Here we are again: St. Patrick’s Day with no hooley on the streets or in the bars. It’s a shocking deprivation, so it is. We’re stuck with marking the day via TV or online. That’s not so bad. Let me be your guide.
Bloodlands (streams Acorn TV) is a new Irish-noir drama, made by BBC, created by newcomer actor/writer Chris Brandon and produced by Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty, Bodyguard). Set in the wintry and jittery Northern Ireland of today, it’s a fast-paced mystery-thriller steeped in paranoia about the past.
James Nesbitt stars as central character Tom Brannick, a police officer and widower who wears all those years of sectarian conflict in his lined, pained face. When he’s called into the case of a missing man whose car was dumped in a river, he’s pulled back into the darkness. The submerged car contains a signal that a notorious killer from the pre-Good Friday Agreement days is back. There are hints – so much hovers in the air here – that the killer, known as Goliath, might have been approved by the authorities, or might have been a sadistic monster using the Troubles as cover. But for Brannick, it’s all deeply personal.
The four-part series (arriving weekly) is sometimes rich in texture and at times alarmingly contrived. The backstory is complex and during the four hours there is far too much exposition while some scenes are simply too brief. The story needs six hours of telling, not four. What it does brilliantly is give a sense, tonally and physically, of Northern Ireland as it is now. Much of the action is set in Strangford Lough and the bleak, windswept beauty of the place is spectacular. (One is reminded immediately that parts of Game of Thrones were filmed in the region.) That chilling, rugged panorama helps establish a strong sense of a community and place both scarred and on edge.
Former IRA and Loyalists paramilitary leaders are now successful businessmen but it doesn’t take much to reignite the mayhem of petrol bombs thrown at the police and angry complaints of prejudice against Catholics. The wife of the missing man (played by Kathy Keira Clarke from Derry Girls) gives Brannick a ferocious rant about that. And, always, there’s an inkling of the macabre infecting this place, these people. There are fine scenes of high tension and then convoluted twists that are more incongruous than hair-raising. Throughout, mind you, there’s the compelling, whispering intimation, an apprehension that the evil of the past isn’t dead and buried; it’s just hanging in the air.
James Nesbitt, who is from the area, is excellent as Brannick, this coiled figure trying to be positive and forward-looking but highly aware that his daughter, a university student, has grown up in a place where the peace is very fragile. A ratings hit in Britain and Ireland, the series has been renewed for a second season so don’t expect everything to be wrapped up in four episodes. We’re talking Irish history here, you know. Everything is continuing.
On other streaming services, you’ll find two very different Irish series. Derry Girls (two seasons on Netflix) is already considered a classic. Original, imaginative, hilarious and offering a very different perspective on the period of The Troubles – from the point of view of teenage girls – it’s unmissable if you haven’t watched it before now. London Irish (Amazon Prime Video) is best ignored. A cringe-comedy about a group of twentysomethings from Northern Ireland living in London, it aims to amuse with dollops of sick humour, and it fails. Unspeakably atrocious.
In honour of the day and in the broadest spirit, it is highly recommended that you find TG4 online, the tiny Irish-language channel (www.tg4.ie). It’s so teensy it makes TVOntario or Knowledge Network look like Warner Bros. But it is formidably innovative and nimble. At times, I’ve been awed by its ingenuity. While most of what can be watched online or through the TG4 Player is in the Irish language, there are English subtitles available for everything.
Look for Samhlu 2020, an unforgettable celebration of the performing arts in Ireland that was created late last year. Structured as a traditional, mythical tale of a wandering stranger (Tommy Tiernan) looking for magic and fun on a long winter night in a small village, it acknowledges the COVID-19 year by framing the performances – dance, music, song and every darn thing – as hidden, otherworldly, ecstatic events taking place in doorways or windowsills, or in dreams. Funny, charming and loopy, it is one very special hooley with universal appeal.
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