The latest series of Line of Duty has contained some surprising twists for Superintendent Ted Hastings. The famously upstanding head of police anti-corruption unit AC-12 now stands accused of discriminatory management and unethical behaviour.
However, the evolution of Hastings across all four series came as a surprise to the show’s creator, Jed Mercurio. Six years ago, writing a sketch of the character for the casting directors, Mercurio described Hastings as “a bumbling figure, someone who, in that kind of Lieutenant Columbo style, appeared to be much more disorganised and less sharp than he really was”.
Several actors auditioned to portray this chaotically effective investigator, but “the character just wasn’t coming off the page”. They decided to try some different types of actors, one of whom was Adrian Dunbar, who had an impressive list of credits on stage, film (The Crying Game, The General) and TV, but without having the kind of hit that makes it hard to walk down the street.
“Even though Adrian didn’t fit the character I’d sketched,” remembers Mercurio, “he did something very vivid and interesting with the lines, and so I reconceived the character to fit him. I regard that as one of my great pieces of luck, to the extent that I now see auditions as being part of the writing process.”
As rewritten by Mercurio and played by Dunbar, Supt Hastings has become one of the most memorable characters in TV drama, although his status as the great incorruptible figure of authority has been shaken by the recent allegations. To avoid plot-spoiling, Mercurio declines to discuss the doubts hanging over the character, but might, I ask, it be significant to the eventual resolution that as part of Hastings’s backstory he served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the Troubles, a period of several policing scandals in Northern Ireland?
Mercurio offers a careful reply: “Adrian and I have talked about that, although it’s not something we’ve explored in any great depth yet in the series. But, in the history of policing, veterans of the RUC, when they’ve moved to other forces, have often been ideal anti-corruption officers because they don’t have those long- standing links, going back to the same police training colleges and particular local investigations. They are outsiders.”
But the revelation in series one that Hastings was one of the few Catholic officers in the RUC, and the suggestion that he might be a Freemason is interesting, I suggest, because Catholics are forbidden from joining that organisation. Another long pause from the writer.
“Yeah. That’s an area of interest and will be explored. The fact is that Line of Dutyhas a very big story arc across all the series and one of the things that we haven’t done is to delve into Hastings’s past. That will happen in future series.”
So that means that Hastings must survive for at least one more outing? Mercurio laughs: “Well, you’ll need to watch. You can still explore the past of someone who’s dead, as we did in series three.”
That posthumous presence was Sgt Danny Waldron, an armed officer played by Daniel Mays. Despite being killed off at the end of the first episode, Mays has just been nominated for a best supporting actor Bafta. That, though, was the only recognition for last year’s Line of Duty. Did this small haul sadden Mercurio?
“I think that’s putting it a bit strongly. I’m pretty philosophical about awards. I’m disappointed that some of the great performances haven’t been recognised, although I’m thrilled about Daniel. But at the moment there are so many great dramas that it’s hard to narrow them down, whereas there are other years when you look at the nominations and think: ‘God, I wish I’d been nominated then, we’d have walked it.’
“Also, I take the view that it’s just opinion. These things are decided by juries of however many people, who happen to be free at that time. I’ve never been so lacking in work that I’ve been able to go along and take part in a jury. People have their own tastes, and then there is the dynamic in the jury. I’m much happier, frankly, with the cold hard facts of viewing figures than being carried along by people’s opinions.”
Mercurio hopes that the hot ratings for this series – with consolidated viewing figures reaching seven-and-a-half-million after its move from BBC2 to BBC1 – will persuade the corporation to commission a sixth series in addition to the fifth already agreed.
He has previously warned that if not promised a sixth season, he would tie up all the unresolved storylines at the end of the fifth, rather than risk leaving the show hanging unfinished. He confirms that this remains the case: “Yes. We haven’t yet had that meeting with the BBC. But if there’s not another commission, I would have to approach series five as the last.”
Does he know in his mind which of the three main characters will be in the next scripts? “Yes. I do.” Do they know? “No.”
Actors in the show have to accept that there are no guarantees. “We all talk to each other, but everyone understands that we want to make the best possible piece of drama. So it may happen that, as with Craig Parkinson, who had been a mainstay of three series [as Matthew “Dot” Cottan], there comes a point when the best thing that can happen to the character is to exit and create a launch point for new stories.”
This article was originally published in the 29 April-5 May 2017 issue of Radio Times magazine