Bloodlands: Secrets from the set of James Nesbitt’s Northern Ireland thriller

The cast and creators of BBC One’s Bloodlands reveal what you can expect from this new detective crime thriller, starring James Nesbitt and Lisa Dwan.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 22 February 2021 - 3.00pm

Sat twiddling your thumbs waiting for Line of Duty season 6? BBC One might be able to scratch that crime thriller itch on Sunday nights with Bloodlands.

With Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio on the production team and James Nesbitt leading the cast, Bloodlands is a high-stakes cat-and-mouse drama.

With the fractured setting of contemporary Northern Ireland and universal themes around love and loss, you’ll be on the edge of your seat for the next four weeks.

Intrigued? Check out what the cast and creators had to say about the making of the series…

Capturing the spirit of Northern Ireland

James Nesbitt in Bloodlands BBC

Bloodlands writer and creator Chris Brandon said that the inspiration for the series came from the small village of Strangford in Northern Ireland, where he grew up.

“The austere beauty of scarred and sodden hillsides, the windswept islands and bouldered shorelines always seemed, in themselves, to hold the memory of stories past,” said Brandon.

While shooting a film in 2013, the writer had the idea of creating a story around a character journey that fits with the modern story of Northern Ireland.

“The foundations of peace are delicate. The legacy of violence has left indelible scars. How Northern Ireland moves forward depends very much on how it deals with its past,” said the writer.

“Many feel there may be peace but there is still injustice. Many question how there can be reconciliation without truth.”

These struggles also exist in the show’s protagonist, detective Tom Brannick, played by James Nesbitt

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Casting James Nesbitt

Nesbitt delivers a mesmerising central performance that balances the visceral and psychological elements of the series.

Exec producer Jed Mercurio revealed that there was no choice other than Nesbitt to play the role.

“James Nesbitt was attached to Bloodlands before the series was ordered into production,” said Mercurio.

“I've wanted to work with James for a long time as he's one of the top leading actors working in British TV. Mark Redhead had produced two dramas with James - Bloody Sunday and The Secret - and sang his praises. We were all incredibly honoured that James responded to the script and the character of Tom Brannick.

“I'd say James Nesbitt's commitment to Bloodlands was instrumental in the series being commissioned by the BBC.”

Bloodlands key art BBC

Nesbitt’s co-stars were equally full of praise for the Cold Feet star.

Lisa Dwan described him as “one of the most generous actors I’ve ever worked with”, while Charlene McKenna admitted that she spent far too much time giggling with him on set.

“We spent many days laughing and trying not to corpse, which is just the tonic you need when you’re filming tough scenes and long days,” she said.

“He was also always available if I needed anything which I found incredibly generous of spirit.”

The Jed Mercurio factor

James Nesbitt in Bloodlands BBC

Booking in Line of Duty mastermind Jed Mercurio, one of the most in-demand producers in British TV, is an impressive catch.

Brandon’s script was handed to Mercurio by his agent and he admits that he’s an “avid follower” of his work.

“His experience of working in Northern Ireland, while filming Line Of Duty, gave him an intimate knowledge of the place I was writing about,” said Brandon.

“His knowledge of the thriller genre was something I was already aware of, and it has been a great privilege to discuss the intricacies of story with him.”

Nesbitt is also a big Mercurio fan and confessed that he actually wanted to work with the write on Line of Duty, but has never been offered a part.

“When he was doing Line Of Duty in Northern Ireland, I would say to him, ‘Why am I not in that?’ but he’d say, ‘We’ll find something’,” said Nesbitt.

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Mercurio describes the series as a “contemporary thriller series with one foot in Northern Ireland's emotive past”.

Explaining what interested him about the story, Mercurio said: “Audiences should expect a compelling cat-and-mouse thriller and a thought-provoking drama exploring the balance between seeking justice for past crimes and protecting present-day peace.”

Frozen filming

Charlene McKenna filming Bloodlands BBC

Bloodlands might be a thriller that gets your pulse-racing, but for the show’s cast one of the biggest challenges was coping with the freezing cold temperatures.

“It was incredibly cold, particularly when we had to go down to the islands of Strangford Lough,” said Nesbitt.

“We’d be transporting crew, equipment, food, toilets, to these remote islands and it was bitterly cold, the wind really comes and cuts you through to the bone.

“At times it was hard to speak, my mouth would be paralysed and I just couldn’t get my jaw moving.”

Lisa Dwan recalled one day of filming in a snow blizzard that left her looking like “an extra from Alive”.

The crew filming Bloodlands BBC

“There were little mounds of snow caked over my lashes and my lips were blue,” said Dwan.

Charlene McKenna also claimed the extreme weather and gale force storms was the hardest challenge making the series.

“Northern Ireland in deep winter on the coast is always challenging,” she said.

“We had a particularly trying week or more shooting on the stunning islands of Strangford Lough. We were so cold it was hard to speak at times, as our lips were numb, and we had to take speed boats to the mainland for toilet breaks!

“The cast and crew were amazing morale boosters during those days. We did all we could to lift each other up. I’ll never forget it.”

Watch Bloodlands from Sunday, February 21 at 9pm on BBC One and BBC iPlayer.

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