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TV review: Blue Lights, and Magpie Murders

06 April 2023

BBC/Gallagher Films/Two Cities Television

Grace Ellis (Siân Brooke) in Blue Lights, a police drama set in Northern Ireland (BBC1, from Monday of last week)

Grace Ellis (Siân Brooke) in Blue Lights, a police drama set in Northern Ireland (BBC1, from Monday of last week)

IT IS a clash of opposing moral imperatives as visceral as that which drives, say, Baroque opera. There, the struggle that is played out in the emotions and lives of the characters is usually between, on the one hand, personal desire and, on the other, stern duty, either filial or political. When you fall in love with the son or daughter of the king who has ruthlessly subjugated your dear native land, do you follow your heart or your head?

In Blue Lights (BBC1, from Monday of last week), the conflict is between two arms of the State: one, the local police constabulary; the other — for this is contemporary Belfast — the shadowy, undercover anti-terrorist security force. The latter must trump the former, its goal of maintaining peace between loyalist and republican factions taking precedence over day-to-day policing. Constables must refrain from making arrests and preventing violence when disturbances might be a deliberate security sting, a strategy to achieve a higher national end.

Having been criticised for my review of a previous police drama set in Northern Ireland, Bloodlands (5 March 2021, Letter, 12 March 2021), I must clarify that, when it comes to Blue Lights, I am not supporting this scenario as an accurate reflection of the real situation: I am merely reporting the TV programme. Into this frustrating stew — the police are constantly thwarted, being told by the anti-terrorists to hold back, to release suspects charged — step three new recruits with just two months of their probationary period to run. Will they make the grade?

In general terms, they are just like deacons hoping to proceed shortly to priestly ordination — but with added firearms. Additionally, these likeable rookies bring their own personal agendas to the mix — especially Grace (geddit?), a former social worker who refuses to lay aside her strong moral sense and eagerness to help people, just because her superiors order her to. It is a powerful scenario, sharply drawn, engaging the viewer in a challenging and wide-ranging gamut of emotions.

Magpie Murders (BBC1, Saturdays) is an altogether lighter crime series, which seeks to entertain us rather than confront us with a moral dilemma. Arch and witty underminings of the amateur-detective genre normally fall flat on their face: here, on the evidence of its first episode, this Chinese box of plot-within-plot is intriguingly effective. A particularly unpleasant but hugely successful crime writer is found dead. Part of his beastliness is that the characters in his books are the thinly disguised real people in his life, all drawn with venom and spite. The bumbling police are happy to write it off as suicide; his editor determines to turn detective and solve the mystery.

Why, you may ask, has this column, being published on Maundy Thursday, not reviewed any serious TV Lenten presentations of Christian faith and works? Answer: because I couldn’t find a single one.

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