Bloodlands writer Chris Brandon on Seamus Heaney, Jed Mercurio and his naked encounter with a sheep
Jenny Lee chats to Co Down-raised Bloodlands creator Chris Brandon about his plans for series two, working with Line of Duty's Jed Mercurio and how Seamus Heaney influenced his writing
THE Irish-noir drama Bloodlands, starring Jimmy Nesbitt, dramatically ended earlier this month with viewers getting answers to many of the questions it posed, including the revelation of the assassin's true identity.
An average of 8.2 million viewers watched the four-part series, which explored the lasting impact of the Northern Ireland Troubles, specifically the balance between justice for historic crimes and protecting present-day peace.
Of course many questions remain unanswered, however, as the commissioning of a follow-up series indicates.
So will series two see DCS Jackie Twomey questioned over his links to IRA sources? Will DCI Brannick be investigated over the disappearance of his wife, whose body was never found? And now that we know what he is capable of, what other secrets are to be revealed?
The man with all the answers – but not yet – is series creator and writer Chris Brandon.
“I thought I was going to have to wait months to find out whether it was being recommissioned,” says Brandon who has started writing the new series in his north London home.
“I'm still finding it in my head, so I too am looking forward to finding out what happens next. We are currently checking actors' availability, but hopefully there is an even spread of both recurring and new characters.
“Bloodlands is essentially the story of Brannick, so audiences can expect to delve a lot deeper into exactly what has gone on in his past.”
Filming will once again take place in Belfast and the surrounding areas, including Strangford Lough, and the thriller will again be executive-produced by Jed Mercurio, of Line of Duty and Bodyguard renown, who first got his hands on Brandon’s pilot script in 2017.
“I wrote a speculative screenplay and was delighted when my agent brought it to the attention of Jed Mercurio. His experience of working in Northern Ireland while filming Line of Duty gave him an intimate knowledge of the place I was writing about,” recalls the 39-year-old.
Brandon, who earned his first television writing credits in 2015 on RTÉ Garda drama Red Rock, describes working with Mercurio as “the mother of all apprenticeships”.
“Although I had done some film shorts and a few episodes of Red Rock, this was my first original commission. Jed was incredibly generous with his time, as was the other executive producer Mark Redhead. It was a true collaboration and to be invited on set and see how the production works from concept to execution was an amazing experience.”
What he remembers most is the first piece of advice Mercurio gave him on a windy wet day on set. “I was soaking wet and he looked at me and said, 'You need to get some proper waterproofs'.
“I think the weather added to the atmosphere of the drama, but then again I wasn't the one trying to remember lines in 90mph gusts.”
Brandon grew up in the village of Strangford, returning to his mother’s home city of London at the age of 13.
He has fond memories of his childhood and while he says the ongoing violence “was part of the wallpaper”, he was fortunate to not have been directly affected by the Troubles.
“My experience is close to the one that is depicted Derry Girls. Lisa McGee captures that time of the 90s perfectly as that was the music I was listening to and clothes I was wearing. Watching [Derry Girls] is a big nostalgic trip,” says Brandon, who doesn’t rule out writing some comedy in the future.
“I always want to put a smile and optimism into my work. That’s even in Bloodlands, albeit dark humour. I think comedy is an important survival mechanism as well.”
Brandon drew upon his childhood roots for his Bloodlands script.
“In 2013 I returned to help a childhood friend make a short film. The film was set in the house next door to where I grew up and my own memories of the land and its people came flooding back.
“It was then that the idea occurred to me to tell the story of someone whose journey is inextricably linked to that of the land – a kind of allegory, if you will, about the moment Northern Ireland finds itself in now – desperate to move forward, but with one foot stuck in the past.”
Brandon also cites Irish poet Seamus Heaney as an inspiration, and in particular his Bog Poems.
“Seamus Heaney was very much part of my school life when I was younger and of my degree when I was reading English in Dublin. Heaney writes about memory, about the closeness of the community and about the land so beautifully. These themes have always pervaded through my writing, particularly in Bloodlands.”
While the series was broadly well received it did received some criticism for clichéd Northern Ireland stereotypes. But Brandon says that as the show was airing on UK-wide television he had to “constantly negotiate in his own mind” the best way to do write the story without alienating anyone.
“Whilst you have a thriller with universal themes at its heart, you had the complexity of Northern Ireland behind it. In addressing that some things will be obvious to people from here, but not to the other six million watching,” he says.
Before turning to writing, Brandon spent a decade working as an actor. His credits include the Sam Shepard stage play Curse of the Starving Class in Edinburgh – where he was fully nude and had to pick up a live sheep and carry it across the stage.
“That was a memorable moment for sure and an eye-opener for the audience,” he laughs.
He believes his acting experience has helped him as a writer.
“No part should be wasted. When I write a minor part, probably because I was the actor with only one or two lines, I want to make sure they have something nice to do and that it adds validity within the storyline.”
And if he had to write himself a role in series two of Bloodlands, what would it be?
“Probably the guy in the background photocopying, with one line to say,” he replies quickly, confirming that he is definitely more at ease behind the scenes now.
“I think I'm too self-conscious that I would be ruining it for everyone else. I'm quite happy to give others the lines.”
And such has been the response to his writing from within the industry that he won’t have much spare time for acting in the future.
“There have been more meetings – and nice meetings – with lots of possibility in the air. It's a really exciting time and I just have to be able to cope with all the work,” says Brandon, who in the future would like to write a movie script.
And will Northern Ireland feature in his future writing?
“I have a few ideas in which I haven't tagged locations on to them yet. So it is very possible because I loved filming Bloodlands here and the facilities, locations and crews available in Northern Ireland are top class.”
:: Bloodlands (series one) is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital.