Martin McCann and Sian Brooke in Blue Lights

The slain in Spain, and Belfast again

This police drama tidies up loose ends just enough, but still leaves the viewers wanting more

On Television

This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Back in my teenage days I did an IQ test for MENSA, the international association for people with high IQs. The results were respectable enough, although I was disappointed that I was not, apparently, a genius — at least at doing IQ tests.

Antonia Scott, the heroine of Red Queen, has an IQ of 242, somewhat more elevated than mine, which makes her the smartest person in the world. Scott is a super-solver and the lynchpin of the super-secretive Red Queen project, a Europe-wide agency charged with catching the continent’s nastiest criminals, terrorists and serial killers.

Vicky Luengo and Hovik Keuchkerian in Red Queen

Red Queen, now showing on Amazon Prime, is a television adaptation of a best-selling Spanish thriller series by Juan Gómez-Jurado. The first eponymous volume sold more than two million copies. The book crackled with energy as the story roamed across the Spanish capital, and the fast pace carries over into the television adaptation.

Like many of the best crime shows, Red Queen has a sidekick double-act. Scott is partnered with Jon Gutiérrez, a large gay Basque cop, who still lives with his mother. Gutiérrez is in trouble with his bosses, and Mentor, his mysterious new overlord, makes it clear that he has no choice but to sign up for the programme.

Naturally, Gutiérrez and Scott do not get on. He is an amiable bon viveur and a gourmand. She is ascetic, withdrawn and haunted. Their foe is a psychopath called Ezequiel, who is murdering and kidnapping the children of Spain’s richest and most influential families.

There are obvious echoes of the Jason Bourne novels and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Bourne was programmed to become an assassin. Scott too was remade as a super-solver. Bourne has flashbacks to his previous existence. Scott cracks under extreme pressure, seeing non-existent rampaging monkeys. Like Lisbeth Salander, she has poor social skills.

That said, I’m several episodes in, and it’s a thumbs-up. Scott and Gutiérrez slowly grow to understand each other and develop a trusting relationship. The storyline twists back and forth as it takes us inside the glamorous world of Spain’s super-rich, steadily ramping up the danger.

Vicky Luengo is convincing, and Hovik Keuchkerian delivers a wry and engaging performance as Jon Gutiérrez.

All this combines with an intriguing original concept and evocative cinematography to lift Red Queen above generic police procedurals.

Katherine Devlin as Annie

Continuing the crime theme, I had high praise last summer for Blue Lights, the BBC’s gritty, authentic cop series set in Northern Ireland after the Troubles, and so I was really looking forward to season two. Blue Lights is frequently compared to The Wire, the genre-changing crime series set in Baltimore. It once again delivers an intelligent, enthralling slice-of-life drama.

The show is an ensemble series, with multiple leading characters and several concurrent storylines, mostly based in a single Belfast police station, all skilfully woven into a dramatic, engrossing tapestry.

There are plenty of familiar faces from season one, including Siân Brooke as Grace Ellis, the single mother building a new life; Katherine Devlin as the brave but hot-headed Annie Conlon; Martin McCann as the protective Stevie Neil; and Andi Osho as Sandra Cliff, still in mourning for her husband, shot on duty.

Season one saw the rookie cops take on a Republican crime dynasty that was connected to the British security service. This time round, they are less naïve and more battle-hardened. The story goes deep into Loyalist territory, where Lee Thompson, a new crime kingpin, menacingly played by Seamus O’Hara, is marking out his domain.

The Troubles are now mostly over, but their legacy remains. Once again the higher reaches of the British state are shown as ethically and morally compromised, if not corrupt. A super-cynical outside senior officer drafted in wants nothing more than peace and quiet, even if that means allowing Thompson to run his criminal empire. Meanwhile the honest cops have to pick up the pieces of a broken society.

A rough sleeper is found dead after overdosing on heroin whilst drug dealers openly ply their wares in the city’s nightclubs. Even in Loyalist parts of town there is no love lost between the locals and the police.

The simmering anger frequently erupts into violence as teenagers pelt the patrol cars with stones and bottles. Such anger can be easily manipulated. Thompson deftly uses social media to incite a near-riot on demand — with tragic consequences.

The scenes of organised mob violence as the crowd attacks the line of scared, but determined and courageous young police officers, are brilliantly choreographed. Deeper and more understated currents of menace, reaching back through the decades to the bad old days, also flow.

Jen Robinson, a former police officer, convincingly played by Hannah McClean, is now a solicitor, investigating apparent police collusion in a pub bombing in the Troubles. Her enquiries into some of the darkest episodes of modern British history are not welcomed. The deep state quickly mobilises against her and her allies.

Seamus O’Hara as Lee Thompson in Blue Lights

Action, conspiracies, intrigue and crime, plus a couple of on-off love affairs — it’s a heady mix. One romance seems to be mainly lust-based, but the other, deeper connection is sweetly touching.

The real skill of the series’ creators is to deploy an engaging cast in just complex enough storylines across stark, authentic settings — and top it all off with a finely orchestrated finale. It tidies up loose ends just enough to be satisfying, but still leaves the viewers wanting more. Seasons three and four have been commissioned. I will be watching.

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