Late on a Monday afternoon in Belfast, Jed Mercurio is supervising the first day’s shooting on the fifth series of Line of Duty. “I’m pleased to report that, at this stage, we’re on schedule and on budget,” laughs the writer-director-producer.
His only regret about being on set is that he was on a plane to Northern Ireland the previous evening and so was unable to watch, live, the sensational third episode of his other huge BBC1 hit, Bodyguard. It climaxed in police protection officer Sgt David Budd (Richard Madden) failing to prevent a bomb exploding while Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes) delivered a speech at a London college.
In last Sunday’s fourth episode, the drama’s millions of fans heard, via murmured comments from a trauma surgeon, that the politician had died, making Hawes a very rare example of a star in a Sunday-night six-parter being written out halfway through the series. After the college bomb-blast, it was left unclear whether she’d survived, but most viewers will have assumed that she would, as you don’t cast a major star then kill them off.
Mercurio admits that he was deliberately taking advantage of that assumption. “I think there’s a certain expectation with series TV that it will always orbit around an equilibrium, in which nothing much changes for the main stars, and there are no drastic changes to the set-up, especially now things tend to run for several series. But, with my work, I like to try to do things that move the story on, and with Bodyguard I wanted to have this event mid-series that would completely alter the dynamic.”
Mercurio was also motivated by his belief that most viewers wouldn’t see the twist coming: “I remember watching TV as a kid and, whenever there was some sort of jeopardy involving the hero, I could reassure myself that they were what I’d call a ‘can’t-die’ character, so everything would be OK. Even though you’d just seen a completely crazed Mr Spock strangle Captain Kirk to death [in Star Trek], you’d know that a few minutes later there would be some bizarre twist involving the timespace continuum and Kirk would be alive on the Starship Enterprise.”
So embedded is the immortality of main characters that the death of Montague in Bodyguard still came as a shock, even though Mercurio has form as a mid-serial killer. Major characters played by Jessica Raine, Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins died after a single episode of the second, third and fourth series of Line of Duty.
He has even sent Hawes to an early grave once before, when her Line of Duty character, DI Lindsay Denton, was killed in the fifth episode of series three.
Did the actress comment on this? “Yes, she did. But she did it, as she usually does, with good humour. I think, for her, it’s about the work as a whole, and the role. I think – hope – she’d take the view that it’s better to do a few episodes of something meaty than lots of episodes of something thin.”
When I interviewed Mercurio for Radio Times before Bodyguard started (having seen only episode one), he explained how the casting of a series involves balancing the availability of actors with the dates already fixed for filming. He said then that, if Bodyguard had been shot slightly later, Hawes would already have been in Corfu, filming The Durrells. So did he kill off Montague because the actress was due to fly to Greece?
“Actually, in this case, Keeley would have been available for the whole shoot, if we’d wanted her. But I’d already written the character to die after three episodes. That’s what I wanted to do.”
David Budd (Richard Madden) in Bodyguard (BBC)
Mercurio ’s TV career divides between medical series that drew on his own first career as a hospital doctor (Cardiac Arrest, Bodies, Critical) and the more recent police thrillers: Line of Duty and Bodyguard. I put it to Mercurio that what seems to unite them is a deep scepticism about the British state – don’t trust it with your life or liberty.
“I don’t think it’s a distrust of the state,” he replies. “I’m saying that institutions reach a point where part of their work is serving the purpose they were designed for, and part of their work is about self-preservation. And you’ll see that in any long-existing institution, whether it’s the NHS, the police, or the apparatus of government.”
The digital era has had two huge consequences for television – both for viewers and for programme-makers. One (mainly beneficial) change is that viewers can watch and rewatch shows at their own convenience, rather than that of schedulers.
But, sometimes less happily for programme makers, new media also means that the audience can now comment on programmes before and during transmission as well as after. The huge audiences the drama has delivered – 10.4 million for the first episode – provides a useful sense of perspective, but Bodyguard has faced various Twitter criticisms.
Some concern has been raised that a plot apparently showing a Muslim woman suicide bomber under the control of her jihadist terrorist husband risks perpetuating a stereotype that is used in racist rhetoric. “The first thing to say to that is that you need to watch the whole drama for a comprehensive idea of who is plotting to do harm and who is responsible for the terror event,” says Mercurio. “The other thing is that, unfortunately, the reality of our situation is that the principal terror threats in the UK do originate from Islamist sympathisers. I do understand that’s different from the religion of Islam, but it’s the reality of who the perpetrators are of the majority of the offences. If the show were set in the recent British past, the attackers might be Irish Republicans.”
As a further internal balance in his work, Mercurio also points out that the first series of Line of Duty explored the possibility that British foreign policy had triggered the Islamist threat.
He takes seriously the responsibilities of television fiction, and agreed with the BBC policy of placing trigger warnings and post-show helpline announcements around episode four, in which Budd made a suicide attempt. (Halfway through the fourth episode, both stars seemed to be dead, which would have been brutal even in Mercurio’s rotational approach to casting.) “There are, quite rightly, rules about the portrayal of self-harm,” he says. “And we were very sensitive to that.”
A more trivial complaint has been the gripe of some critics that the police and security services in the drama seem to be overly diverse, with almost all major roles held by women. But Mercurio is dismissive of this: “That’s just plain wrong. In terms of the police, if you had a meeting between the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, the head of the National Crime Agency and the head of the Chief Police Officers Association, the only man in the room would be if they happened to send a tea-boy in.”
There have always been Twitterings complaining about the use of real BBC TV and radio news presenters to report the fictional plot against the government: 15 BBC News staff have so far appeared, including Laura Kuenssberg, Mishal Husain and Frank Gardner. The former BBC royal correspondent, Michael Cole, wrote a Daily Mail article, arguing that this risked blurring the journalistic authority of staff who might, on another occasion, have to report a real terrorist atrocity.
“He’s wrong,” says Mercurio. “I think it’s completely understood by the audience that what we’re watching is a fiction. And what we’re doing is adding verisimilitude to that fiction.”
Tahir Mahmood (Shubham Saraf) in Bodyguard (BBC)
There has also been a body of social media commentary regretting the rapid sexual relationship between Montague and Budd, some viewers finding it a 9pm TV cliché, and protection professionals decrying it as a dereliction of duty, although there are several documented cases of such liaisons happening.
“There was certainly no suggestion of a romantic inevitability between those characters, as in a romcom,” insists the writer. “The point was that, in the dynamic between them, it raises the stakes and creates possible layers of mendacity and deception. And that was something I could play with. In episode three, for example, I wanted doubt about whether David is using his intimacy with Julia to help the plot against her or whether it gives him more emotional investment in protecting her. I think it was clear that both characters understood the barriers to their relationship, and didn’t enter into it lightly.”
He is concerned, though, that, in some other cases, digital interaction can give false prominence to criticisms made by a tiny fraction of the audience. Some news pieces, claiming “outrage” about a drama, turn out to be based on a single tweet or review. This escalation of individual irritation concerns Mercurio: “The best data we have isn’t what one person says, whether it’s in a newspaper or on Twitter. That’s the view of an individual, who may well also believe that the Earth is flat. The big [ratings] numbers we get give us a much better insight into how the series is performing, and how it’s being processed by the audience. So I’d rather look at what millions of people think, rather than the response of one person, based on all their prejudices and personal agendas.”
One much-publicised single response came from the Prime Minister, and former Home Secretary, Theresa May. On the day after Bodyguard’s premiere, she told reporters on her plane to Africa that she had switched off after 20 minutes (the length of the opening train bomber sequence) because, in effect, she got enough of that kind of thing at work. The showrunner wasn’t very offended: “If your target demographic were serving prime ministers/ former home secretaries, I don’t think you’d do well in the ratings.”
Despite being minus May, the audiences for Bodyguard have been the highest for any TV drama this year. So there must be a temptation for Mercurio to demand a second series now, or for Charlotte Moore, Director of BBC Content, to ring him up and offer one. But discussions will only take place after the first series is over: “You have to wait until the end because anything can happen,” says Mercurio. “Some shows do nosedive at the end, or some piece of content could become incredibly controversial and affect the way the show is seen. In the end, you have to accept that the broadcaster holds all the cards.”
Mercurio would “absolutely” like to do another run, but worries that Richard Madden’s magnetically intense performance as Budd may cause scheduling problems: “He’s the genuine article, a real leading man. And I think this role has put him very much in the spotlight for bigger things. So the practicality may be that we have to work round his availability, if we are lucky enough to get him back.” Perhaps if Madden were, say, cast as the next James Bond, Mercurio could kill him off halfway through the first episode of Bodyguard 2? “Yeah. I’d rather not because it would leave a massive hole.”
As Mercurio returns to the Line of Duty shoot, I offer him the chance to reveal exclusively who will be the guest star actors in season five, although, given his record of mid-serial killing, they might not be in Belfast very long. “No. Sorry. I can’t tell you. Because that’s the kind of people we are.”