Irish crime thriller Bloodlands follows Detective Chief Inspector Tom Brannick (James Nesbitt) and Detective Sergeant Niamh McGovern (Charlene McKenna), who are investigating the disappearance of former IRA leader Pat Keenan (Peter Ballance). A strange clue on the scene suggests the new case may be tied to an infamous cold case from 20 years ago. Is the same perpetrator, the so-called Goliath, responsible for the dark events in the present? Don’t miss this exciting first season, now available on streaming service Acorn TV.
I interviewed creator and writer Chris Brandon to uncover what it was like working on the new series.
Do you have a favorite fictional detective?
Apart from Tom Brannick? This is a really good question. I really liked Agent Kujan in The Usual Suspects. He’s cool, but he’s also duped, which is quite enjoyable. The Sherlock stuff is great. I like both versions of it. I enjoy the TV one with Benedict Cumberbatch. I like the Guy Ritchie [films] as well. They’re great.
Looking ahead to when leisure travel is considered safe again, is there a place you’d recommend near Belfast that our readers should visit?
Strangford Lough, every time. A lot of Bloodlands is filmed around there, but I think Strangford Lough is a fantastic place to visit. It’s already quite popular because there’s loads of Game of Thrones [tours]. You get loads of people dressed in Game of Thrones stuff, which is enjoyable. It’s beautiful there.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I started as an actor. I was an actor for a little over 10 years. I started writing at drama school, so perhaps I always did want to be a writer. I’ve really enjoyed that transition and being a writer, as head-wrecking as it can be.
Do you find that the acting has informed your writing?
Not consciously. Maybe my experience of a rehearsal and knowing what kind of lines are nice to deliver feeds it, but not in any kind of unique way. It’s another layer to it.
Why did you want to write Bloodlands?
I grew up in this village called Strangford, which is sort of at the neck of a very deep seawater lough in Northern Ireland. I grew up there until I was about 13 and then I came to England. I went back to college in Dublin. I thought I’d become an actor and I was back in the village where I grew up, helping a friend making a short film. I thought the scenery was so good and the light was so amazing there. I thought this would be a really good location, specific for a thriller.
At the time, I was madly into True Detective and a lot of Scandinavian crime thrillers. They all had a distinct sense of place. I thought the same could apply to this small area in Northern Ireland and investigating the rich tapestry of Northern Ireland’s past.
How would you characterize Northern Ireland today?
Northern Ireland for me has been another home. I’ve grown up between England and Northern Ireland. I would describe Northern Ireland today as a really vibrant, forward looking country. It does have a past that it needs to negotiate, but by and large, it’s a fantastic country of nearly two million people. [There’s] beautiful scenery and a great nightlife. It’s got everything you’d want, apart from great weather.
It’s got a fantastic industry for film and TV. It’s an excellent place for production because now there is so much expertise and experience. You can change your scenery and your backdrop in 30 minutes. You can drive in any direction and have a completely different backdrop.
When Jed Mercurio [executive producer and writer for the hit show Line of Duty] came onto this project, what aspects changed between your original script and the new drafts?
Jed is brilliant in so many ways. One of the things he is excellent at is investigating how best to tell a thriller and where to have your points of hooks for getting people to come back. I think probably what changed was how to most effectively tell the story and put hooks in the right places. All of the story elements were there in the original pilot script. Some of them were moved around by necessity because there was only one script. With more space, there was more time to do things. Jed was fantastic and [so was] Mark Redhead, the other executive [producer], in helping me construct that four-episode arc of the whole story.
Did you research forensics and police procedure to get the details in?
Yes, absolutely! We were also very lucky to have forensic and police advisors in the script process and on set who were able to read through and say, “Actually, this works a little bit differently.” Or “There’s a bit of license going on here, but I’ll allow it.”
For me as I watched, a lot of this drama hinges on the performances of James Nesbitt and Charlene McKenna. What did you like about what they brought to DCI Brannick and DS McGovern?
I love it all. Originally when I had written it, I don’t know that I had a specific actress in mind. James Nesbitt came on board very early. He was part of helping to get it across the line with BBC. He’s brought such focus to it and this absolutely fantastic raw energy. You follow him every step of the way, even into these very dark places.
Charlene, I didn’t know until I had seen the audition. Just from the word “go”, she was Niamh McGovern. She has this real sense of street smarts. I really loved that she’s always on top of it and around the information. In my head, that character is essentially me going through the story, going “What’s happening here? Why is this happening?”
She brings another level to that. It’s totally her own character. I love watching her figuring things out in the background and being a diligent and effective police officer. It’s fantastic.
I thought McGovern had a lot of growth between the first episode and the last episode. It was very interesting.
Absolutely. There’s more to come for her.
What was it like to film everything?
It was brilliant. It was surreal at times because we were filming around places where I had grown up. It was hard conditions because it was January, February, March of last year. At that time, the UK and Ireland were being smashed by every name storm. The actors and crew were very very cold, but they pushed through. They were fierce and fantastic.
What’s a big lesson you learned through this experience?
So many. Probably one of the biggest is that understanding of the process between what’s on the page and how it gets made: how many people are involved in the production itself! There’s brilliant expertise right throughout the whole crew. It is mind-blowing really! You realize as the writer you are sort of a small cog in a very big engine, which is fantastic.
I heard you’re renewed for a second season.
Yes, that’s right.
Thank you very much.
What are your expectations for season two? Have you started writing more for that?
Yes, we started planning it out and then writing a bit. I’m enjoying it. My expectations are definitely digging more into that character of Tom Brannick and uncovering some of the unanswered questions and mysteries we’ve raised in season one.