Bloodlands’ Charlene McKenna talks Jed Mercurio, tortuous cliffhangers, and DS Niamh McGovern

Posted by for TV

What makes Bloodlands stand out from other Jed Mercurio crime dramasCharlene McKenna, who plays DS Niamh McGovern in the BBC’s first ever ‘Irish noir’, reveals all.

BBC One’s Bloodlands looks poised to become one of the most talked-about TV shows of 2021 so far. 

The latest in a long line of successful series from Jed Mercurio (Line Of Duty, Bodyguard), the intense cat-and-mouse thriller follows a pair of Belfast detectives trying to track down a legendary assassin. 

Yes, it ticks all your usual crime drama tropes, but it also makes a point of speaking to the complicated legacy of the Good Friday Agreement.

As such, it’s been billed as the first ‘Irish noir’, and is easily one of the best shows this writer has watched in a very, very, very long time.

But there’s no denying that lot of the show’s appeal comes down to the show’s phenomenal cast; James Nesbitt leads as troubled DCI Tom Brannick, and Charlene McKenna (oh yes, she of Ripper Street and Peaky Blinders fame) stars alongside him as the no-nonsense DS Niamh McGovern.

Below: watch the Bloodlands trailer.

With this in mind, we sat down with McKenna to discuss the show’s extreme filming conditions, tortuous cliffhangers, and the potential for a second season.

Here’s what she had to say (and don’t worry, there’s no spoilers to be found here!).

What was it that drew you to the Bloodlands script?

Before I got the script, Jimmy (Nesbitt) had messaged me to say there was going to be this great show with Jed Mercurio, so that got me very excited. And then I got the script, and it was just so tight… it’s got great bones. And Niamh is a great character.

What can you tell us about DS McGovern?

She asks all the questions that the audience wants to ask; she’s a good voice for the audience. She’s very smart, she’s very cool, calm, and collected. She has a very solid moral centre, and I just think she’s a great person and a great character. 

What’s her working relationship like with DCI Brannick?

My and Jimmy work really well together, in that we have a lot of trust, and I think that transfers to the screen very well. And it’s lovely to see a male-female dynamic where it’s not about romance; it’s about a great working relationship.

They have great twinkle together… and I love that she feels empowered to call him out, but still respects rank. In that sense, she’s like a dog with a bone – if she believes in something, she’s going to pursue it. The two of them together are a great team. 

James Nesbitt as DCI Tom Brannick in Bloodlands
James Nesbitt leads the cast of Bloodlands as Tom Brannick.

What sets Bloodlands apart from other crime dramas?

The crime cop show dynamic is all there, the action sequences are all there. But the fact that it’s set and shot, really shot, in Belfast… that backdrop serves as another character, and gives it an element of something we’ve not seen before. They’re calling it an Irish noir because, like the Nordic dramas, it pays a lot of attention to the look of everything. And I think it’s nice that it talks about the legacy of The Troubles without being completely focused on The Troubles, and it’s set now – it shows a young, fast-paced Belfast. It feels very current, while paying homage to a painful past. All of that really marks it as different.

What do you hope people will take away from these references to the Good Friday Agreement?

I’m always in renewed shock that a lot of people don’t know the history, because it’s not taught in schools in the UK. I think it’s really relevant this is coming out now on the heels of Brexit, when there’s so much more dialogue around what happened. I don’t want it to open old wounds, but I want people to acknowledge the pain of the past, know that there’s a wound there, and respect that. Bloodlands might help to invoke healing through that recognition, too. 

The four episodes make you think about what it means to have justice, and what it means to have peace, and how can you settle these conflicting things within yourself and your heart? I hope it generates some discussion. 

How did you separate yourself from the show’s dark subject matter?

My character is not personally affected; she’s professionally affected. She’s still a human being, but she’s a professional and knows to leave some of her heart behind.

For me personally, it was a very intense shoot in terms of weather, location, time – we had a lot to get through every day, and were up against some extreme weather conditions. We were blessed to have roundtable rehearsals before we started shooting, so we got to air out a lot of stuff there and talk about the darkness then. I could take it home and indulge in it properly. But, when we started filming, I had to just sleep; I had to take care of my body in that weather. Once I’d done my work and my research, I put it in the back of my head and got on with the job at hand.

And we still had great laughs on set. Me and Jimmy had so many giggles… we do have great craic, and we slam the absolute shit out of each other. It helped us find the levity, and I think our friendship translates really well to the screen, too.

How did you cope with those extreme filming conditions?

It was easily the hardest weather shoot I’ve ever done in my career. The exposure was phenomenal, because we spent over a week on an island in the middle of a lake with nothing on it; no facilities, no shelter, no shed. It was literally a grass mound in the middle of a huge lake, and we had to take speedboats to get to the toilet.

The upside of it was that it prompted a lot of bonding between cast and crew, but it was so cold. I look like I’m overacting, like I’m way too intense, but I was like, ‘my face is frozen. I can’t move my face.’” 

Charlene McKenna attends the "A.D. The Bible Continues" New York Premiere Reception at The Highline Hotel on March 31, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)
Charlene McKenna has expressed her hopes for a second season of Bloodlands.

Why do you think we’re all so drawn to crime dramas in lockdown?

I think it’s because we’re not getting much exterior stimulus out in the world, and we’re not getting challenged enough in our day-to-day life. I think that true crime, and crime dramas, can really help you get your brain into something. You can play at being detective from the comfort of your own home, and explore the psychological darkness that has the potential to be in all of us.

I’m the same: I spent Valentine’s Day watching Netflix’s Cecil Hotel. I was like, ‘Why am I home alone watching a murder documentary.’” But it’s because you want to get away, somewhere very far away, and yet still stay safe.

Jed Mercurio is known for his gripping dramas; would you say there are any obvious links or parallels between Bloodlands and his previous TV projects?

I think it’s his ability to write (or, in the case of Bloodlands, to spot in the writing) just really fully-fledged and well-rounded characters. I think that’s the Jed Mercurio X factor, as it were. His shows are always about great characters that people just connect to. 

Over the years, we’ve seen crime dramas become unlikely sources for fashion inspiration: do you see this happening with Bloodlands?

I love fashion – and I love Stylist, I’ve always read it! So you never know, but we’re not city detectives, we’re rural detectives; we’re out in the outskirts of Belfast, so in that regard we played a lot with polo necks and suits. I wanted to do more fun stuff with my hair, but Pete the director wanted a real slick look that was all put together. Maybe my bun will take off? Or my polo neck? 

I wanted a cop badge, and they told me I got a lanyard, and that’s so not as cool as flashing a badge. But maybe everyone will want a lanyard, what can I say?

Is there any possibility of a season two?

You never want to jinx it, but I would love for there to be a season two. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but there’s definitely scope for it. So, please hopefully the audience love it, and the demand’s there, and we get to put our lanyards back on. Because, weather aside, we had a really special time making it. 

Bloodlands: Charlene McKenna as Niamh McGovern.
Consider Bloodlands, aka the BBC’s first ‘Irish noir’ series, your new must-watch.

They’re staggering Bloodlands out rather than dropping it all at once; why do you think this is?

The BBC aren’t allowing us the chance to binge. It’s event television, so you have to wait – which, in this particular show, is going to be torture. Because every single episode ends on a cliffhanger!

But it’s nice – I’m watching It’s A Sin weekly, and it gives you a week to sort through your head and come up with all your theories and thoughts and opinions before the next one airs. It’s good to be forced to wait, so you get all set with your drink, sit down in front of the TV, and you’re like: ‘I’m ready, let’s go.’

And finally, what’s your personal interpretation of the title Bloodlands?

I guess, for a very long time, there was a lot of bloodshed in Ireland – not just in the north, but across the country over years and years of conflict. I grew up here with The Troubles and it evokes the legacy of the past, and thankfully we’re in peacetime now and long may it continue. 

Bloodlands premieres on BBC One on Sunday 21 February at 9pm.

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: Getty/BBC

Share this article

Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

Recommended by Kayleigh Dray