‘You’re a brave wee peeler, aren’t you?’ In Blue Lights, an uneasy peace grips Belfast

Television: In BBC’s gritty new cop drama, an idealistic PSNI recruit is quickly set straight on limits of what police could or should try to do

Blue Lights: Siân Brooke as Grace, who has given up her career as a social worker so she can make a difference as a cop. Photograph: Gallagher Films/Two Cities Television/BBC

British cop shows have in recent years veered from the depressing (Happy Valley) to the ridiculous (Line of Duty). But Blue Lights (BBC One, Monday, 9pm), from the Northern Ireland duo of Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, is in another category entirely. It’s gritty and sometimes grim, but it never loses sight of the humanity of those on either side of the thin blue line.

The milieu is the hyperspecific one of post-Troubles Northern Ireland. While an uneasy peace grips Belfast, old ghosts are still abroad. Sectarian division has metastasised into gangland conflict. And the PSNI is not universally accepted.

These realities are bluntly communicated to a naive recruit, Grace (Siân Brooke), when she and her partner, Stevie (Martin McCann), venture into a republican area. “You’re a brave wee peeler, aren’t you?” says a kid on a bike. Within a few minutes bricks are flying, a riot brewing.

Lawn and Patterson’s big idea is to portray the police as normal people rather than either granite-hewn heroes or corrupt weasels. Grace has idealistically given up her career as a social worker in order to make a difference as a cop. But she is quickly set straight on the limits of what the police could or should try to do.


“We do what we can on the day. That’s it. That’s where the job ends,” Stevie says after Grace attempts to help a mother whose son has fallen in with a bad lot. The family, Stevie adds, are “frequent flyers” known to the police; to do anything other than the minimum is to invite trouble.

Trouble comes anyway. Patrolling sectarian neighbourhoods, the cops remove their name tags, so that the hatred does not follow them home. But for Grace and her fellow rookies things still go amiss, as we see when another newbie, Annie (Katherine Devlin), receives a bloody nose from the younger member of a crime family. He spotted her body cam was switched off and so swung with impunity – and then said she had started the whole thing.

It’s a strange claim for a series that features bloodied noses and traumatised parents, but Blue Lights’ best quality is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Every morning is a new start for the recruits and their fellow officers, and they go about their jobs with a mix of cynicism and idealism.

There are suggestions of corruption on the margin, and MI5 seems to be staking a claim on the PSNI’s territory with a warning that the police should stay clear of a local gangland figure. But these are presented as part of the daily grind of police work rather than world-altering events. It makes for a low-key cop show that speaks to the bigger truth that life is a challenge to be met one day at a time.