Blue Lights - the brand new police drama series filmed in Belfast
Three new police officers are in their probation period with the PSNI and the odds are at least one of them isn’t going to last
Created and written by Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, Blue Lights follows three rookie police officers working in Belfast, a uniquely dangerous place to be a police officer.
Grace (Siân Brooke), a mother of a teenage boy, has made the decision in her 40’s to leave her steady job as a social worker to join the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Having previously worked in social care she straddles a fine line between the personal and professional. It’s the biggest gamble of her life, and just a few weeks into the job, she’s making so many mistakes that her decision no longer looks like a winning bet.
Her fellow rookies are Annie (Katherine Devlin), who struggles with the fact that her chosen path may mean having to leave everything she’s ever known behind, and Tommy (Nathan Braniff), who is desperate to prove himself, despite being disastrously inept at the practical side of frontline response policing.
All three are new police officers in their probation period with the PSNI, the odds are at least one of them isn’t going to last. The pressure is immense, but if they succumb to it, they won’t survive.
Often the rookie officers don’t know the extent of the peril they are in, or who they can trust. What’s it like to have to hide your job from neighbours, friends and even family? How do you distinguish between who needs your help and who wants you dead simply because of the uniform you wear?
Interview with Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson (Writers, Co-Creators & Executive Producers)
How did Blue Lights come about?
Declan: We were coming to the end of writing on our last BBC project, The Salisbury Poisonings and our old friend Louise Gallagher came to us with an idea focused around a woman who joins the police force aged 41 and we were intrigued by that. We were also really interested in the fact this would be a PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) officer at the front of a contemporary drama set in Belfast and so Louise had us with the idea within about five minutes.
Adam: We had spent many years working in journalism and had told lots of stories but journalism tends to be about how the world works whereas in drama you can go much deeper into character. We felt that this was a great opportunity to tell a character-driven story in the place that we love, and to be allowed to write a drama for the BBC about a place we live in and love was impossible to say no to.
How did the concept originate?
Declan: The concept originated with the character of Grace Kennedy who, at 41, leaves the comfort of a steady job in social work and becomes a cop. However, when we started to research it we looked at the world of probationary police officers; trainees in the PSNI which we found so intriguing and decided to introduce a number of characters who are at different stages of life.
Adam: As with any other profession where you are a trainee you might be in a college environment or a learning institution but with the police force after an initial training period you suddenly find yourself on the street, with a gun, and it begs the question: how do normal people deal with that? And that’s what interested us.
Cast of BlueLights Siân Brooke, Nathan Braniff, Katherine Devlin, Richard Dormer and Martin McCann (below) back in Belfast for a screening and Q&A with writers Dec Lawn and Adam Patterson (above).
What research did you conduct to help you create the story and how crucial was this research in developing the authenticity of the story?
Declan: As creators of television drama the research stage is everything to us and it might actually be our favourite part of the whole process. Our early careers were spent in investigative journalism and documentaries which is all about research so when we moved into drama we kept the same sensibilities. For Blue Lights the research stage took months and consisted of ride alongs in the back of police squad cars and spending time with retired and serving officers. The research part of creating this show was so satisfying. We want serving PSNI officers to watch it and to believe that we have represented their world authentically.
Adam: As journalists, in our previous lives we discovered the world is fascinating and that’s where our addiction to research comes from. If you are going to write fictional stories and characters that feel real why not meet people who do the job for real and in no precinct is that required more than if you are going to represent a police force and especially a police force in a post-conflict society like Northern Ireland. Our research stage gave us a back stage pass as to the mechanisms of how a police force works and added to that the responsibility of trying to tell that story well through a drama.
Blue Lights is set against the backdrop of policing in Northern Ireland – how did you incorporate your own experience of growing up in NI into the drama?
Adam: Declan and I grew up in Northern Ireland and then became journalists here and it’s a place we love dearly and a place that we felt was often misrepresented on TV. It’s also hard in some ways to make a story about your home because we are so close to it. I grew up with a member of the family in the prison service so there was always a gun nearby with all the security measures that came with that. It was all really normal and we just got on with it and dealt with it. It was only when I was a bit older that I realised that wasn’t normal. It made Declan and I intrigued as to how the police deal with in modern society. That’s why Blue Lights is about character and how normal people separate the job and the duty from then going home afterwards and distilling the things they have seen.
Declan: We drew on Adam’s experiences a lot growing up in a house with a gun nearby and that sense of threat and all of that going on in the background of growing up in NI. Police still check under their cars, and they still tell their children not to tell anyone that their mother or father is a police officer.
Adam: That is what distinguishes being a cop in NI from being a cop elsewhere in the UK and how does that impact on a family dynamic when you are telling your child to lie about your job. This is a job you take home with you and when you train for this job you are told that but you don’t really understand it until you start working as a police officer. I think I’ve spent my life trying to work it out and I feel thankful that I’ve now found the dramatic medium as a way to express a lot of the questions I had as a result of my own experiences. We are just trying to channel that into a good drama that I hope is compulsive and exciting to watch.
Why did you want to tell the story of three new recruits?
Declan: It’s a really interesting time to set a drama now in Northern Ireland. This place has been in the news a lot in the last five years as a result of Brexit. There is political instability here as a result of that. But there’s also a sense more globally of people having a grim and cynical sense of all institutions and a slightly cynical sense of where we are all going as a global family. We wanted to tell that story of people who are more or less, most of the time just trying to do good and they screw up and mess up in really big ways. We wanted to explore a big organisation made up of people trying to do their best.
Adam: You have to ask yourself how people who grew up during the Troubles survived. They found resilience because they had to and they found that with an acerbic wit and with humour and discovering that the small things in life are what really matter. In some police shows a cop puts on a uniform and becomes heroic by nature and what we are trying to do is show that heroism is much more ordinary and if you work hard enough with the right people you can achieve extraordinary things.
Declan: There is something redemptive in this show. It is gritty and violent but ultimately it is redemptive, hopeful and optimistic.
What other themes does the series explore?
Declan: This is a series about consequences, both long-term and short-term. Long term it is about trans-generational trauma so even though the Troubles are over, it is right to say they are in the DNA of this show. It’s also about the consequence of the tiny decisions we make every day. There’s a line at the heart of the show where Helen asks Annie what she thinks of the job and Annie responds saying that she thinks the decisions they make are important. Those decisions we all make, and in particular, these policemen and women are like butterfly wings that could cause a hurricane – they can really change the world. The unifying theme for me is consequence and as we build towards the climax in eps five a six you can trace everything that happens back to tiny little events that happen in episodes one and two.
Adam: Declan and I have a view of the world that there is truth and decency everywhere. Some of the people we meet in the show are doing bad things but hopefully with the way we’ve written the characters you spend enough time with them to see that it’s not just good and bad. There’s a lot of complexity there and bad people can do good things and vice versa. If you approach a show with that character mentality hopefully we can show that we are all quite similar and despite our flaws, if we work together, we can make the world a slightly better place.
Blue Lights airs at 9pm on Monday 27 March on BBC1 and BBC iPlayer