‘Cold, calculating, thorough’: The real-life bomb disposal experts on Trigger Point

Entertainment

First it was bent coppers, now it’s explosives planted around London – Vicky McClure’s characters never have it easy.

The BAFTA-winning actress is currently on screen as Lana Washington in the second series of ITV drama Trigger Point, leading a team of bomb disposal experts – or “expos” – working for the Met Police.

Written by Daniel Brierley, it’s another series executive produced by Jed Mercurio, the man behind Line Of Duty. While it hasn’t quite reached the same fevered levels of fandom just yet, the first season was a ratings winner and a linear TV draw for viewers tuning in to see what – or who – will face an explosive end each Sunday night.

Warning – contains spoilers

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Stay away from the lift shaft: McClure and co-star Mark Stanley as DCI Thom Youngblood. Pic: ITV

The penultimate episode airs this evening and the tension has ramped up; Lana has faced car park bombs, disused tube station bombs and laptop bombs – not to mention her detective ex being pushed down a lift shaft by a woman disguised as a firefighter checking the scene, right after their romance had been rekindled.

But how good is Trigger Point at getting the work of a real-life expo right?

Major Chris Hunter, who spent years in bomb disposal for the army and the Special Forces – and whose work inspired the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker – has written books including Extreme Risk and Eight Lives Down.

He now works for an NGO clearing explosives from conflict zones and has been watching Trigger Point in Iraq. While he wasn’t too impressed with the first series, he says things have vastly improved second time round.

“You can’t help sort of looking at the technical aspects of it and critiquing it,” he told Sky News. “And I think a lot of the aspects are really technically on the ball [in series two].”

‘Absence of the normal, presence of the abnormal’

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Experts agree the second series is more true to life than the first. Pic: ITV

There’s still “a little bit of running around, a little bit of shouting” in the show, he understates it, but appreciates you need this to make a drama. In reality, he says it’s not so chaotic.

“We don’t do that as bomb techs, we just don’t shout. We don’t run around. We don’t run towards a bomb, we don’t run away from a bomb. Everything is calculated. Everything. You’re constantly going through this threat assessment.

“When you turn up at a bomb scene, you’ve got to draw on your experience, you’ve got to draw on your intelligence, your intellect, your IQ. You’ve got to draw on your intuition as well, because you’ve never got 100% of the threat picture, if you like. So you have to make a plan based on what information you’ve got.

“It’s cold, it’s calculating, it’s thorough. And then you’ve got to walk up to that bomb – and I say walk, you don’t run up to a bomb, ever. You walk up to that bomb and as you’re walking up to it, you’re continually refining that threat assessment. You’re looking at the environment. You’re looking at the atmospherics. You’re taking in every single aspect of the information around you.

“You’re looking at absence of the normal, you’re looking at presence of the abnormal. And as you take each step towards that bomb, you’re constantly updating the threat picture. Is there something right, is there something wrong?”

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You have to think about intent, he adds, and what type of bomb you’re dealing with. “Is it time? Is it command? Is it victim-operated? And you constantly hear Vicky McClure’s character asking that question and that’s really good to see as well, they’ve absolutely got that right. And then finally when you get up to the bomb, that’s when you’ve built up most of your threat picture.”

In this series, drones have been used in an attack on Washington and her team.

“Drone warfare is very much at the forefront of what we do,” says Chris. “So I think that’s something they’ve got absolutely right, it’s definitely in every aspect of conflict. It’s something we’re seeing now, and it’s something we’re going to see 100% in the future. I think they’ve done a really good job at looking at the current technologies and how to turn those into IEDs and threats, and a good sort of analysis of future technologies as well. Things that are just around the corner.”

‘I can suspend my disbelief’

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Kerry Godliman stars alongside McClure as data analyst Sonya. Pic: ITV

Lucy Lewis, the army’s first female bomb disposal expert, says there are parts the show gets right and parts it gets wrong – but these things are often incorrect on purpose.

“In these kinds of shows you have to get some bits wrong so they can never be mistaken as a documentary,” she says. “When it’s a police [or military] uniform, you have to get something visually wrong so there’s no way snippets could be mistaken for the real thing.” For example, in the recent police procedural series Vigil, she points out, military badges read “British Air Force” and not “Royal Air Force”.

In Trigger Point, as there are no distinguishing badges for the expos they often have their radios upside down, “which I find really annoying”, she says, “but it’s because there’s nothing else they can really ‘get wrong’, visually”.

Lucy has written a book about her work, titled Lighting The Fuse, and says there has been renewed interest since Trigger Point debuted six months later, such is the fascination with the show. She says she has watched it “between my fingers and shouted at the telly quite a lot” at some points.

“It must be the same for police watching police [portrayed in TV dramas], medics watching medics,” she says. “But I love watching Vicky McClure and I think Jed Mercurio is really good. I watch for quality of the drama rather than technical aspects. But this series is better than the first, and I can suspend my disbelief.”

In real life, bomb disposal work is “very boring, lots of hanging about”, she says. “There’s a small crack and a puff of smoke and nothing happens. They’ve made it very dramatic in Trigger Point – every explosion is always a fireball.”

‘It’s a problem that needs to be dealt with’

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McClure and co-star Nabil Elhouahabi, who plays Hass. Pic: ITV

But rather than being annoyed at the exaggerations, Lucy enjoys “the drama of it”. And to critics on social media who have questioned certain actions, such as Lana sometimes removing her helmet when searching for explosive devices, she says this does happen. “We do take our helmets off to look under cars,” she says. “And we do use fibreoptics to look inside things. They’ve also done the controlled explosions right, pretty much. But there’s a lot more snipping of the red wire than really goes on.”

Most people would say bomb disposal experts must need nerves of steel, but Lucy is having none of it. “Not at all – it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with. For me, the worst part was always the journey there, not knowing what I was going to find. As soon as you arrive there’s bits to check – where gas mains are, what’s in the buildings around you, why the bomb is where it is, is it next to something vulnerable and what are the consequences of that?”

As has been shown in Trigger Point, “very rarely is where the bomb is placed the actual target, that’s what it gets right… they’ll put in a small bomb that draws you in, but the main bomb is in location two. In Afghanistan, the idea was not to kill but to injure, to then target the Chinook coming in to get the injured.”

The show has faced questions from some viewers about potentially giving away too much about how to make and operate explosives, or work out ways to prevent expos from doing their job, but Chris says there is enough missing from the show to prevent too much information being given away.

“They’ve got the technical aspects correct enough for it to be absolutely authentic, but not quite enough for somebody to go in there and say, oh, I’m going to go make a bomb now. If you tried to use it as some sort of recipe book, then you would definitely be getting it slightly wrong.”

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And like Lucy, he plays down the bravery aspect, saying dealing with explosives comes after years of training and experience.

“As bomb techs, we know exactly what we’re doing. And I guess, more importantly, we know what we don’t know. Everything is calculated risk, it’s not foolhardy risk. So, I guess, yeah, a healthy amount of courage, but I wouldn’t say nerves of steel, no.”

As for Lana Washington – would he have her on his team?

“You know what? I think when she was in series one, probably not. I think she needed a bit more training. I think series two, yeah, she’s definitely very good.

“I’ve heard actually, through the grapevine – I don’t know if this is true, but apparently – I’ve heard that when [McClure] talks to the technical adviser, she’s actually read the script [at times] and said, ‘I’m not sure I’d do that, I’d probably want to do this’, because she’s learnt so much she’s actually started to think like an operator now. So, you know, kudos to her, and her technical adviser as well. Good effort.”

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