Blue Lights review: A tiresome look at policing in Northern Ireland

BBC One show follows three probationary officers in one of the most difficult forces in the country

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 28 March 2023 08:32 BST
Blue Lights trailer

It seems unkind to mark down any drama that tries to find its way through the continuing tensions in Northern Ireland, but the problem with BBC One’s Blue Lights is that there’s no one to really root for. All the characters in the story are either loathsome or pathetic, with some a mix of both. It does tend to mirror the politics in the province in recent times, incidentally, but that’s not really the point.

Blue Lights is the story of three probationary officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Grace Ellis, Annie Conlon and Tommy Foster, played with a kind of uncharming naivety by Sian Brooke, Katherine Devlin and Nathan Braniff, respectively. They spend much of their time getting stoned (not in the nice way) and being derided and mocked by their colleagues, who seem to resent the idea that anyone would actually want to do the job they do. Not a happy lot.

Through their usual police work – stopping suspicious cars, being called out to neighbour disputes and getting assaulted just because they’re police officers – their lives become entangled with the locals, and will do so for the rest of the series (assuming they survive). These citizens comprise an unstable single mum (Angela Mackle, portrayed by an impressively out-of-her-head Valene Kane), her easily led son Gordy (Dane Whyte O’Hara), who is drifting into crime, and the deeply evil men of violence who are preying on the family – led by the McIntyres, a father and son team of chilling demeanour. Our hapless junior cops also manage to offend some sinister British MI5 agents, the “sneaky beakies”, whose unofficial presence everyone knows about, and everyone resents (about the only thing all of the Northern Irish protagonists might agree on).

The main weakness in all of this is that the police trainees are so useless that you don’t actually want them to succeed – even against the terrorist scum of the earth. This is especially true of probationary police officer Grace Ellis (Brooke), who, despite warnings from the security services and her more worldly wise colleagues, insists on wanting to “help” Angela and her boy Gordy, a foul-mouthed petty criminal who seems to enjoy being an apprentice monster. The British spooks keep trying to tell the goofing wannabe PSNI plods that the Mackles are “OOB”, out of bounds, but Ellis, previously a social worker, wants to make her corner of Northern Ireland a nicer place, even if it means blowing the cover on an MI5 covert operation. When she says to her more experienced, and realistic, mentor officer: “Have you ever thought there’s maybe a different way of doing this job?” you really do share his evident irritation.

What the writers, Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, do get very right is the sense of sheer exhausting frustration of policing a place where the usual challenges are overlaid with ethnic-national hatreds and the ever-present possibility of assassination. It doesn’t take long to realise why coppers in Northern Ireland used to go around in armoured Land Rovers with the Army in support, and why their interventions in some neighbourhoods have to be limited to 10 minutes; after that a wee crowd gathers, and the bricks and bottles, or worse, come out. There are flashes of gallows humour, almost literally, but the gloom is otherwise unrelieved, and frankly is a bit tiresome to watch.

There’s a story, apparently well founded, that in the early 1970s – as the violence during the Troubles was escalating towards uncontrollable levels – the clubbable, avuncular Tory home secretary of the day, Reggie Maudling, flew out to Belfast. His visit was to see if some start could be made on peace and a political agreement. After a day or two of being yelled at and dodging the bullets, Maudling clambered back into his RAF transport and said: “For God’s sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country!”

It’s a regrettable attitude, and one that sadly typified so much of successive governments’ attitudes towards the province and the agonies that its people had to endure. A lot has obviously changed in recent times, particularly in policing, but Blue Lights is a reminder that trouble for the PSNI is never that far away.

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