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    Monday, July 22, 2024

    ‘Blue Lights,’ a Northern Irish spin on ‘The Wire,’ looks at perils of policing

    When Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson were first approached about making a cop show set in Belfast, they were — to put it mildly — apprehensive.

    Both writers grew up in Northern Ireland, live in Belfast and are deeply familiar with the bloody history of the region. Yet they worried that a series about the city’s police force, which was once overwhelmingly Protestant and viewed with suspicion by the Catholic community, would be too inherently polarizing.

    Even today, more than 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to the country after decades of conflict, “There are some areas where the police can’t go,” Patterson said during a recent visit to New York. “The biggest fear was that the politics of it all would just swallow up anything that we would try to say and become the story. That’s often the case in Northern Ireland.”

    “It’s a big privilege to tell a story about your own place, your own time, in your own voice,” added Lawn. “But it’s also a massive — I would say, at times oppressive — responsibility.”

    But the duo, former broadcast journalists who worked together on the BBC current affairs series “Panorama,” reconsidered after meeting with real Belfast police officers. “These are just ordinary people, and they’re doing a crazy job for not very much money,” Patterson said. “We thought we could tell a brilliant story about family, using the police as a Trojan horse.”

    This idea evolved into “Blue Lights,” a procedural following a trio of fresh recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, or PSNI: Grace (Siân Brooke), a 40-something pivoting from a career as a social worker; Annie (Katherine Devlin), a young rookie whose Catholic background puts her safety at risk; and Tommy (Nathan Braniff), who is insecure but determined to prove himself. They are guided by a team of seasoned vets, including the charming Gerry (Richard Dormer, of “Game of Thrones” fame).

    Season 1 revolved around their pursuit of James McIntyre (John Lynch), a former Irish Republican Army man who is now the head of a crime family based in a Catholic, nationalist neighborhood in West Belfast. The series looked at the ties between the paramilitary groups that terrorized Northern Ireland during the Troubles and the present-day drug trade.

    In Season 2, which began streaming on BritBox earlier this month, the focus shifts across town to a loyalist pub in Protestant East Belfast that is a hub for criminal activity that transcends the political divide. The ambitious six-episode season also explores the city’s heroin epidemic, the impact of government funding cuts and the painful legacy of sectarian violence.

    If this makes “Blue Lights” sound like Belfast’s answer to “The Wire,” well, that’s exactly what Patterson and Lawn had in mind when they created the show. David Simon’s acclaimed Baltimore-set drama was a huge inspiration, particularly in its multifaceted depiction of “a post-industrial city that people hadn’t paid much attention to before,” Patterson said.

    Like Simon, who got his start as a newspaper reporter, Lawn and Patterson spent years traveling around the world as TV journalists. The experiences “teach you a lot about the human condition, and how people will react to great pressure and difficulty,” Patterson said.

    “You would expect that the more bad stuff you see, the more pessimistic view you would have of human nature,” Lawn said. “But our takeaway from all those years was (that) most people are good and decent. The people who aren’t have disproportionate power.”

    They met in 2009, while on assignment in Wales, and wound up staying out until 4 a.m. doing karaoke. (Lawn performed “Stan” by Eminem in a packed, working-class bar.) They formed an instant bond that is evident in person 15 years later: The writers share a jocular, brotherly rapport and are quick to call each other out for being boring.

    They turned to screenwriting as a way to channel their frustration with the constraints of TV journalism. When they were making documentaries, they would meet remarkable people and interview them for hours — only to leave incredible stories on the cutting room floor.

    Their first commission was “The Salisbury Poisonings,” a fact-based BBC miniseries about a botched attempt to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, in 2018.

    They tend to take a journalistic approach to crafting drama, conducting numerous interviews and using this primary material to create relatable characters. For “Blue Lights,” they’ve talked to dozens of police officers, who shared stories about checking under their cars for bombs and living in fear of fringe republicans.

    The history of policing in Belfast is impossible to disentangle from the long conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force in Northern Ireland until 2001, had almost no Catholics in its ranks and was accused of colluding with unionist paramilitary organizations. It was “horribly divisive,” Patterson said.

    The organization was replaced by the PSNI, and there has been a concerted effort to recruit more police officers from Catholic backgrounds. Today, according to the PSNI, about 33% of police officers in the country are Catholic, while 66% are Protestant. The very existence of “Blue Lights” is a sign of the progress that’s been made. “Ten years ago, you couldn’t have made this show,” Lawn said.

    Yet threats remain. Police officers in Northern Ireland regularly carry guns, unlike anywhere else in the UK.

    In Season 2, they delve into the city’s unionist enclaves, leaning on knowledge they gleaned making documentaries about loyalist marching bands. For another storyline involving a character named Happy (Paddy Jenkins), whose family was killed decades ago in a chip shop bombing, they visited the Wave Trauma Center, which provides support to people affected by the Troubles.

    But the new episodes also show how crime has, ironically, brought both sides of the conflict together.

    “The paramilitary framework is essentially now a sugarcoating for drug gangs. These people do go to church, right? They pretend that they’re fighting for the freedom of Ireland, or the loyalty to the British crown, but they’re gangsters,” Patterson said.

    The series has been renewed for a third and fourth season by the BBC (where it airs in the U.K.). In future episodes, they plan to shift to leafy, affluent South Belfast — “where the real criminals are,” Lawn joked.

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