Forget, for a moment, the Irish Sea border, and all the troubles it has brought us. Let us consider instead the fact that it is now the law that in every TV crime drama there must be a scene in which our half-cut cop hero goes to sleep fully dressed on a sofa, only to be rudely awoken the next morning by a call informing him something Very Bad Indeed has happened. The voice at the end of the line, which we can only half hear, will then insist he must be at the scene of the crime, like, yesterday. “OK, I’ll be there in an hour,” he’ll reply, his furrowed brow inducing in the audience sudden hunger with its powerful resemblance to a beef flavour ridge-cut crisp. Cut to our hero dashing from the house without stopping even to squirt some Lynx Africa in the forgotten cave of his armpit.
When all of these things happened – tick, tick, tick and… yes, tick – in the first minutes of Bloodlands (21 February, 9pm) a drama set in Belfast and County Down and starring James Nesbitt, I wondered if I should stick with it. I’m happy I did, though. Chris Brandon, its writer, is a long way from winning the war against cliché; the wait goes on for a non-sardonic female sidekick who doesn’t trust her senior partner implicitly, in spite of strong evidence that he could not be more of a liability if he had a sign above his head that read “LIABILITY”. But its executive producer is Jed Mercurio, the writer of Line of Duty. One episode in, and I’d describe it as Line of Duty with added politics. It’s very exciting, and its plot is intricately tangled.
When DCI Tom Brannick (Nesbitt) arrives at his destination – well within the promised hour – an SUV is being hoisted from Strangford Lough. The car belongs to a former IRA man; the police have received a call, which used a paramilitary code, informing them of the kidnap of its owner. Inside the car is a postcard of the Harland & Wolff gantry cranes in Belfast, one of which is famously nicknamed Goliath – an image whose significance is apparent only to Brannick. Goliath was the name of an investigation that was stymied by the coming of peace in Northern Ireland in 1998 (no one wanted to put the ceasefire at risk by pursuing the case). Back then, there were other, possibly sectarian, kidnappings – the work, it was believed, of a police insider. The bodies of the four disappeared were never found. One of them was Brannick’s wife, who worked in military intelligence.
Let’s put aside the fact it seems unlikely Brannick would be permitted to reopen the Goliath case – even if other more powerful forces are also trying to close him down – given that the mother of his child was one of the victims. It’s hard to believe, too, that his partner, DS Niamh McGovern (Charlene McKenna), could have been hitherto unaware of his loss. You soon stop worrying about such implausibilities, just as you stop worrying about the fact that (in my case) Nesbitt is one of your least favourite actors (if he’s always the same, whatever part he’s playing, it hardly matters here).
It’s all so complicated and thrilling. The show’s deployment of painful recent history is elegantly done, and I love the dialogue which, mournful though it is, has a habit of suddenly breaking into black humour. “We’re halfway to the Galapagos,” said Brannick’s boss, DCS Jackie Twomey (Lorcan Cranitch), on finding himself on a tiny, sodden, windswept island in the middle of the lough.
And what of this Twomey? It seems so blindingly obvious he’s a bad lot that I’m assuming he’s really an angel in disguise. But who knows? All I will say is that Cranitch’s performance is something else: so classy, so controlled. He could not be better cast, his face screwed in frustration like some rusted bolt, his doleful eyes darting like sticklebacks. When he lifts the receiver of the phone on his desk and announces his name to some factotum, a weirdly retro sense of pleasure creeps over me. This is proper, old-school acting: a man of the theatre quietly showing everyone else how it’s done.
This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks