A thriller that draws a line between Northern Ireland’s troubled and complicated past and its present as an open and cosmopolitan modern country, Bloodlands is a welcome addition to the popular TV shows filmed in Belfast and the surrounding area, led by Game of Thrones, which based itself at Paint Hall studios. Since then we’ve seen more and more of the city on our screens, from The Fall to the all-conquering Line of Duty.
LoD has a strong connection to this show: producer Jed Mercurio chose Bloodlands as the first production for his new company, HTM, and moved between the two sets while shooting continued on the eagerly awaited Season 6 of the adventures of AC-12. But while LoD is largely city-bound and purposely keeps its setting unidentified, Bloodlands is very much about the real landscape and life of Belfast and the countryside around it. Here’s our guide to the key locations.
Early in Episode 1, we see our lead DCI Tom Brannick, played by Northern Ireland native James Nesbitt, called to a crime scene. He takes the ferry to the harbour where he finds a car being hauled out of Strangford Lough, very much one of the stars of the show.
The largest sea loch in the British Isles, this stretch of water on the east coast was the original inspiration for the series. Writer Chris Brandon grew up in Strangford and says: ‘It’s a place that has always sparked my imagination. The austere beauty of the scarred and sodden hillsides – the windswept islands and bouldered shorelines always seemed, in themselves, to hold the memory of stories past.’
Close to here is Castle Ward, which appeared in the first season of Game of Thrones, and 2017 film The Bookshop used the lough and the little town of Portaferry to stand in for Suffolk. In Bloodlands, though, the island (one of about 100) where a dramatic discovery is made has not been identified for privacy reasons; we see much of the water and its surrounding countryside throughout the show. For the cast and crew, the beauty of the area was compromised by the difficulty of filming here, says Mercurio: ‘It looks amazing on camera, but the weather can be quite challenging at times. We all made sure we had our thermals and waterproofs with us.’ Nesbitt even told the BBC that ‘at times it was hard to speak, my mouth would be paralysed and I just couldn’t get my jaw moving.’
Later in the series, Brannick visits another wild location, the mountains of Mourne to the south of the country. Also featured early in Game of Thrones, these granite peaks provided more challenges for the actors. Lisa Dwan, who plays Dr Tori Matthews, says it was very intense: ‘I remember one day filming in a snow blizzard, having to make our way to set by jeep as the cars couldn’t make it up the mountain.’
For the exterior of the station where Brannick is based, the production took over the former HQ of Ballyclare Police on Ballynure Road in this town 13 miles north of Belfast. It’s here that we see a dramatic explosion in Episode 1 that raises the stakes in the investigation.
Tellingly, in the opening scene of Bloodlands Brannick is driving into the city on the famous five-lane motorway, a signifier of the city’s modern side. As well as taking in some of the imposing 19th-century monuments, he passes high-rises such as the Grand Central Hotel, setting the theme of past and present colliding that is at the heart of the show.
We later see Brannick visit his daughter at Queen’s University, sitting in a pretty courtyard against the 19th-century red brick. Another period landmark that makes an appearance later in the series is the Botanic Gardens. Close to the university and dating from the same period, it’s a classic destination of glass houses amid landscaped grounds.
More contemporary is The Royal, as Brannick calls the Royal Victoria Hospital on Grosvenor Road, where he heads for a lead early in Episode 1. Originally opened on this site in 1899, it was totally rebuilt in 2003 as the glass-fronted building we see.
For the interior of the police station, filming took place in another Belfast site that has witnessed the passage of time. The Masonic Hall on Rosemary Street is now in the midst of the city’s paved shopping area and its halls are rented out for events and functions.
Finally, there’s one location that holds particular significance for the show. Brannick finds a photograph with a crane marked H&W and then meets his old boss, DCS Jackie Twomey (Lorcan Cranitch), on the site. This is Belfast docks and the Harland and Wolff shipyard, home to the Titanic and a symbol of the city that links past and present as much as any other.
‘Bloodlands’ continues on BBC1 on Sunday at 9pm and on iPlayer
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