Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland TV review – BBC Two docuseries

“It’s quite a feat to leave the viewer feeling simultaneously galvanised, reflective and wrung-out, but the new five-part James Bluemel docuseries ‘Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland’ (BBC Two) manages it,” said Barbara Ellen in The Observer. Bluemel made a celebrated 2020 series about the Iraq War, and here he uses the same technique, allowing “ordinary people” to talk about their own experiences to powerful effect.

Aided by archive footage, the story is told chronologically, and “all sides and viewpoints are represented and carefully calibrated”: so we hear from ex-IRA members and loyalist paramilitaries as well as former British soldiers. It rushes a bit towards the end, but it’s a “stark masterclass in history, memory and emotion”. 

“It’s the small things – the human, intimate things – that bring you to tears,” said Rachel Cooke in The New Statesman. Particularly moving is the interview with John, a Protestant who recalls being told as a boy that his mother had died in a car crash, only to find out later that she was alive, but had been driven away because she was (unbeknown to him) a Catholic. “His story is unfathomable, but it was the way he smoked that set me off, his body wrapped around his cigarette as if in an embrace.” 

The series gets “sidetracked” at points, said Camilla Long in The Sunday Times – there’s a “sentimental digression about a record shop in Belfast”, for instance, that we could have done without. Mainly, though, it is brilliant storytelling: ”diligent, unsensational, modest”.

Where to watch: BBC Two/BBC iPlayer