Leading Lights

Leading Lights

April 16, 2024

In production

Blue Lights co-creators and executive producers Louise Gallagher and Stephen Wright illuminate DQ on the origins of the Northern Ireland-set police series, why it’s actually a workplace drama and what’s in store for season two.

Northern Irish actor James Ellis made his name as the star of classic British crime series Z-Cars, and his name has since inspired that of a character in Blue Lights, the Belfast-set police drama that became one of the BBC’s biggest new shows of 2023.

Blue Lights is now back for a second season, with Sîan Brooke reprising her role as Grace Ellis, one of three new Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) probationary recruits navigating their way through their first few months in a particularly complex place to be a response police officer.

Returning to air on BBC One last night, the authentic, suspense-driven and darkly funny drama follows ordinary people doing an extraordinary job in a city where the police have a unique relationship with the public they serve. Martin McCann, Katherine Devlin, Nathan Braniff, Joanne Crawford, Andi Osho and Hannah McClean also return for season two, while new cast members include Frank Blake, Seamus O’Hara, Seàna Kerslake and Dearbhláiile McKinney.

Blue Lights is co-created, written and directed by Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, co-created and produced by Stephen Wright of Two Cities Television and co-created and coproduced by Louise Gallagher of Gallagher Films. All four also executive produce the series, which has been sold internationally by BBC Studios into countries including the US, Australia, the Netherlands, Poland, Norway, India, Malaysia and Singapore.

Here, Gallagher and Wright tell DQ about the origins of the project, partnering with Lawn and Patterson, what’s in store in season two and the future of the series after the BBC greenlit third and fourth seasons of the drama.

L-R: Declan Lawn, Louise Gallagher, Stephen Wright and Adam Patterson

How did you both come together to co-create the show with Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson?
Wright: I always wanted to make a police drama in Belfast. I used to be head of drama for BBC Northern Ireland, and it had always been in the back of my mind. Louise approached me with the initial bones of an idea about seven years ago.

Gallagher: It was 2015 and, like Stephen, I had always wanted to make a police show, having grown up watching Cagney & Lacey, Starsky & Hutch, Hill Street Blues and The Bill. All of those series always fascinated me and, growing up in Derry and in Belfast, we were surrounded by police all the time, but I was always fascinated by who these people were and why they did this job. I took an initial idea of something about the PSNI to Stephen, and we were in for a couple of days of development but something just wasn’t clicking. It didn’t land at the time, but Stephen said, ‘You’ve got something here. Have another think about it.’ So I went away and I did that for three years.

Wright: Louise was doing a reading of a feature film she was producing in London and invited me along. We were having a coffee afterwards and I asked her, ‘Whatever happened to that idea?’ It was at that point that it became a bit clearer for me, and it was probably always clear in Louise’s head that it was really about the characters and this central notion of somebody changing careers in their late 30s or early 40s to go into policing. Suddenly we had an interesting way in, and we had somebody – Grace – who was coming in with a lot of other life experience. Then once Declan and Adam got involved, the other characters started to come around the Grace character.

Sîan Brooke as Grace, a former social worker who joins the PSNI in Blue Lights

In season one, Grace is a former social worker and one of three new cops who we follow into the world of the PSNI…
Gallagher: I’d been talking to a lot of police officers, and [the series] was inspired by two people in particular who were social workers. For reasons personal to them, they decided they felt they could do more by joining the police because they had quite a lot of contact with the police during their day-to-day work as social workers, working with young people in care, vulnerable adults and people generally.
One of the taglines we had is these are ordinary people doing an extraordinary job. They were from all walks of life in Northern Ireland, from all different political or religious backgrounds. People from certain sections of the community are not encouraged to join the police, but people do and these two particular people did, and that just fascinated me.
Then when we sat down with Declan and Adam, with their journalistic backgrounds, we were all on the same page. It all came together quite quickly [from there]. The characters are all examples of people we knew or people we were talking to and within our own working environments.

Wright: Once we had the anchor point of Grace’s character, we just immersed ourselves in the research, talked to people and absorbed as much as we could. Then in terms of the writers room and the writing process, it was about distilling that.
Because there was so much material, Louise was very good at saying, ‘Always bring it back to the point of view of the police.’ We wanted to make it about response policing and the police officers who are picking up the pieces in people’s lives when there’s a crisis – and it can be any crisis. They could be a victim of a crime, a mental health crisis, it can be a crisis related to drink or drugs consumption.
It feels ordinary when you talk about it that way, but the more we talked to police officers and the more aware we were of what they were dealing with, we could actually tell great stories that way. We have that element of policing, and then we have the historical element and the continuing political element of policing in Belfast. That is where the stories come from.

Grace is one of three new recruits, alongside Nathan Braniff as Tommy and Katherine Devlin as Annie

How did you want to address Northern Ireland’s unique political history against the personal lives of the officers and the case-of-the week and season-long story arcs?
Wright: The thing we landed on was that when they went home from work, the work didn’t leave them because they were always regarding their personal security and the security of their family. A person joins the police for a new career and ends up having to change their life, changing where they live, breaking ties with the community. We wanted to get into the heart of that.
We also felt a moral [duty] to look at the real dangers in our society and handle violence in a responsible way. If there was a victim of violence or an act of violence, in some way we would try to look at the repercussions of that and the consequences. We didn’t want to get into using violence as a way of turning story and a plot point and moving on to something else. That probably came from all our collective experiences of living in Belfast.

Gallagher: We also wanted to show the effect these incidents had on the officers themselves – and we show that through Grace and how she deals with the paramilitary-style attack on JP [Isaac Heslip] in episode three of season one, and the effect that has on her. She has a kid at home around the same age and that could be her child.

The first season was one of the BBC’s biggest new shows of 2023. What do you think worked well and were there things you wanted to improve as work began on S2?
Wright: One of the things we learned from season one was to allow ourselves to spend more time with our characters and dig into their stories. We could certainly do more of that. The satisfying thing for me was that people connected with the characters. They wanted to stick with them. Declan and Adam have done a great job, among our police family, creating real individuals with strengths and weaknesses.
What’s happened in season two is the actors have filled into the characters and begun to take real ownership of them. You get the magic between the writing and the performers meeting, and then on set they create their own moments. As with any show, we are always reminding ourselves what the DNA of the show is and going back to that. Sometimes you can forget that in the pressures of production.

Seasons three and four of the Belfast-set show have already been greenlit

What can you tell us about the story for season two?
Wright: The key thing from a character point of view is in season one, they’re new officers. Now we see them a year on, so they’ve absorbed a lot in their job. How has the job changed them?

Gallagher: The edges have been certainly worn off our three main probationers. They’re a year in. They’re all dealing with loss and they’ve bonded as well as a team. They need to deal with new people coming into the station, and we’re operating more in the east side of the city. Last season was mostly on the west side of the city, but Declan and Adam wanted to focus on the east side this time and the issues facing a certain community there, with drug gangs pitched against each other and the police being in the middle of this. There are different challenges this time.

Wright: It’s the development of how the police relates to a community and builds up trust with the community or loses that trust. We’ve dug into that more in season two, and how when that trust evaporates, there are real issues and real consequences for that community and those officers. That’s something that is probably a regular conversation in politics and policing in Belfast. From a dramatic point of view, it creates tension within the policing community and our police station.

As executive producers, what does it take to make Blue Lights, and what are the logistics of achieving that on location in Belfast?
Wright: It feels like a proper Belfast show, produced by Belfast people, made by Belfast people. What we’re proud of is the fact it travels. But if you asked me about any show, the secret sauce comes down to the scripts and how people respond to the scripts.

Gallagher: I’m a Derry woman and the fact that we can make it in our own home place is really important. There are a lot of productions happening in the north [of Ireland], and we’ve been lucky to surround ourselves with the best of the best in terms of crew, producers, series producers, cast, locations and people who know this place intimately and who can help us get into the communities we need to get into. That helps us keep the authenticity of the show, which is vitally important to us.
Everybody works incredibly hard and they take ownership of it as well, because everyone understands it. In season one, [members of the crew] would come up and say quietly to me ‘that’s my brother’s story’ or ‘that’s my sister’s story’ or ‘my relative’s in the police and we can never really talk about it.’ It feels as if it really meant something to the crew themselves as well, that their stories were being told, in our way, in our voice. Declan and Adam, in terms of the writing, just pitched it perfectly.

Wright: It’s also a workplace drama, so there are people who are good at their jobs, people who are bad at their jobs, people who shouldn’t be doing the job and people who are just lazy. It’s a snapshot of any workplace, but with all the heightened elements of a cop show added to it.

Blue Lights has been picked up in multiple international territories

Blue Lights is also in the rare position of having seasons three and four confirmed ahead of S2’s debut…
Wright: We’re very lucky to have that and very thankful. From day one, from the first time we pitched the idea to the BBC, they have been supportive and generous, and we’ve been backed by some amazing execs and commissioners. From the top down, we’ve been really well supported and it’s a huge vote of confidence. It’s great for the writers because they can plan 12 episodes [across two more seasons]. It’s a huge responsibility and we are going to honour that and push for the best work.

When do you expect to begin work on season three?
Wright: We’re in the writing process. We’ve had our first writers room. We’ll start prep in October and start filming in January next year. That’s our schedule, because we do a lot of research and want to take our time to get those scripts right before we get into production.

The series has also proven to be a hit around the world, selling to multiple countries…
Wright: What’s fun about that is I don’t do social media at all, but Declan is quite prominent on social media and he’s getting messages from cops in America, saying, ‘Next time you’re in New York, we’ll take you out for a ride along and see what it’s like for us.’ I met the Spanish buyers in London and they got the show because they also got the politics of policing because of their own history in Catalonia and the Basque Country, and it did really well for them.

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