Blue Lights review – don’t sleep on this fantastically tense Belfast cop show

·4-min read

This is a busy and productive period for high-concept police dramas, so you might be forgiven for thinking, ‘Oh God, not another one’. Don’t sleep on Blue Lights, however; it’s well-crafted, fantastically tense, thrilling stuff, created by The Salisbury Poisonings’ Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson. Set in Belfast, it follows three new and extremely green recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who have two months of their probationary period left to serve. If this action-stuffed opener is anything to go by, those two months are not going to slide by quietly.

As in Grey’s Anatomy, the idea of chucking a load of naive newcomers into a horribly stressful and dangerous environment for which they are inevitably unprepared all but guarantees excitement. Here, our three rookies are Grace (Siân Brooke), a former social worker and single mother in her early 40s, who has made a midlife career change; Annie (Katherine Devlin), a hard-partying, tough-on-the-surface young woman who has to lie about her chosen profession in her private life. “What kind of dickhead applies for fast track?” she asks, churlishly, in the staff room. Step forward the sheepish Tommy (Nathan Braniff), earnest, hard-working and on the fast track scheme, though he needs to refine his people skills if he has any hope of possessing authority. We are plunged straight into the fray with a high-speed car chase through narrow country lanes. “Remember your training, Grace, get the rifle,” says her “tutor”, Stevie (Martin McCann), which is certainly more treacherous than having to remember how everyone likes their tea.

Setting Blue Lights in Belfast provides layers of social and political complexity, and this makes the policing of the city a fascinating framework for drama. The legacy of sectarian violence lingers. The older and more experienced officers know what it is worth pursuing, and why, and what it is better to leave well alone. In certain areas, the police are on the back foot, unwelcome, unwanted and outnumbered. “You’re a brave wee peeler, aren’t you?” says one young man on a bike, taunting the officers who are there to deliver bad news to a neighbour. The notion of policing by consent is stretched to breaking point.

Stevie cautions Grace that there should be strict limits on their remit. “We do what we can on the day. That’s it. That’s where the job ends,” he warns her, wary of her idealistic intentions. As is often the case for TV cops, it proves difficult for them to leave it at the station. Besides, there is far more going on than the usual shift work. There are MI5 agents in the city, acting undercover, whose clandestine operations regularly crisscross with some of the seemingly routine cases. The car chase turns out to be connected to James McIntyre (Eric Cantona lookalike John Lynch), the boss of an organised crime gang who appears to be untouchable, and whose family has far more authority over the streets than the probationers ever will.

It is filled with technical vernacular and terminology, explained just enough so that it doesn’t feel like a foreign language, but not so much that it takes you out of the action. One family are “frequent flyers”, known to the police, written off as no-hopers. Legislation is quoted, rules are memorised and recited, and legal technicalities are thrown back at them. “These bastards know the law better than we do half the time,” grumbles the mid-level boss, Insp Johnson (Jonathan Harden), whose main role appears to be bollocking absolutely everyone in sight. He is trying to put out fires, but it’s as if all he has been handed is a water pistol. It’s a mess.

There is gallows humour, but it is also brutal at times. A young officer attempts to stop and search a known offender; she is punched in the face for her troubles. A bad batch of drugs flattens users across the city and causes a ripple effect that extends far beyond familiar gang lines. Actions have consequences, that’s a given, but each action here relies on so many fragile interconnected factors that it is impossible to second-guess the direction anything will take. Add in a lack of experience and unfamiliarity with the job, and it’s only a matter of time before it collapses into catastrophe.

This drama shares some of its DNA with The Responder, though it has a marginally less cynical edge, and a more complex political and historical landscape at its heart. It leaves so many tantalising threads just waiting to unravel. What’s real, and what is a setup? What counts as courage, and what is plain stupidity? By the end of the first episode, I’m engrossed.

• Blue Lights aired on BBC One and is on iPlayer