Daughter’s birthday party; kip on her sofa; off to work the next day; gun checked; then a call that a former senior member of the IRA turned local businessman has gone missing and his van is currently being dragged out of a nearby lough. Such is the life of weary police detective Tom Brannick (James Nesbitt) in new four-part BBC One drama Bloodlands.
Originally written as a calling-card project by actor-turned-writer Chris Brandon, it was noticed by Jed Mercurio (creator of a string of critical and/or commercial hits including Line of Duty, Bodyguard, Bodies and – way back in the day – the scabrously, brutally brilliant Cardiac Arrest). He mentored Brandon and ensured that the story of a man dragged back into his past by the re-emergence of an assassin from the time of the Troubles made the rare journey from spec script to screen.
A caller rings to say that the owner of the van, Pat Keenan, has been kidnapped. Brannick recognises a paramilitary code and a modus operandi that puts him on the trail of “Goliath” – the unidentified suspected killer of four people who disappeared in the lead-up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. One of them – if you have avoided all the programme publicity, in which this twist was frequently sacrificed in order to secure your attention, what I am about to say will count as a spoiler – was Brannick’s wife. Not that his detective sergeant Niamh McGovern (Charlene McKenna) is aware of all of this immediately. “Is there something you’re not telling me?” she asks suspiciously as they leave the loughside. “Yes,” he says firmly. “Now, carry on.”
It emerges that the four disappearances were hushed up at the time in order not to jeopardise the imminent peace agreement. DCS Jackie Twomey (Lorcan Cranitch) is keen that the apparent re-emergence of Goliath doesn’t upset things now and warns Brannick off widening the Keenan investigation and opening old wounds. As a mere visit to Keenan’s wife (Derry Girls’ Kathy Kiera Clarke), who has not yet reported her husband missing, results in the police station being petrol bombed, this at first seems like an understandable instinct. Twomey also has the Goliath files removed from the archive and Brannick’s supportive-of-investigating-kidnappings-properly boss removed from her post to make sure his wishes are followed.
Twomey hasn’t reckoned with the evidence accumulated over the intervening years by the brother of one of the missing people, which leads to a surviving witness statement (though not, alas, a surviving witness) about mysterious digging going on “between the bothy and the tree” on a lough island at the time the four went missing. At first it seems futile – and there is an unconvincing scene in which Brannick suddenly goes mad with grief when the soil refuses to yield any bodies. This is followed by a similarly unpersuasive moment when Brannick’s partner realises they have been digging in the wrong place (it turns out there’s a second tree on the island, and despite the witness statement saying she had been feeding the cows, they had set out from the point of view of the farmhouse, not the cowshed). But something is discovered which is going to make Twomey’s desire to cover things up a lot harder to fulfil.
Those unconvincing later moments are joined by a scattering of doubts throughout – mostly raised by the fact that Nesbitt’s portrayal of a man numbed and scoured out by suffering and uncertainty occasionally leaves you wishing there was a little more outward expression to cling on to.
Nesbitt in real life is involved with Belfast’s Wave Trauma Centre which, among other things, campaigns on behalf of the families of the “Disappeared” – 16 people, mostly civilians, who were kidnapped, killed and deposited in unmarked graves by republican paramilitary groups during the Troubles. Their fates are inescapably evoked here, and make Brannick emblematic of contemporary Northern Ireland itself. He is ineluctably shaped by his experiences, straining towards a better future (Twomey originally secures his cooperation by urging Brannick to think of his daughter and how she has grown up unsurrounded by brutal conflict on all sides as they did), but the past threatens to overwhelm him at every turn.
Only the first episode was available for review, but Bloodlands is shaping up to be a fine addition to the growing genre of Irish noir, which draws power from its concentration on place as well as plot. And it stands as an enjoyably dense and astute thriller (with enough black humour threaded through to let it breathe) in its own right. Mercurio, it seems, can pick ’em as well as make ’em.