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Sian Brooke 'fell in love with Belfast' making gritty police drama Blue Lights

Despite its depictions of violence, Sian Brooke says new police drama Blue Lights is a homage to the city of Belfast.

Sian Brooke as Grace in Blue Lights.

Sian Brooke as Grace in Blue Lights. Image: BBC

It’s almost 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, ushering in an era of peace in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Assembly was established, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) became the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), paramilitaries decommissioned thousands of weapons. But as we hit that anniversary, the promised sunlit uplands are still distant for some communities. The shadow of the Troubles is long, and many of the old power structures remain in place. Against this contemporary backdrop, the BBC’s new drama, Blue Lights, starring Sian Brooke, follows rookie PSNI officers in Belfast, a city where they still face unique challenges – and danger. 

Like many who aren’t from Northern Ireland, Brooke says she didn’t really understand the complexities of the situation until she started work on the series. 

“I didn’t understand the human side of it, I suppose,” she explains. “I didn’t have a deeper understanding of how it really weaves into people’s lives.” 

Blue Lights is Sian Brooke’s first major leading role after appearing in some of the biggest series on UK TV, including House of the Dragon, Good Omens, Apple TV’s Trying and a very memorable turn as Sherlock’s sister Eurus in the Benedict Cumberbatch series. “In Sherlock I played a complete psychopath,” she says. “I don’t know what it says about me, but I loved playing a psychopath. You get to behave so outrageously, and do things you would never ever dream of doing in real life.” 

Written by ex-Panorama documentary makers Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, both from Northern Ireland, Blue Lights is very much grounded in reality. To this Belfast-born reporter at least, it feels impressively authentic. As the minds behind The Salisbury Poisonings – the BBC’s most watched drama of 2020 – Lawn and Patterson also know how to turn complicated real-life events into watchable telly.  

“That’s the beauty of Adam and Declan’s writing,” says Brooke. “They know the mechanics of how that city lives and breathes. They were investigative journalists, so they’re curious with their research and I think that shows.” 

Blue Lights shows the near impossibility of policing communities who’ve learned to trust paramilitaries before PSNI. It shows the personal risk that remains for officers, who check their cars for bombs and vary their routes home lest they be followed. We also see the drug dealing that props up local bosses, the despairing mothers who can’t stop their sons joining up with the IRA or UVF. Early in the series, one young lad gets kneecapped – shot in both his legs. His father has delivered him for the ‘punishment attack’, fearful of an even worse outcome if he doesn’t. There’s little investigators can do when the victim is saying nothing. 

But Brooke’s character is determined to see someone pay. Grace is a single mum and former social worker who’s changed career in her 40s to join the PSNI. Refusing to accept conventional wisdom, perhaps partly because she was born in England, it’s not clear if she’s an agent of hope or chaos. Will her interventions strike a blow for justice, or merely expose vulnerable people to harm? 

“There’s a real naive optimism in there,” Brooke agrees. “She won’t back down if she thinks her moral compass is pointing in the right direction. Sometimes you need that in life. Especially in recent times. We all get a bit sort of, ‘Oh well, what difference would it make if I stand up? It won’t change anything.’ Then you’ve got this character that’s going: it might, though. You have to have that glimmer of hope.” 

Sian Brooke, star of Blue Lights
Sian Brooke. Photo by: David Reiss

In Blue Lights, the PSNI officers rely on their comrades and shared (sometimes dark) humour to face a difficult job. Brooke did a lot of research – including talking to serving officers, social workers and other Belfast residents – to get the role right, but this element was close to home.  

“My dad was a policeman. So that world wasn’t as alien to me,” she says. “I understood the banter and the camaraderie because my dad’s friends would come back to our house. Adam and Declan have captured the friendships within the job, and how important they are. How much time you spend with this person in a car. They spend more time with each other than they probably do with anybody else, in this tiny little office on wheels. So you have to put up with all their quirks.”  

Perhaps counterintuitively given some of the subject matter, Sian Brooke says Belfast found a real place in her heart in the four months she spent there. “Oh my god. I fell in love with that city,” she says. “The reason is the people. They’re just really, really blooming funny. People like to chat and I think sometimes we don’t have that as much in our lives any more. There’s an absolute incredible resilience there that I loved as well: this ability to pick yourself up and just keep going.” 

She hopes that positive side of Belfast will shine through in the series.

“It’s made by people who are really proud of the city that they live in. And I think it’s about time that was portrayed. It’s sort of a homage to Belfast, and all the incredible people that make up that city.” 

You can watch Blue Lights on BBC One from Monday March 27 at 9pm. It will also be available on BBC iPlayer.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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