Novelist Jed Mercurio, considered one of Britain’s greatest television writers also produces and directs and was previously a hospital doctor and Air Force officer. Seems the signs were pointing to an unconventional career; he wrote a successful show episode in response to an ad in a medical journal and never looked back. Mercurio’s created three television medical dramas, a sitcom, the hit series Bodyguard with Richard Madden and the outstanding police series Line of Duty. The fifth season streaming now on Acorn TV www.acorn.tv is the number one ranked show in the U.K. this year. Line of Duty is one of my favourite shows of all time so it was only right that I speak to him from his London home about the magic behind the phenom.
Line of Duty has genius about it – the stories are realistic and human yet unimaginable. It looks at our nature and pulls no punches.
One of the advantages we have is that we try episode by episode, to write the best possible content and toughest decisions for our characters. Once an episode is written we can take a step back and look at how where we’ve are at the end of the season. The arc is fluid and flexible. Its important that each hour works, the story being told in the present moment. What we don’t do is worry too much about serving an overall arc. The quality of an episode cannot be sacrificed on the altar of what will happen in the following installment. That’s potentially problematic and it wouldn’t end up as good as it should be. Then you would start to lose viewers.
The soul of the Line of Duty series is police corruption and the complexities of human nature. It’s nightmarish at times. How can people who commit to upholding the law go so far off base?
The show itself tries to find what complex reasons why police commit wrongdoings. What we try to create is a moral grey area where there may be an ethical justification, but real-world corruption is much simpler and usually based on greed.
Do you research criminal psychology?
We have police advisers who are very helpful to the process. They tell us what the job is like and the pressures on police officers. These are universal character tropes, police as relatable to the regular viewer, the things that motivates our police officers are the kinds of things a regular viewer would relate to.
But they are police officers, upholders of the law. They are different from us.
I would reject that idea artistically and also reject is in terms of real-world correlation.
Are your stories inspired by real stories or is there something personal?
Its because there are a lot of cop shows in which the drama is reassurance, good cops catching bad people and there’s not much else going on. The distinctive identity that we look at is police misconduct. I follow the news in UK and US, at how from time to time police officers make errors of judgment, that should be investigated. Some cop shows lag behind.
Given your years writing about authorities, do you think you could pull off an awesome heist and get away with it?
No. because I’m not sufficiently motivated. In order to do that you really need to be able to see something through. No matter what challenges are thrown away, you have to have real investment in the outcome. Hypothetically I am not sufficiently invested.
You’ve just described the character John Corbett. He’s the perennial bad guy but he’s revealed as something quite different.
He is a good bad guy and that’s what we go for in Line of Duty, to put our guest lead character into a moral quandary so that the audience sometimes thinks he’s the bad guy. The we shift perception and show other aspects of the character.
Do the actors give you ideas?
Sometimes. They are great people with thoughts about their characters, but generally they rely on me to generate the big overall story. But once we get into the personal stories, a productive discussion to have with them is about their characters. They have interesting contributions to make.
Line of Duty, Season Five is the top show in the UK, huge audience. Do people on the street pitch you ideas?
No people don’t give me ideas. I often talk to police advisors but it’s rare that I encounter anyone who wants to make a story.
North American shows can’t compare with British police procedurals like Line of Duty. Why?
I don’t know if that’s true. You can look at some of the shows over the last 20 years on cable, The Shield, The Wire.
Would you comment on the streaming industry at the moment?
Its great that streaming services provide so much content for people to watch in news ways for their busy lives but on top of that its great for programme content creators like me. We can tell more complex stores in knowledge that an audience can watch back-to-back stories and it remains fresh, or previous episodes and seasons. All those things are examples of ambitious storytelling.
Season 6 is ordered and we are talking.
BFCA BTJA AWFJ TFCA FIPRESCI