‘Remember your training Grace, get the rifle.’ We’re only moments into the opening episode of the superb new police procedural Blue Lights when we are reminded this is a very different cop show. In Northern Ireland, where it is set, policing the semi-skimmed peace still carries the additional risk of being ambushed by terrorists. Being tooled up, even for a traffic stop, can be a matter of life and death.
Grace and Stevie, her mentor – and possibly more as the series develops – are two central characters in a six-part BBC drama that manages to humanise the lives of the men and women in the Police Service of Northern Ireland without mawkishness. It follows three rookie cops working in a threadbare and often overwhelmed Belfast response team. Readers old enough to remember Hill Street Blues, the groundbreaking US cop show that introduced us to the idea that police officers were three-dimensional characters with flaws as big as their strengths, will not be disappointed. The Northern Irish writers Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson who created this gem grew up in Belfast and are both old enough to remember RUC officers – that body of constables now incorporated into the PSNI – being murdered, often while responding to routine calls. This unquiet past frequently intrudes into the lives of officers policing the present: finding ways to check your car for booby traps without drawing the attention of your neighbours; carrying a pistol off duty for personal protection; disguising what you do for a living; not being allowed into ‘out of bounds’ areas with no reasons given. All these striking abnormalities bind the cops, including those on probation, into a camaraderie that is beautifully exposed; the insularity it creates is unsparingly examined too.
The unique stresses of policing modern Northern Ireland are well illustrated by a talented cast and a deft, often mordantly humorous script.