Bloodlands Star Charlene McKenna Talks History, Legacy And James Nesbitt

The actress is starring in the BBC's tense new drama.

Charlene McKenna

by Guy Pewsey |
Updated on

Lockdown has had an impact on every aspect of our lives. Our relationships have changed. Our friendships. Our diets and fitness regimes. Our mental health is suffering. But ask anyone - single or married, rich or poor, with or without children - if their sleeping habits have changed and the answer seems to be universal. Our dreams have gone mad. Our rest patterns have shifted. A warning: Bloodlands, the BBC's desperately tense new detective drama, is not going to help you prepare for bed on a dark February evening.

The series, landing on BBC One this Sunday, sees James Nesbitt's DCI Tom Brannick - a police officer in Northern Ireland - investigate the disappearance of a man with complicated connections to his own personal life. He must tread carefully as he leaves no stone unturned, all the while preparing himself to unearth his own long-buried traumas. It is riveting, compulsive TV. James is excellent. But beside him at every step is Detective Sergeant Niamh McGovern, his dedicated partner and friend, portrayed by Charlene McKenna. It's a must watch. Luckily for us, Bloodlands finished production just as the first lockdown took hold of the country.

‘We started filming in January,’ Charlene, 36, tells me over the phone, ‘and we wrapped just before lockdown. The hand sanitiser had started to appear, and the hand washing had started, which was a real challenge: we were filming in an old Masonic lodge, and the coldness of the water on your hands as you sung Happy Birthday was… not fun!’

Niamh, diligent in her work and completely loyal to Tom, is dragged into an historic investigation, and must leave no box unchecked. Whether sitting in on interrogations, standing at crime scenes or digging through the archives, Charlene had to portray a seasoned, knowledgeable professional: police vocabulary included. ‘I have a newfound respect for anyone playing doctors, detectives, surgeons - anything where there are procedural, technical lines’, she laughs. ‘To the regular Joseph like me, it doesn't mean anything. It might as well be "Supercalifragilistic": I have no idea what I'm saying.’

She found a way to limit the darkness of the show’s content on her life off set. ‘There comes a point where you have to get on with the job,’ she explains. ‘And me staying up all night worrying is not going to be conducive to me doing a good job. We also had great craic, and I got a gun, and I've got a police badge and I'm a cop: you get to literally play your inner child. It was very beautifully balanced.’ (An aside for the uninitiated: ‘craic’ is a wide-reaching word that, in its simplest form, signals a good time, enjoyment and humour. A person can be ‘good craic’, as can a party or gathering.)

James, Charlene says, ‘did not disappoint’ on the craic front, and the pair and the rest of the cast would enjoy nights exploring Belfast’s enviable food scene. But this warm off-set friendship does not speak to any hint of romantic frisson on camera. Bloodlands has no interest in the common detective trope that sees a male and female partnership turn romantic. There is no sexual tension or hint of flirtation. ‘I love that there's no confusion or undertone,’ Charlene agrees. ‘It's just about these two people getting to the bottom of this case, fighting for justice, fighting for peace and exploring that narrative. I think it's beautiful.’

With regards to this fight for justice, viewers with little historical knowledge of The Troubles may be shocked by Bloodlands, thanks to a woeful lack of education about Irish history in English schools. It is set in the present day, but there are still wounds and resentments. The programme explores a frayed trust of the police. It aids the tension: the wife of the missing man has no time for niceties when dealing with the pair assigned to find her husband. ‘It was very nice to get to explore that dialogue,’ says Charlene, who was born in County Monaghan and forged an impressive career in Ireland before finding mainstream success in hit shows like Ripper Street. ‘To explore the legacy of The Troubles. As my character says, "how do you strike the balance between justice and peace?" I think there's been quite a big education in the UK about some of that legacy because of Brexit. Suddenly, people are looking at little villages and understanding that a border runs through them. Hopefully, people explore that history a bit more, and learn from it.’

James and Charlene may lead the charge, but there are other familiar faces. Derry Girls actress Kathy Kiera Clarke trades comedy for drama. Stage actress Lisa Dwan – a legend in Samuel Beckett-loving circles – will be familiar to many. I wonder if there’s a sense of camaraderie for Irish actors working internationally. Is there an instant connection felt at parties or on red carpets? ‘We do have a bond,’ she affirms. ‘Like a deep heritage, DNA bond. I’m not saying that we’re all best pals, but I was talking to someone earlier and they said “I don’t want to do that thing, but do you know such-and-such?” And of course I knew them.’

Charlene is currently working on the next series of Peaky Blinders, so will be watching the first episode alone, through her fingers. She has a warning for those who find it tense, though.

‘The other episodes crank up so much,’ she says.’ I'm like, “Oh, you were surprised by the first episode? Well good luck with the next three!”’

You have been warned…

Bloodlands starts on Sunday 21st February at 9.00pm on BBC One and BBC iPlayer.

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