack, curated by music supervisor Catherine Grimes, is largely local, including new artists such as Dea Matrona and Muireann Bradley. ‘There’s a brilliant music scene in Belfast cover­ing all genres… seeing the breadth of talent is just amazing. We’ve got so many young bands coming through,’ says Gallagher, an avid gig goer.

‘I have two children, 22 and 19, and… they have cafés, restaurants and nightlife. When we were growing up, Belfast and Derry city centres closed at 6:00pm.’

Composer Eoin O’Callaghan, like Gallagher, hails from Derry. ‘He gets the soul of it; he knows our world; he is of our place,’ says Gallagher. ‘The atmosphere he can create with his music is phenomenal.

‘I always knew we could do it – we just needed to be given the opportunity to make Blue Lights…. I just got a lump in my throat. I’m going to start crying again.’

The second series of Blue Lights airs on BBC One from 15 April.

You are here