Adrian Dunbar hopes his new TV thriller set in small-town Ireland will become an international hit, writes
IN A FORMER medical centre 20 miles from Dublin and overlooking a postcard pretty stretch of the Royal Canal, Adrian Dunbar sits at a desk, outlining the gristly particulars of a recent suicide.
Opposite a hunched young man inquires as to the details of the death. The body had bruises — suggesting, to the questioner, that this was more than an open-and-shut case.
No, says Dunbar’s character smoothly. Sometimes people claw at themselves as they die. He declines to hand over the case file. As the local doctor such a refusal is entirely his prerogative. The information, he explains haughtily, stays with him.
Thus begins a pivotal scene in Blood, the new psychological thriller from Virgin Media (previously TV3). It’s a claustrophobic murder- mystery in the tradition of Broadchurch and Scandi dramas such as The Killing, set in a fictional small town in the Midlands.
Dunbar is chilling — suave and overbearing, with just a hint of menace. He plays Jim Hogan, a larger-than-life doctor and respected community figure who may, or may not, also be a keeper of dark secrets.
Jim’s wife has died in murky circumstances, prompting estranged daughter Cat to return to Ireland. She knows Jim has a nefarious side — but is he really capable of killing the mother of his children? That’s the question which Virgin believes will keep viewers, in Ireland and abroad, hooked until the end.
“It came up very early in the discussions that Adrian would be perfect,” says Sophie Petzal, the Brighton-born writer who has penned all six episodes of what Virgin hopes will be its biggest-ever scripted show.
With a budget many times greater than the usual for an Irish drama — Virgin declines to provide a figure – the dream is for Blood to be the Irish Borgen or Broadchurch. It’s a whodunit set in a specific (frankly, rather creepy) location, with a story that has universal appeal.
Already it’s been snapped up by Channel 5 in the UK and will stream in the US on Acorn TV, a service offering “world-class mysteries, dramas, and comedies from Britain and beyond” (it’s the place to go if you want to binge on Midsomer Murders or Foyle’s War).
“The project is co-financed. [The backers] saw the international appeal. It’s a bit like Happy Valley, which feels very Yorkshire — it wouldn’t be quite the same anywhere else,” says producer Jonathan Fisher. “Hopefully this is the same — in that it feels very unique and specific. Happy Valley is huge on Netflix.”
The storyline carries echoes of true crime hit The Staircase in which a rather unnerving husband is accused of killing his wife, found dead at the bottom of a flight of steps.
In Blood, Jim Hogan’s spouse has supposedly fallen and cracked her head in the garden – but black sheep daughter Cat (British actress Carolina Main) thinks there is more to the story.
What follows is a game of psychological cat and mouse. Is Cat correct to have suspicions? Or has she fallen victim to her own unchecked paranoia?
“She starts to suspect that maybe I’ve killed her mother,” says Dunbar. “By turns you think she could be right or that she’s sightly losing the plot… Jim is not quite a good guy – he’s got that spooky vibe.”
As with Broadchurch the setting is a semi-fictionalised small town on the fringes of civilisation. Petzal’s mother is from Rathfarnham; as a child she spent a great deal of time in Kinnegad, Co Westmeath, for which Kilcock is serving as a loose stand-in.
“You’re very close to Dublin. But the landscape is so different,” she says. “The Midlands has this frontier town element. It’s very evocative… My mum grew up in Rathfarnham and I spent an awful lot of time in Ireland in my childhood. My uncle had a farm in Meath and a lot of holidays were spent there.”
BATTLE OF HASTINGS
Dunbar has been a successful stage and screen actor since leaving his native Fermanagh for London in his twenties. His achievements have been both in front of and behind the camera (he both wrote and starred in Hear My Song, a 1991 biopic of Derry singer Josef Locke).
However, his biggest success has come late, as stand-up copper Ted Hastings in Line of Duty, the police corruption drama by Bodyguard writer Jed Mercurio (season five of which is currently shooting in Belfast).
“I’ve no doubt one of the reasons they asked me to do Blood is because of the character of Ted Hastings who, up to now had been a bastion of morality and really good sense. They thought..what Irish actors can we get to do this? People will trust this character. The fact Blood and Line of Duty are running parallel no doubt helps too.”
He also regards Blood as having the positive of giving employment to Irish cast and crew rather than requiring them to work abroad.
“We need to bring people in the industry home and get them working. We need ongoing indigenous products, like Blood, to sell on the international market.”
Though Blood is technically an Irish production, the writer, producer and lead actress are all British. This might set alarms clanging. It’s just a few years since the BBC promised that its Co Waterford-set EastEnders spin off, Redwater, would present a realistic portrayal of modern Ireland, only for it to reel off the same old cliches of twitching curtains, feral locals and domineering clerics.
That Blood likewise features a priest as a semi-prominent character is obviously a cause for concern then. Who, in a commuter belt town such as Kilcock, has the foggiest as to the identity of their local curate?“There’s a funeral. He just officiates – there’s no alcoholic priest,” says Petzal. “We wanted to lean into the horrific banalities of grief — the procedure of the funeral. There is an awful lot of beginnings of rosaries [in the background] while people are talking. We wanted to lean into the truth of it. Everyone in the room[during the removal] is a lapsed Catholic. That for me is very familiar and very personal.
“Everyone is suddenly a Catholic when someone dies — everyone half remembers [the ritual]. But other than Mary, the deceased mother, none of the family have any religion other than it’s their cultural history. That was fun to lean into.”