rising stars

‘It’s so important to have diverse accents, not just diverse people’: Blue Lights star Katherine Devlin on her knockout role as a Belfast policewoman

The Irish actor talks to Ellie Harrison about Nothern Ireland’s imperfect peace 25 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, ups and downs at drama school, and why wakes can be such great craic

Friday 28 April 2023 10:07 BST
‘Belfast has a complex history, but there’s hope’
‘Belfast has a complex history, but there’s hope’ (Lorna Tracey)

It’s absolute chaos from the get-go.” Katherine Devlin is talking about Blue Lights, the dizzying BBC One drama in which she plays a rookie police officer called Annie. And it really is. In episode one, her character gets lamped. Throws up. Is spat on. Gets bombarded with death threats. Is forced to move out of her home. Set in Belfast, a city in a state of imperfect peace 25 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the show is a nail-biting insight into the sheer nightmare of daily life for some officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

While the show is not out-and-out “copaganda” – it actually highlights many of the flaws in the peace era force that replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 2001 – it does make you feel for the fresh recruits at its centre, and leaves you wondering, why on earth do any of them go to work in the morning? “Going into the police force [which is majority Protestant], particularly if you’re from a Catholic background like Annie, seems like something that you have to be dedicated to, because your life is quite literally on the line,” Devlin tells me, sipping on a fizzy water in the café at London’s Soho Theatre. “But Annie is stubborn as hell, and her politics and upbringing aside, she genuinely wants to do the right thing.”

As the series rattles on, we see many hangovers from the Troubles that rocked the country for three decades until 1998, from the bitter sectarianism and the horrifying scene of a teenage boy being kneecapped, to the simmering resentment between local coppers and the “sneaky beakies” – the nickname for English MI5 agents. “It’s extremely complex and it’s not just a case of goodies and baddies, either,” says Devlin. “There’s such intricate history there. And it’s so important, now more than ever, to expose certain things like that, particularly to a UK audience – because I think some people can be a bit naive in thinking that those things don’t happen anymore, which they do. But in the North we are ever changing and growing. There is hope, a lot of hope. Particularly in Belfast.”

Devlin and I meet the day after Blue Lights has been renewed for a second series, and the new episodes will see Annie on the beat with fellow probationer Tommy (Nathan Braniff) after the tragic death of his partner, Gerry (Richard Dormer). “Everybody is just absolutely traumatised and so upset that he’s not coming back,” she says of the fan-favourite character. The BBC show is her first prominent screen role, after bit-parts in historical series Vikings and Irish indie drama The Dig. Today, Devlin is wearing a silver Virgin Mary necklace – she was raised Catholic but isn’t religious – under a candyfloss pink scarf and a grey wool cardigan. With cut-glass cheekbones and rosy lips, the actor is just as striking a presence as Annie in Blue Lights. She caveats many of her points with a soft “I suppose”.

Fans of the show might be surprised to learn that when Devlin was filming the scenes where Annie is attacked, she and her co-star Michael Shea (who plays her aggressor Mo) would take the edge off by doing the moonwalk. “Even though the scenes themself were super intense, me and Michael get on really well and we’re both fans of Michael Jackson’s music,” she says. “‘Smooth Criminal’ was in my head consistently throughout those scenes.” She chuckles as she imagines what a strange sight it must have been for anyone passing in the street to see “a cop doing the freaking moonwalk”.

Annie’s uniform – bullet-proof vest, helmet, weapon belt and leather boots – was tough to bear the weight of, day in, day out. “It was so heavy,” says Devlin, her eyes widening. “I was just looking around at the other actors being like, is anybody else feeling this or is it just me? I’m so weak! And when you’re sitting down in the vest, you feel like a bit of a turtle because it just starts to take over,” – she judders her head backwards – “until you’re just like this, with no neck.” She laughs. “I need to start going to the gym for season two. Spoiler – Annie’s getting ripped!”

Devlin is now making her second attempt at moving to London. The last time she tried, she arrived in the city with the entire contents of her life shoved into three big suitcases and a lease signed on a flat, and then she got the call saying she’d been cast in Blue Lights, off the back of a single self-tape she’d done many months before. So off she went, back to Northern Ireland. Luckily, it all worked out for the best and the show has been a hit. “I know, can you imagine?” she says, laughing as she contemplates if it had flopped. “I’d be raging.” For now, she’s based in County Tyrone, where she grew up with her engineer father and art teacher mother, about 40 minutes from Belfast.

When she finished college in Donaghmore, Devlin had five university offers for academic courses like psychology, but she turned them all down. When she told her teacher she wanted to go to drama school, they looked at her like she was “joining the circus”, she says, joking that she’d only done acting on the side and that she lived a “double life” like “Hannah Montana”. After that, she did a foundation course at the Lir Academy in Dublin – where Ireland’s golden boy Paul Mescal trained – and worked a nine to five. “Doing that, as a late teen, and trying to make rent in Dublin, you have to grow up very quickly,” she says. “But I wouldn’t change it, because I feel like I got a bit of resilience from it, especially for the industry… because the industry is hard and scary.”

Devlin and Hannah McClean on the beat in ‘Blue Lights’
Devlin and Hannah McClean on the beat in ‘Blue Lights’ (BBC)

Devlin then moved to Cardiff to study at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. “I took what I could from the training, I suppose,” she says, “but there were other things that didn’t really work for me either.” Like what? “In first year and second year, I really was struggling to find my voice, particularly having a Northern Irish accent and, you know, being in a room and being one of maybe two people who have a different accent, and everybody else perhaps has an English accent. It can sometimes feel intimidating. But, in third year, I suppose I had a bit of a rebirth and I just thought, no, eff this, like, I’m gonna speak my truth.”

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That turning point, she says, came after she was made to do a 30-minute, purely improvised, clowning performance. “After that I was like, just feel the fear and do it anyway,” she says, smiling. “But I do think it’s so important to not only have diverse people in a space, but also diverse accents.”

In Northern Ireland, Devlin’s performance in Blue Lights has been turning heads. “Northern Irish people are honest and, if they don’t like something, they will let you know,” she says. She recently got recognised in the Tyre Safety Centre in her hometown, when she was getting her car fixed with a “raging hangover”. A man asked her to pose for a photo with his baby son, who didn’t look up from his Lego and was none the wiser. And over Easter week, Devlin’s mother went to Mass every single day for an excuse to show off her daughter. “We were all taking the piss because she hasn’t been to Mass in years,” says Devlin.

Devlin speaks fondly of her family, and of how they always find humour in the hard times – like the officers in Blue Lights. “I remember at my granddad’s wake,” she says, “we were drinking until about five in the morning, and it was the best craic. In a way that sounds really disrespectful, but it’s also a celebration, and I think particularly with Irish people, we do tend to just use good craic to get over the worst of things. I have English cousins and they’re always a bit taken aback by our honesty, particularly with my mum. What you see is what you get with her. And I think a lot of Irish people are like that, because we’ve been through quite a lot of s*** as well.”

The actor is looking forward to weighing herself down with Annie’s uniform again in Blue Lights this summer, but she also keeps an ever-extending list of people she’d love to work with. Devlin brings it up on her phone just before we go our separate ways. “Oh yes, director Allen Coulter who did Remember Me, and Jessica Kelly who did the casting for Midsommar,” she says. “Oh, and Darren Aaronofsky, who made The Whale. That’s a bit of me!”

‘Blue Lights’ is available to watch in full on BBC iPlayer

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