Bloodlands is well worth watching – just don't expect Line of Duty

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

27 February 2021

9:00 AM





Stand Up and Deliver

Channel 4

To begin on a cheerful note, it’s certainly been a good week for fans of slow-burn British crime dramas with one-word titles in which an anguished middle-aged cop investigates murders from the 1990s while also battling police bureaucracy.

Bloodlands has been described in several newspapers as the latest exhilaratingly twisty thriller from Jed Mercurio, creator of Line of Duty. But, as Adam Curtis would say, this is an illusion. For one thing, while it was made by Mercurio’s new production company, it’s written by newcomer Chris Brandon. For another, so far at least, there’s little in the way of either exhilaration or twistiness. Instead, this is essentially a thoughtful, rather sombre exploration of the moral compromises behind the 1998 Northern Ireland peace agreement.

It started in County Down with the disappearance of local businessman Pat Keenan, once an IRA leader. His abandoned car was found with a postcard of the Goliath crane from the Harland & Wolff shipyard taped to it: a postcard that caused James Nesbitt as DCI Tom Brannick to go for the first of his many troubled stares. In early 1998, the same postcard was the trademark of an equal-opportunities serial killer who abducted and murdered extremists from both sides, apparently to prevent them undermining the peace talks.

But there was also a more personal reason for those Nesbitt stares. Among the four victims was Brannick’s wife, a military intelligence officer, whose danger to peace we’ve yet to learn, and whose body, like those of the others, had never been found. Then again, they’d never been looked for. Believing the killer was one of their own, the police had decided that news of a murderous copper on the loose wouldn’t help the peace talks much either, and had backed away from the whole business. So was this latest incident a chance to wake sleeping dogs at last?

Well, not according to Brannick’s boss Jackie Toomey (Lorcan Cranitch), who thinks that investigating Keenan’s disappearance too thoroughly — and with it those from 1998 — might only revive old enmities. Of course, in crime-drama land, such obstructive behaviour from the higher-ups is not unusual. What makes Bloodlandsstand out is the suggestion that Toomey might be right. The Northern Ireland we see here is a place where sectarian differences still dominate and where, after 23 years, peace is still fragile. As the presence of Brannick’s twentysomething daughter shows, a generation has now grown up who never knew the Troubles. So might it even be that anaesthetising those dogs back in 1998 was the least bad option?

Sunday’s episode did end with the dramatic discovery of four bodies, including Brannick’s wife. But this felt less like a twist and more like a confirmation of both the basic plot and the fact that Bloodlandsis a drama whose heart lies in political debate rather than flat-out thrills. My advice is that it’s well worth watching — just don’t expect Line of Duty.

The fourth series of ITV’s reliably good Unforgottenbegan with the Cockney bantz of two scrapyard workers dying on their lips as a body fell out of a recently dumped freezer, where it turned out to have been since 1990. DS Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) was soon on the scene, but without his regular partner Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker), who was applying for early retirement on grounds of general burn-out. To her surprise, although not ours, her application was then rejected and she joined the investigation, vowing (in vain, I fear) not to get too emotionally involved.

Meanwhile, the show went about its usual first-episode business of showing us four seemingly unrelated people across the country going about their usual business. By the end, the intriguing link between them had been revealed. Nonetheless, it felt as if the main purpose of this calmly efficient opener was to demonstrate that we were once again in safe hands — in which case mission was definitely accomplished. Had it been a new show, we might perhaps have been baying for more action. With this one, the sense was of a programme that’s well-established enough to trust its viewers to trust it.

Which just leaves the most astonishing TV moment of the week — from Stand Up & Deliver, where five celebs are being mentored in the comic arts by five comedians. Thursday’s first part of two featured a performance in which we were told: ‘If there’s a threat to British values, fuck the Muslims, look at the cabinet. Fucking hell, I wonder what the white old Etonians are planning. They don’t believe in democracy any more. They don’t believe in the rule of law any more.’ Granted, this might sound like just another blast of joke-free agitprop posing as stand-up — except that the performer was Baroness Warsi, former chair of the Conservative party.

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