By Gen Terblanche11 December 2023
Behind-the-scenes on British crime series Blue Lights on Showmax
The days of “The Troubles” – Ireland’s civil war for Independence from the UK from the late 1960s to 1998 – are long past. But for cops getting assigned to Belfast in Northern Ireland (NI) there are still troubles aplenty. And for three new trainee police officers – Annie Conlon (Katherine Devilin); Grace Ellis (Siân Brooke); and Tommy Foster (Nathan Braniff) – it’s a trial by fire in the new crime drama series, Blue Lights. Even Grace, a single mother to a 17-year-old son, who’s stepping into policing from her former career as a social worker, is about to make so many mistakes.
Watch the trailer for Blue Lights on Showmax
Like David Simon, the journalist who collaborated on the acclaimed crime drama series The Wire, Treme, and We Own This City, Blue Lights’ writers, co-creators and executive producers – Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson – were journalists first. So they bring a broad overview of how politics, economics and social issues drive crime. They also both grew up in Northern Ireland and are familiar with the long shadow still cast by The Troubles.
“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,” reveals Declan. Adam adds, “That is what distinguishes being a cop in NI from being a cop elsewhere in the UK. 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.”
Getting the call out
“Our old friend Louise Gallagher (an executive producer on Blue Lights) came to us with an idea focused around a woman who joins the police force aged 41,” reveals Declan, who met writing partner Adam when they were working together on Panorama, the BBC’s in-depth investigative reporting series (like Carte Blanche in South Africa). But while Blue Lights has the same mid-life career change to policing theme as The Rookie or The Rookie: Feds, it is more focused on the drama than the comedy side of that decision – although there’s plenty of wry banter in the trainees’ police station, and the off-kilter Irish approach to finding the humour in the darkest situations will appeal to fans of series like Rosie Molloy Gives Up Everything.
“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,” says Adam. “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?”
To get answers to that question, they went directly to the source.
“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,” reveals Declan. Adam adds, “If you are going to write fictional stories and characters that feel real, why not meet people who do the job for real? In no precinct is that required more than if you are going to represent a police force, especially a police force in a post-conflict society like Northern Ireland. Our research stage gave us a backstage pass as to the mechanisms of how a police force works.”
Given the current public perception of police and policing, though, why would someone like Grace choose to leave social work to be a cop? As actress Siân Brooke sees it, Grace is desperate to find a place where her actions can make an immediate difference. “I think that decision is hugely informed by the job she used to do and the frustrations of working in that environment. She wants to do a job where she can make a difference and be on the frontline of that change,” says Siân.
Like Declan and Adam, Siân threw herself head-first into research to prepare for the role. “I read hundreds of articles, spoke to police officers and social workers and gathered as much information as I could to build the character. We were lucky enough to visit a PSNI station and talked at length with the officers there. This was invaluable, as they gave us so many insights into what the actual day-to-day life of a serving officer is really like and how it impacts upon their personal life … I remember one of them saying they made so many mistakes the first time, they had to start all over again!
Siân describes a police car as “basically an office on wheels”, which you then have to get out of while carrying and wearing all the things. “The surprising thing was how heavy the vests were when all the equipment was on – truncheons, radios, batteries, handcuffs, notepads, guns – and then having to leg it after someone at any given moment!” And Siân was able to draw on personal experience for the emotional side of the job. “My dad was a policeman so it’s a world I was very familiar with growing up. I remember my dad dressed in his uniform every day and him having to be on call and the ingrained responsibility that goes with that role,” she reveals.
Small choice, huge impact
A police officer’s responsibilities can weigh heavily. As Declan explains, “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 consequences of the tiny decisions we make every day.”
“There’s a line at the heart of the show where Helen (Joanne Crawford), who’s training the rookies, asks trainee 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’,” says Declan.
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