While we wait for the next series of Line of Duty, here’s another ruggedly realistic police drama to tide us through the long nights. Although Bloodlands (BBC One) is created by first-time writer Chris Brandon, a former actor, it comes with Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio’s imprimatur. He’s the executive producer, and in interviews the star James Nesbitt has described the new four-parter as a “classic Jed Mercurio thriller, where you’re not really sure what’s going on, with many different stories interwoven in it”.
Nesbitt plays Tom Brannick, a Northern Irish policeman with tragedy in his past. Older readers may remember Murphy’s Law, in which Nesbitt played a Northern Irish policeman with tragedy in his past. While Tommy Murphy in Murphy’s Law had a dead daughter, Brannick has a dead – or at least vanished – wife, Emma. Murphy was undercover; Brannick is uniformed. Despite these differences, Nesbitt eases into the role like a favourite coat. Middle age suits Nesbitt; he gives Brannick an anguished, unforced humanity, a decent man driven to distraction.
At the start of the first episode, a Range Rover is pulled out of Castleford Lough in County Down. It’s surprising more series haven’t been set here. With the Mourne mountains lurking on the horizon, the hills and sea make a landscape as soulful as any in the UK. Although it looks like Pat Keenan, a local construction boss, killed himself, the car also contains a clue that he has been abducted. A sinister voice message connects the case to “Goliath”, a suspected assassin, working from within the police force around the time of the Good Friday Agreement. Old wounds are opened, especially when a police car is petrol bombed outside the station in retaliation for the investigation.
With the help of his deputy, Niamh (Charlene McKenna), Brannick starts digging into historic disappearances, at one point literally, despite the objections of his boss, Jackie Twomey (Lorcan Cranitch). Emma worked in military intelligence, and was one of the suspected Goliath killings.
After a slightly sluggish opening in which we meet Brannick’s daughter Izzy (Lola Petticrew), a medical student at Queen’s in Belfast, and her teacher Tori (Lisa Dwan), Bloodlands soon hits its stride. As with Line of Duty, it goes to great care to give its twists a feeling of plausibility. Line of Duty depends on bent coppers and organised crime gangs. Mercurio’s other blockbuster, Bodyguard, spun a tale of government conspiracy. In some ways, the Troubles are a more natural background for a tortuous crime thriller. With so much divided loyalty, family allegiance and simmering resentment swirling around, it doesn’t take much to imagine cases from 20 years ago rearing their heads. “You’ll start a war,” Towmey tells Brannick, trying to warn him against reopening the Goliath case. They’re standing in front of the Harland & Wolff gantry cranes, bright yellow against the grey skies, a visual metaphor for history that looms large in the present.