Critical creator Jed Mercurio on taking medical drama into territory it’s never gone before

“What we invest in is the fight for life. We see a team struggling to save a life that hangs in the balance and I think the mainstream audience will find that compelling and riveting"

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You have suffered a traumatic injury and have been rushed to a special trauma unit where highly trained doctors have only minutes to keep you alive, and maybe (if you are lucky) a bit longer to get you stable. Only after that can the long process of healing begin.

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It’s in these first few minutes that Jed Mercurio’s drama Critical is set, and drama fans are in safe hands. Not only is Mercurio the much-garlanded writer of the smash hit Line of Duty, he is also a former doctor who knows his way around a surgery room – or at least one from the 1990s.

While researching the new 13-part Sky 1 drama, the quiet and modest Mercurio was fascinated to see the leaps that have taken place in medical practice since he was working. 

“The equipment and what they can do is extraordinary, especially compared to what I was used to,” he says with a grin.

“It was interesting – medicine moves on very quickly so there was a lot of research to do. The hospital I did most of my research in was absolutely state of the art in comparison to my memories of the NHS in the 90s. It was really eye-opening.”

Mercurio worked as a specialist RAF physician before the lure of TV drama came calling, first with his hit BBC1 drama Cardiac Arrest, and then with a string of successes including Bodies (another hospital-set drama for the BBC) and of course his police corruption thriller Line of Duty.

Critical is his first drama set in real time. Each hour of telly accounts for every minute that Lennie James’s consultant Glen Boyle and registrar Fiona Lomas (Catherine Walker), along with the rest of their team, spend trying to save the patient.

We never find out anything about the person whose life is being saved. So how does that impact the drama? How can we care about someone who is essentially a mute slab of human on the operating table, someone we never meet? Mercurio responds: “I think any normal person wouldn’t want a stranger to die,” he says. “What we invest in is the fight for life. We see a team struggling to save a life that hangs in the balance and I think the mainstream audience will find that compelling and riveting.

“If you do attempt to reveal a lot about a patient’s background you run just as much of a risk of alienating the audience.”

This kind of drama has never been done before, says Mercurio, who claims to have got a taste for real-time writing with the brilliant interview sequences in the second series of Line of Duty. Writing in real time had its challenges, he admits, but he wanted the drama to feel totally present and immediate, with an absolute sense of urgency running through each episode.

“If you look at the facts, it’s 13 hours of television, taking the medical drama into territory it’s never gone into before, so it’s definitely something that is a courageous and groundbreaking bit of programming.

“What we know is we can’t achieve a complete cure. What we are looking for is getting someone who is going to die in the next few seconds to a state where they are going to survive, providing they are given further treatment, which happens after the episode is concluded.” 

But there was one logistical problem with the format – you can’t jump the action ahead. So on the rare occasions Critical moves out of the operating theatre, it is a strict rule that the life of that patient has moved on by exactly the same time.

Like Line of Duty, Critical is set in an unnamed city – and it was done for the same reason.

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“It’s not me! The broadcasters feel more comfortable if we don’t say where something is. With Line of Duty, the BBC didn’t want the police corruption to be located in any British city. With Critical the only city in the UK that has more than one trauma centre is London, so if you specified the city it was set in – even if you gave the hospital a fictional name – people could draw the wrong conclusion. So we had to be non-specific.” He would be keen to do another  series of Critical, and filming of the third series of Line of Duty begins in April for a likely transmission in late 2015.

“I need to earn a living, so I was developing this in the months when I wasn’t working on Line of Duty. Television takes a long time, so although it looks like I have got all these things coming out, this is all work that goes back three years. It just worked out that way.”

As for what he wants from the Sky 1 drama, he is careful to point out that the show isn’t just about him. While he led the project, six other writers have contributed to the show.

“I think a lot of people have done some really good work on it, I hope it gets recognised.”

Well that’s the critical thing, isn’t it? 

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Critical airs Tuesday nights at 9.00pm on Sky 1.