Action, Humor, and Heart: A ‘Blue Lights’ Recipe For Success Brewed Up in Belfast

Picture shows: Stevie (Martin McCann), Grace (Siân Brooke), Annie (Katherine Devlin), and Tommy (Nathan Braniff).

Stevie (Martin McCann), Grace (Siân Brooke), Annie (Katherine Devlin), and Tommy (Nathan Braniff).

© Todd Antony/BBC/Two Cities Television

The first and most important thing you need to know about Blue Lights – returning for its second 6-episode season on BritBox this week – is Belfast. It’s set in Belfast, its co-creators and writers are Belfast natives, it stars actors from the greater Belfast metropolitan area, and it’s about life in Belfast for people on both sides of the law. The series’ first season introduced viewers to three brand-new PSNI constables, all of whom were serving the final weeks of their probationary period partnered with more experienced officers at a Belfast police station. 

Throughout the season, kind-hearted and earnest Tommy (Nathan Braniff), former social worker and single mother Grace (Sîan Brooke), and talented hothead Annie (Katherine Devlin) grow into the kind of officers their tough, caring Sergeant McNally (Joanne Crawford) can be proud of. Experience comes at a cost, though: by the end of the first season, a mentor they all love and respect has been murdered, Grace’s biracial son has grown disgusted with the casual racism he faces every day at the hands of the police, and Annie has had to move out of her family home to protect her mother’s safety. 

Ahead of Blue Lights’ second season debut, series co-creators and writers Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, along with actors Braniff, Brooke, and Devlin, sat down with Telly Visions to chat about how much fun they’re all having, working on a gripping, intense show that’s near to overflowing with deep personal and societal meaning. 

Nathan Braniff as Tommy Foster and Katherine Devlin as Annie Conlon in 'Blue Lights' Season 2

Nathan Braniff as Tommy Foster and Katherine Devlin as Annie Conlon in 'Blue Lights' Season 2

Two Cities Television/BBC

Blue Lights’ creators worked as journalists in Belfast for 16 years before creating the series, and like their American role model, David Simon, they imbue their crime drama with the reporter’s eye for crucial details and fascinating characters and with profound love for their beautiful, flawed hometown, in all its complexity. They’re upfront about the debt they owe to Simon’s early 2000s masterpiece, The Wire, which took a similarly holistic approach to dramatizing the full spectrum of life in Baltimore. 

Lawn notes that “in a very counterintuitive way, we have found it easier to say controversial things as drama writers than we could as journalists,” while Patterson elaborates, “drama allows us to focus a lot more on character,” because with “four or six hours in the season, you can really drill down” into what makes their characters tick. Their other favorite police drama, Hill Street Blues, provided guidance for the “propulsive nature” of their series plotting.

Location and history provide the bedrock undergirding Blue Lights. Even 26 years after the Good Friday Agreement was ratified by a national referendum in Northern Ireland, the havoc wreaked by The Troubles continues to reverberate. Patterson reflects, “We were alive when The Troubles still existed, but I think even more importantly, we’ve been alive through the transition piece, which is very much still ongoing.” The pair feel a responsibility “to be respectful of the fact that there are still issues and that they’re not forgotten…we have to be honestly reflective about what [our characters] go through.” 

Andi Osho as Sandra Cliff radios for backup in 'Blue Lights' Season 2

Andi Osho as Sandra Cliff in 'Blue Lights' Season 2

Two Cities Television/BBC

Lawn wholeheartedly agrees, chiming in that the “transgenerational trauma that has been handed down to kids who didn’t experience The Troubles” has resulted in “quite a lot of division there that is slowly improving.” The creators both identify the thorny question of “how we deal with the past, societally and individually,” as the central theme of Blue Lights. The series explores that theme in its second season through the lens of a power struggle within a Loyalist enclave, a version of self-protection and self-governance gone very wrong.

The series’ approach to theme and character development instantly appealed to the trio of actors at the heart of the series. Braniff and Devlin’s roles on Blue Lights are their first significant TV performances, and they emphasized how special it is to be cast in a show both set and shot in their region, where they could use their natural accents. Devlin called it “a very full-circle moment, such a gift.” For her part, Brooke was hooked instantly by the screenwriting. “I was just absolutely mesmerized by their writing, the care and craft they put into this world,” where just about anything can happen. 

Between the gripping action sequences — car chases, stand-offs between police and crime bosses, and near-escapes — and moments of unexpected humor, Braniff finds himself almost wondering, “How am I ever gonna get another job as good as this one?” and seconds later acknowledging that “it’s a good problem to have.” The three actors are keen to see how audiences receive certain romantic developments in their characters’ arcs, even (or maybe especially) because, as Devlin puts it, “These characters are flawed, they’re messy, and they get themselves into really sticky situations, which is exciting to watch.” 

Martin McCann as Stevie Neil and Siân Brooke as Grace Ellis on patrol in 'Blue Lights' Season 2

Martin McCann as Stevie Neil and Siân Brooke as Grace Ellis in 'Blue Lights' Season 2

Two Cities Television/BBC

Blue Lights’ near-immediate international popularity took the on- and off-camera creative teams very pleasantly by surprise, but maybe it shouldn’t. Sîan Brooke reflects that the series is an all-rounder, featuring humor and “real, true emotional journeys” that let them “delve into what it is to be a human being doing this job.” Lawn and Patterson are just as happily agog at their show’s success. 

Lawn enthuses, “We didn’t anticipate that the show would go down so well in other countries. Places like Spain, Austria, New Zealand, Ireland, and Norway have been up there with their top crime dramas.” It’s not bad for a show that Lawn describes as one that “we really wrote for ourselves and Northern Ireland and Belfast” without any expectation that it would resonate so deeply outside Ulster. 

It’s gratifying for a creative team who took a gamble by making a series set in Belfast, which “is not a big global city, and you make no compromises in the way people speak, you don’t explain stuff, you’re just very dedicated” to verisimilitude and a singular vision. The commitment has paid off, and then some: Blue Lights is already greenlit for two more seasons

Blue Lights Season 2 debuts with two episodes on Thursday, June 13, 2024, on BritBox and streams two episodes every Thursday through the end of the month. All episodes of Season 1 are available now. Season 3 is expected out in 2025.

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Sophie has been happily steeping in the potent brew of British TV since her parents let her stay up late on a Thursday watching the Jeremy Brett adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. She loves mysteries, espionage thrillers, documentaries, and costume dramas, and if you're not careful, she might talk your ear off about the Plantagenets. Sorry about that in advance! 

You can find Sophie on all the platforms as @sophiebiblio and keep an eye on her bylines from all over the internet via her handy portfolio.

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