Shining bright

Shining bright

By Michael Pickard
June 13, 2024


Blue Lights star Siân Brooke reflects on the BBC police drama’s second season and the return of Apple TV+ comedy Trying, discusses her “pick ‘n’ mix” approach to roles and reveals why working with Mike Leigh was a “game-changing” moment.

It’s a consequence of modern binge-viewing culture that a series that takes five months to film can be watched in a single day. Yet when it’s one of the biggest police dramas on television and all episodes are made available at once, it’s little wonder audiences find it hard to stick to a broadcaster’s weekly schedule.

That’s certainly the case for Blue Lights, the BBC’s Belfast-set crime show that became one of its biggest new titles in 2023 and had already been renewed for seasons three and four before its second run began in April.

“I’ve had people say, ‘Do you know what? I’ve gone old style. I’ve restricted myself’ – and then by episode three, they’re like, ‘I gave in. I caved,’” star Siân Brooke tells DQ. “And then other people messaged and said, ‘Well, I’ve binged it in one day.’ How can you binge the whole thing in one day?

“It’s hard to comprehend really, because you’re in the middle of it. You film it for five whole months of your year, it becomes a big part of your life and then in five weeks, it’s done. It’s out there. Or in some people’s case, they’ve watched it in a whole day. It is sometimes hard to get your head around that, but it’s all part and parcel of the process.”

Brooke plays Grace, a mother and former social worker who, as the series begins, is one of three new probationary officers to join the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland). Alongside Annie (Katherine Devlin) and Tommy (Nathan Braniff), she must quickly to adjust to the pressures of the job while also working in a city that can be a uniquely dangerous place to be a police officer.

Siân Brooke as PSNI officer Grace Ellis in BBC hit Blue Lights

In season two, as a young loyalist jostles to take over organised crime in the city, the officers face the new prospect of a gangland feud while Grace struggles to deal with her son’s absence and her growing feelings for partner Stevie (Martin McCann).

“I adore her. She’s all the things that I would want to be,” Brooke says of her character, who is always quick to bring her empathy to her work no matter how dangerous the situation. “I just think she’s so brave, ballsy, honest and courageous, and prepared to put her head above the parapet even if she’s going to be in the line of fire. I really relish playing somebody like that.

“At the same time, she doesn’t put up with nonsense and she’s quite cheeky. I quite like her sense of humour and her banter with the wonderful Martin McCann. That’s really great, playing characters where both of them have been around the block and had their relationships. They’ve been burnt by the fire and so they’re a little bit guarded. But I think it makes them really interesting to watch as characters that develop feelings for each other.”

Those feelings cause problems for Grace when she accuses Stevie of trying to protect her while out on their city patrols, though the season finale suggests romance could be on the cards for the pair – something that will no doubt delight the show’s fans.

“The most common question I get asked is, ‘Well, are they going to get together? Come on, you’ve got to tell me. Does she want to be with him?’” Brooke reveals. “In terms of where this goes, you’ve got to give them [the viewers] a rollercoaster, and give them a little bit of what they want. But you still don’t know. It’s still left slightly open in terms of where it could go.”

Grace has a complicated relationship with her partner Stevie, played by Martin McCann

Coming back for season two, creators and writers Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson (The Salisbury Poisonings) had the advantage of writing for the now-established ensemble cast. Brooke describes working with the duo as “amazingly collaborative,” with the cast encouraged to suggest ideas for characters they could be playing for another two seasons at least.

The characters and their camaraderie go a long way to explaining the show’s breakout popularity, coupled with its depiction of policing in Northern Ireland.

“I always strive to be part of and be in shows that are character-driven because, as an actor, that’s amazing. That’s the type of acting I enjoy most and find most rewarding,” Brooke says. “When I got the script, you could see these characters were fully formed and I could say, ‘Oh gosh yes, I know someone like that. I’ve worked with someone like that.’

“Then on top of that, it’s about a part of the world I don’t think the wider world has a great understanding of. There was a want or need to understand it more, and understand it as it is now. So the location and the characters is why it probably feels a little bit different.”

Brooke also recognises that while a lot of television production takes place in Belfast, the city often doubles for another location, and she believes that is one reason Blue Lights has been “taken to the hearts” of people living there.

The Northern Ireland-set series has aired for two seasons so far, with another two already greenlit

“We’ve been welcome in so many different communities, and their support has been amazing,” she continues. “I had never worked in Belfast prior to this show, and I’ve totally fallen in love with the place.”

A screen actor for more than 20 years, Brooke’s early career was marked by roles in A Touch of Frost, Foyle’s War, Hotel Babylon, Midsomer Murders and Doc Martin. More recently, she’s appeared in shows including Good Omens, The Terror, Guilt, No Return and Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon.

It’s a diverse slate of credits that reflects the actor’s own viewing tastes. “I don’t really have an end goal where I say, ‘I really want to do that,’” she says. “I’ve been lucky enough to have a varied career in terms of the parts I’ve played. I’ve played modern and contemporary things, and then I do quite enjoy period dramas as well. It stretches you and takes you into a totally different realm. But I can’t say I prefer one to the other. I quite like to do a little bit of everything. It’s like pick ‘n’ mix.”

One of Brooke’s most prominent roles came in the BBC’s Sherlock, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson respectively. She appeared in 2017’s fourth season as the highly intellectual yet psychotic Eurus Holmes, Sherlock’s “secret” sister who turned up in various disguises before revealing herself to her estranged brother.

At that time, Brooke was swept up in the “hysteria” around the show, which also starred Andrew Scott as Moriarty. “I thought I was just going in for a little part, a cameo or something, and then eventually I realised it was to play this evil maniac sister, and getting to play all these other parts too,” she remembers.

Brooke appeared in the first season of Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon

However, it was a stage role that she identifies as her own breakthrough moment, working with Mike Leigh on the 2011 revival of his 1979 play Ecstasy, which began life at Hampstead Theatre before transferring to the West End.

“It was amazing. To work with him was a real game-changer for me,” she says. “I haven’t done theatre for a few years, but it was where I cut my teeth and where I got my wings as an actor. I worked in theatre for years and years, learning how a script worked, learning how writers work, knowing and understanding and developing my craft and learning from other actors and getting to know what sort of actor I was. It just gave me really strong foundations, and I feel it’s an itch I need to scratch [again]. When you’re in a play, it’s like nothing else.”

While it might be a little while before she heads back to Belfast for filming on the third season of Blue Lights, Brooke also stars in Apple TV+ comedy Trying, which recently returned for its fourth season.

Written by Andy Wolton, it follows the uneven, complicated path to parenthood for Nikki (Esther Smith) and Jason (Rafe Spall), with season four picking up the story six years after season three to see the pair facing new tests posed by their adopted children. Brooke plays Karen, Esther’s sister who now has a six-year-old daughter of her own.

“It’s just one of those jobs that’s like soul food. It’s just so enjoyable,” she says. “I love the people, the writing, the characters – and I get to play someone that’s totally the opposite from Grace. I always say she’s unlikeable and opinionated and irritating. But also lovable in a weird way.”

She also has a major role in Apple TV+ series Trying

Her character isn’t the only reason Trying is a departure from Blue Lights, with no guns or car chases either. But like the police series, Brooke puts its success down to the quality of the scripts.

“Everything starts with good writing,” she says. “Andy’s an amazing writer so he very much takes on board the actors and how they play it and their style. Then he just stretches you a little bit more. But the great thing is he’s also able to balance these characters, like my character and the wonderful Darren Boyd’s character [Karen’s husband Scott]. They are both irritating and then likeable, but he is able to make them really lovely at times and very heartwarming. That’s a hard thing to do in writing, but he achieves it amazingly.”

The feat of starring in two returning series at once – she will also be seen in upcoming Netflix supernatural drama Supacell – is not lost on Brooke, however, at a time when cast and crew are struggling for work amid a commissioning slowdown as broadcasters face declining ad revenues, rising costs and fierce competition for viewers from streaming platforms and other competitors.

“I’m definitely aware there isn’t as much in terms of filming in terms of our industry,” she says. “It’s suffering from cutbacks, it’s suffering from everything else that’s going on in the world at the moment. It’s a reflection of where we all are at the moment. Every single industry is being hit hard, and I definitely see it in our industry. There are a lot of great actors I know, and its affecting everybody. And it’s not just actors, but crew and cast, right from the top to the bottom. I’m very blessed and very lucky.”

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