James Nesbitt on the secrets of Bloodlands series two

The second series of hit Northern Ireland-shot BBC thriller Bloodlands starts tomorrow night. We visited the Co Down set of the Jed Mercurio-produced show to get the inside track on what's in store for James Nesbitt's killer cop this time around...

James Nesbitt as DCI Tom Brannick in Bloodlands
James Nesbitt as DCI Tom Brannick in Bloodlands

"GREAT characters, wonderful writing and a really brilliant twist," is how star James Nesbitt sums up the the success of Bloodlands, the hit BBC crime drama which returns to our screens tomorrow night.

The Co Antrim-born actor is back as DCI Tom Brannick, a policeman hiding a dark secret – he's also Goliath, Belfast's infamous serial assassin who rocked the peace process by executing paramilitaries on both sides of the sectarian divide in the late 1990s.

In the first series of the Chris Brandon written and created crime thriller, which was executive produced by Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) and had viewers glued and to their screens across four episodes last autumn, we learned that Brannick had been forced to carry out the hits after his wife, Emma, was kidnapped – only to discover that she was actually part of the scam all along.

Having generously allowed his missus to escape with her life (her co-conspirator did not get off so lightly) to become declared officially missing, presumed murdered by Goliath, series one found Brannick being threatened with exposure for his crimes 20-plus years after the fact.

Throughout its many twists and turns, the no-nonsense cop/killer was forced to notch up a few more bodies in order to save his skin and prevent his daughter, Izzy (Lola Petticrew) and colleagues DS Niamh McGovern (Charlene McKenna), DCS Jackie Twomey (Lorcan Cranitch) and DC 'Birdy' Bird (Chris Walley) from discovering the awful truth – and series two finds him wrestling yet more demons from his shady past.

When the murder of a crooked accountant unravels a trail of greed that threatens to expose his identity as Goliath, Brannick and the accountant's widow, Olivia (Victoria Smurfit), must try to solve the riddle her husband left behind while growing dangerously close.

Though the finer details of the plot are being closely guarded, viewers are promised that "deceit and betrayal will build to a shattering climax" by the conclusion of the show's six episode second run.

No-one was giving much away when we visited the Bloodlands set during the summer at a fancy new-build house with spectacular views over Strangford Lough, where we got a sneak peak at filming and met some of the key players involved – including DCI Brannick himself, James Nesbitt.

"This storyline is very interesting," the Co Antrim star teases of the second series.

"The thriller element was already there, but the audience now knows that I'm Goliath, which no-one else does. That gives us a really interesting kind of platform to see how the chinks in Tom's facade begin to happen. And, what the audience are not one step ahead of is knowing what Tom is about to do – or what Goliath is about to do."

As established in series one, DCI Brannick is a complex character with two very distinct sides to his personality: he's a loving father, grieving husband and dedicated policeman, but also a cold blooded killer with a frighteningly pragmatic approach to taking lives – as the likes of his love interest Tori Matthews (Lisa Dwan) and Ian McElhinney's elderly character Adam Corry found out the hard way.

"I'd been waiting for years to shoot Ian," quips Nesbitt of the veteran Belfast actor, a friend with whom he's worked on stage and screen many times before, including on the hit TV series Cold Feet, which also featured Victoria Smurfit.

"Tom, funnily enough, is someone I really grew to love," the actor reveals of portraying Brannick/Goliath.

"Yet, for all intents and purposes, he is a murderer – a policeman who is a murderer and a liar. But you can also see the human person in him as well, you know, with his relationship with his daughter and in the pain he's felt with the disappearance of his wife. So I think it's an incredible jigsaw.

"I suppose, even if you're playing Hitler, you have to try to find the saving graces or understand the mindset. The writing takes you there a lot of the time, I mean, you're looking for truth. Clearly, there's a notion of Jekyll and Hyde with Tom, but you have to look at the reasons why he became Goliath.

"He was an honest and good, committed cop. But his wife was kidnapped and he was told to assassinate known paramilitaries. So that makes the audience ask themselves a question: what sacrifices would you make for your loved ones?

"I think Tom probably thought that it was worth getting rid of people who, in his mind, were threatening the peace process."

"I was always interested in the idea of a policeman who faces a struggle between justice and keeping the peace," explains Bloodlands creator and writer Chris Brandon, who grew up in Strangford where portions of the show are shot.

"When those two things can't necessarily live side by side, then what does he choose? I like those interesting conflicts within characters."

London-based Brandon says he found his original inspiration for the series in the atmospheric crime drama of Scandi noir and HBO hit True Detective.

"For series two, I definitely had ideas before we even knew if there would actually be a second series. So when that became a reality, I was able to build on those and also the fantastic job the actors did in building their characters and the crew's superb work in realising what was put on the page."

While Brandon and Nesbitt were duty-bound not to give too much away regarding the plot, it's clear that with the main characters having already been well established, the new story is able to get going quickly right from the off.

"Initially, it looks like all suspicion has gone away," says Nesbitt of how Brannick had managed to stay one step ahead of his fellow cops by the end of the first series.

"It looks like Goliath is completely 'dead'. But, right at the beginning of this thing, he's thrust back into it – it's pretty dramatic."

"It's really about the fallout from the crimes of the first series," advises Brandon, whose initial spec script for Bloodlands was picked up by executive producer Jed Mercurio after having been passed over multiple times by others who were put off by the Troubles/Northern Ireland aspect of its storyline.

"Those are the threads in the jumper that we've now started pulling on and everything is starting to unravel. We're going to enjoy watching Brannick become increasingly at risk of being exposed."

With all the surviving series one regulars back for the new run, Dublin actress Victoria Smurfit is a new addition to the cast in a key role that finds her character paired-up with Brannick, thereby immediately putting her at risk of becoming another bit of collateral damage for Goliath.

"I love that man," she enthuses about getting to work with her Cold Feet co-star James Nesbitt after 22 years.

"He's just epically brilliant and I was glued to the first series like everyone else. I did give out to him about the fact it took over 20 years for him to work with me again – the last time I saw him on Cold Feet he was wearing an apron with his bum hanging out.

"So it's fantastic to work with him again, and to work with Charlene [McKenna] for the first time – I'm determined to make her my new best friend. The entire cast and crew are nicest most professional bunch. I feel so lucky, so grateful."

James Nesbitt is also effusive in his praise of his fellow Bloodlands cast members and the crew, claiming that being a mainly 'local' production makes everyone work that little bit harder to make it as good as possible – including himself.

"It's such a collaborative process and our crew is almost exclusively local," he tells me.

"I would say very strongly that, for a story which takes some of its inspiration from our real local history, that makes a difference. Because we're all from here and of here.

"So it's been a joy to do something so embedded in Northern Ireland and to play a character who asks a lot of questions of an audience. Audiences here are very intelligent, we've grown up with an awful lot and we know when we're being patronised or lied to, or not being treated with the respect we deserve.

"All of those things add up to make us really want to get it right. The fantastic local locations are such a part of it too, they're like another character. Little details like our police station, which is an old Masonic Lodge down on Rosemary Street, they matter. Right down to the socks I wear, every department adds to it."

Of his role as leading man, he adds: "You build this character and then you learn the lines and say them in the right order, and hopefully it all turns out okay."

We'll find out tomorrow night.

:: Bloodlands series two begins on Sunday night on BBC One at 9.05pm.