There is a scene in the first episode of new BBC One drama Bloodlands in which Northern Irish detective Tom Brannick (played by James Nesbitt) is urged to let go of his investigation into a series of mysterious disappearances whose trail went cold years before. The more he digs, the deeper embroiled he becomes in his own troubled past. A colleague tells him, “At some point the past has to die.” To which Brannick grimly responds, “Not for me.”
The line had special resonance for Nesbitt. “I think that relates to me,” he says. “I’ve never really left Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland has never really left me.” Bloodlands was filmed early last year and it was due to wrap almost a year ago, on 13th March. And then lockdown happened, but rather than return to London, Nesbitt remained in Northern Ireland at his house in Portrush, as it offered him a chance to, as he puts it, “continue my relationship” with the country.
Nesbitt’s involvement with the drama can be traced back to a party in London at which the actor bumped into Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio. “I said, ‘Come on, Jed, when are we going to get a chance to work together?’” he recalls. “Even though Line of Duty had been shot here for years I was never considered for it, which has always slightly galled me.”
Mercurio promised to bear him in mind and sent over a script that HTM Productions, the company he runs with Have I Got News For You supremo Jimmy Mulville, had in development. Nesbitt says he was “immediately arrested” by Bloodlands, the first drama series from writer Chris Brandon.
In particular, Nesbitt identified with his character Brannick and his investigation of the disappearance during the Troubles of several figures across the Catholic/Protestant divide at the hands of an assassin known as Goliath.
“I recognise a lot in Tom,” says Nesbitt. “There’s an affability, a quiet strength. He’s someone who has really been through a lot in the Troubles, one of the silent ones who never reveal what they’ve been through.”
Revisiting this turbulent time in Northern Ireland’s recent history inevitably opens up questions about the fragility of the current situation. Could the Troubles return?
“Things have moved on irrevocably because there is a generation that has grown up in peace,” says Nesbitt, who has just finished a 10-year tenure as Ulster University chancellor. “Those graduates are the first generation to have grown up inside peace in Northern Ireland. Is there fragility to that because of border checks? Yes. The more vulnerable a situation is, the more vulnerable people are.”
Bloodlands has echoes of the 2014 BBC One drama The Missing, in which Nesbitt played a man haunted by the disappearance of his son; here, it’s the memories of his dead wife that dog the detective. Nesbitt laughs at the similarity. “As someone who started out as a comedy actor, who went into acting to meet girls and have a laugh: where are the bloody laughs?”
Nesbitt was born in Broughshane, near Ballymena in Antrim, next door to the one-room Protestant primary school where his father James was headmaster and taught a class of around 30 children, including his own son. “I had three older sisters, Margaret, Kathryn and Andrea, who adored me. As brilliant as that was, on some kind of level I was always chasing the adoration of women.” His sisters all followed their father into teaching, but Nesbitt took his own path. “I knew I could never be the teacher my dad was – or the one I would have wanted to be.”
He first tasted success on the stage aged 13, in a 1978 Christmas production of Oliver!. Five years later, he left to study acting in London.
“My father imbued me with enough of the good bits of him and was very supportive, if wary, of my choice,” he says. “He took enormous pride in it, but he knew it was an unstable profession to go into. There weren’t a lot of young country Protestants going into acting at the time.
“I’m not the first artist, for want of a better word, to feel the need to become an exile. I suppose there was a bit of me that felt constrained by Northern Ireland. I was someone who was proud of Protestant culture but the rest of the world was viewing the people of my identity as very dour, immovable, frightening straitjacketed unionists.”
It was Cold Feet, which launched in 1997, that turned Nesbitt into a household name for his performance as lothario Adam. “Guys would have liked to have a drink with him and he would drive women mad – but they’d find him quite attractive,” he reflects.
The success of the ITV comedy-drama opened doors to meatier roles, not least as SDLP co-founder Ivan Cooper in Paul Greengrass’ powerful 2002 ITV drama Bloody Sunday. “Paul told me, ‘You should look at the Troubles as your Lear’, just one of those things you have to take on from time to time.”
Other heavyweight roles followed: a Catholic man out to avenge his brother’s murder at the hands of a UVF loyalist in Five Minutes of Heaven, a police chief in Murphy’s Law, a police commissioner in Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s Babylon and an army sergeant in Basra in Peter Bowker’s Occupation.
The success brought fame, which came with a price. “The enormity of the public exposure was quite hard to handle at times,” he says. “It’s easy to lose sight of yourself a little bit.”
It’s now 18 years since the end of Cold Feet’s original run and it took 13 more to bring it back to the screen in 2016. “They tried to revive it for a number of years and I thought it would be the worst thing,” Nesbitt says. “It was an important programme for a lot of people. The idea of bringing it back and it not working, of destroying its legacy, would have been awful. But I was delighted when it returned with new resonance.”
One criticism occasionally levelled at Nesbitt is that he is a lazy actor. “A lot of the naysayers go – because I always do my own accent – ‘Oh, he always does the same bloody thing’,” he says. “But I would say that Tom Hanks is always just using his own accent too.” He is, he says, proud that across his body of work, he has helped to challenge associations of a Northern Irish accent with conflict.
“The idea of having a leading character in a primetime comedy drama speaking with my accent but having no real political baggage was deemed quite unusual,” he says of his work on Cold Feet. “I’m lucky to have been involved in getting that accent into living rooms all over Britain, where I could put a dent in the notion that that sound was only associated with conflict.” It was also what amused him about starring in Sky 1’s superhero drama Stan Lee’s Lucky Man. “There’s only ever going to be one middle-aged, Northern Irish superhero created by Stan Lee, and it’s me,” he says.
Nesbitt turned 56 last month. Given that he has been a household name now for going on 25 years, what ambitions remain? “When I was 44, I was still worried about the work,” he says. “But now, I’m happy to be still balancing on the ladder. I’d love to do a big musical extravaganza. When I did Steven Moffat’s Jekyll back in 2007, I bloody loved it. I’d love to have another crack at something like that – a showy character who isn’t always haunted and looking in the mirror, wondering where it all went wrong.”
And not looking tearfully at a photograph of his late, beloved wife? “Yeah, yeah,” he says, laughing. “I’ve had plenty of practice at that.”
But in a poignant twist to this homecoming tale, filming Bloodlands presented not only an opportunity for Nesbitt to reconnect with Northern Ireland but also to spend time with his father while he still could (his mother, a civil servant, died from Alzheimer’s 10 years ago, aged 79).
“It’s turned out to be difficult at times but ultimately the most rewarding twist of fate that I happened to be here,” he says. “My father was my best pal growing up and so it has been a blessing for me in so many ways to spend time with him and rekindle the friendship.”
His father died in August, aged 91, from natural causes. “I think we got to a place where before he died, I was able to look at him and he knew that I was grateful,” says Nesbitt. “I knew he was looking at me, glad I was his son, and he was more supportive than I’d given him credit for; he said he had known, more than I had, that acting was where my home and my life would be. I got to share the memories and see the man he was. He’d been through many volte faces in his beliefs and identity, but at the end of his life, he was fiercely proud of being from Northern Ireland. That was an important moment. Everything from now on is a bonus.”
Bloodlands starts on BBC One on 21st February. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our handy TV Guide.