Aidan Smith's TV week: Blue Lights is as gritty as The Wire and almost as great

The Belfast-set cop drama goes from strength to strength, while Tom Hollander has a scream playing Truman Capote in Feud
Katherine Devlin in Blue Lights. Picture: Christopher BarrKatherine Devlin in Blue Lights. Picture: Christopher Barr
Katherine Devlin in Blue Lights. Picture: Christopher Barr

Blue Lights BBC1 ****

Feud: Capote vs the Swans Disney+ ****

Michael Palin in Nigeria Channel 5 ***

Michael Palin is baffled in Nigeria. Picture: Channel 5/ITNMichael Palin is baffled in Nigeria. Picture: Channel 5/ITN
Michael Palin is baffled in Nigeria. Picture: Channel 5/ITN

Mammoth BBC2 ***

Don’t blow it! Don't suffer Difficult Second Series Syndrome! That's what I'm saying to myself as Belfast's rookie cops hit the streets for the return of my favourite drama of 2023. But can Blue Lights survive Gerry’s shock demise?

He was the best character last time - the seen-it-all, booked-it-all, grizzled force veteran mentoring the newbies. Gerry sported aviator shades like Peter “Easy Rider” Fonda in defiance of the city’s seven different types of rain, as the neon legend confirms, but unfortunately they couldn’t protect him from its gangsters.

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The fact I rated a cop drama above everything else is remarkable because I like to think I’m smart and discerning and know all their moves. But there are so many of these shows and they can beat you into submission, making you squeal. “Okay, okay, I’ll tune in next week! I confess: this detective is mavericky, how on earth did you dream him up?” This is a lie, of course. All telly tecs are mavericky - it’s the law.

Mike Bubbins in Mammoth. Picture: Tom JacksonMike Bubbins in Mammoth. Picture: Tom Jackson
Mike Bubbins in Mammoth. Picture: Tom Jackson

And I have to write about them - it’s my job - which can seem similar to a community service order, as if I’m cutting the grass at an old folks’ home or whitewashing the walls of a youth club. A lot of cop dramas are like watching paint dry, but not Blue Lights.

There are no mavericks and no detectives, just some young or - in ex-social worker Grace’s case - career-change “peelers” learning on the job in a tough town. “Big-time lonesome town,” warbles Johnny Cash in squad car seven-six, doubtless with someplace else in mind, but it could be Belfast, which is post-Troubles now but not that much easier to police.

In season one the cops had to battle a Republican crime family and now Loyalists are flooding the place with drugs. Tiny pouches furtively change hands, a homeless man pushes his worldly goods in a shopping trolley, a victim of heroin overdose is found dead in a park. We could be watching The Wire; Blue Lights is that gritty and aspires to be that great.

The recruits simply aspire to be good coppers like Gerry. But there’s interference (last time MI5; now the Paramilitary Crime Task Force) and cutbacks aplenty. When a man smashes up his home because he can’t get a mental health assessment, Annie despairs: “F**k’s sake, Is everything just f****d?”

No wonder recruits are quitting to become lorry drivers, earning more money. Jen is now a lawyer but the writer-director double-act of former journalists Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson have retained interest in the character who, right after qualifying, is looking up files on a chip-shop bombing from the time of the Troubles, the culprit never caught. A victim was the dad of Gerry’s confidante Happy who tells her: “Nobody would talk. That’s the thing about this place: even after all these years, people think the truth is dangerous.”

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Meanwhile, those that remain keep coppering with Lawn and Patterson at least affording them the odd joke and snatched moment away from work. Last time, Jen bonked her supervisor in the station. Grace (Sian Brooke) and Stevie (Martin McCann) are still juggling patrols in car seven-two with tentative romance. And Annie, played by Katherine Devlin, proud possessor of the most Irish of circular faces, deduces the issue that’s bothering Tommy (Nathan Braniff): “You know what you need? A ride.”

Another ex-journalist who’s a bit further down the TV route - his Netflix deal is worth a reputed $300 million - Ryan Murphy loves a sensational story ripped straight from screaming tabloid headlines. OJ Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, Jeffrey Dahmer, Gianni Versace and Joan Crawford have all made for feverish dramas told in a high camp style. I’m pretty sure, too, that Murphy is partial to a bit of gossip, the juicier the better, though maybe not as much as Truman Capote was.

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Feud: Capote vs the Swans is a title which would have caused America’s acid-tongued literary superstar to wince. Much too clunky, darling! Though he would surely have approved of his name being right up there.

In 1975 the writer of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffanys was badly in need of another hit. There was an unfinished novel; it would be his crowning glory. He dug out his favourite chapter describing lunch with the most glamorous women of Manhattan’s high society and fired it off to Esquire. Another mag, Vanity Fair, called the excerpt “an atomic bomb that Truman Capote built all by himself”.

Ka-boom. The protagonists weren’t at all disguised. Everyone knew this was Babe Paley, wife of the boss of CBS, and the other friends who Capote called his swans. By betraying their confidences, and exposing scandals ranging from adultery to murder, he trashed his reputation. Afterwards, Capote was pretty much kaput.

What a dream role for Tom Hollander who early on gets to shriek “More delphinium!” then follows up with the bitchiest of insults (“That fat-ankled harridan! … Just a jazzy little curled-haired killer from some country slum!”)

The swans have tremendous fun, too: Naomi Watts, Demi Moore, Chloe Sevigny and Diane Lane. “We are going to kill him,” they resolve. “He will have nothing, no door opened to him, no oxygen, and he will die.” And you thought celeb fall-outs were a recent phenomenon, and that weapons-grade abuse began on social media?

By 2099 it’s expected Lagos will have grown to be the biggest city on the planet: 88 million. In Michael Palin in Nigeria it already seems too chaotic for the now 80-year-old, buffeted and bewildered on a boat-ride through a floating slum. He heads up country where a sign on a beach reads: “No fighting, no smoking of Indian hemp, no homosexualism … ” Palin wonders: “How do you enjoy yourself here?” It certainly wasn’t fun in the 17th century when the Brit-managed slave trade was in full, gruesome swing and our guide is chilled to find himself at he apty-named Point of No Return. Then onwards to Kano for an ancient ceremony involving fire-eaters, knife-lickers and baby alligators spreading panic. Palin’s expression is pure Prince Philip-on-tour.

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Who remembers Adam Adamant Lives!? A ridiculously thrilling show about a cape-and-cane Edwardian gent awakened from frozen sleep in Swingin’ London to combat crime. Mammoth is its comedy cousin wherein a PE teacher (Mike Bubbins) lost in an avalanche on a skiing trip in 1979 is defrosted and returned to his school to be bamboozled by women running departments and the abolition of woodwork lessons (“So what do we do with all the thick kids?”). I laugh but probably shouldn’t.



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