In the US, ER and House were global hits. In the UK, we’ve got Casualty and Holby City, which… well… they’re not exactly House. But now former doctor and the hottest talent in British drama – Jed Mercurio, the man behind Line of Duty – is charged with bringing it back to life. “I wanted was to do something that really picks you up by the scruff of the neck and slams you into the world of high-powered medicine.”
Critical, Mercurio’s new drama for Sky, is certainly radical. It aims to re-create, minute by minute, the so-called “golden hour” in a critically injured patient’s treatment: the first 60 minutes after an accident when doctors have the best chance of saving their life.
If the drama succeeds, what we’ll see will be more real than a documentary – no cutaways to other beds, no flinching when the patient’s body is sliced and diced. Set in a state-of-the-art major trauma centre, which treats only the gravely ill or seriously injured, it’s intensive care with the accent on intense. Each week there’s a new patient, and each week we see only that hour of intense care flung at an unconscious body by the same expert specialist trauma team, who must battle their own personal problems while trying to heal the sick.
“Life is hanging in the balance so that every second counts,” says Mercurio. “I just felt that I wanted one more shot at it while I could still remember what it was like being a doctor.”
Oddly, amidst the rapidly spat medical jargon, the loving close-ups of scalpel incisions, the hardcore horror of an emergency open-heart operation and all the blood and panic, it’s the first moment of silence that underlines Critical’s credibility. In episode one the team – soon to be led by Lennie James’s brilliant trauma surgeon Glen Boyle, but struggling with their old boss being suspended – reach a point where they just have to wait for two minutes. The pause is minutely detailed; there’s the tension to keep things going, but the absence of drama feels unusually real.
“One of the early questions was, ‘What happens when nothing is happening?’ ” Mercurio explains. “You have to wait for the specialist to arrive, for the results of the tests, and for the patient’s blood pressure to come up – those things we embrace as a virtue of the drama.
“If you actually watch trauma calls in real hospitals there are these moments where everyone does stand around and they do check their emails and then everything starts off again. That’s the realistic texture of someone who is accustomed to their workplace.”
Mercurio has form in unpicking the detailed lives of public servants. His debut drama Cardiac Arrest – which first went out on BBC1 in 1994 while he was still working as a doctor – dumped political correctness in the morgue, with scenes of junior doctors smoking and drinking. They hated patients and their job and indulged in some fairly fruity racist and sexist backchat. It was a huge hit and propelled him into a TV career almost by accident. His most recent success was last year with the second series of the critically acclaimed BBC drama Line of Duty that tackled police corruption.
Lennie James, of course, starred in the first season of Line of Duty in 2012 – which was also written by Mercurio – and the relationship they forged brought him in to Critical. “You get collaborations that seem to work very well, and Lennie and I hit it off straight away,” says Mercurio. “It’s certainly a relationship of mutual respect and both of us would like to continue working together – even beyond Critical.”
It’s an ensemble cast – Boyle’s team includes Claire Skinner, Catherine Walker and Fresh Meat’s Kimberley Nixon, plus newcomer Prasanna Puwanarajah – but James feels every inch the star. Like the corrupt cop Tony Gates that he played in Line of Duty, Boyle is a man nursing secrets. He’s a military surgeon, drafted in to help out by his ex-girlfriend, Catherine Walker’s struggling trauma fellow Fiona Lomas. She needs him to help sort out the hospital’s behind-the-scenes chaos, which is starting to threaten lives. Working together, however, brings both of them fresh pain.
To carry off Boyle’s man-of-the-hour medical confidence, James shadowed Gary Maytham, a vascular surgeon and deputy clinical head of the trauma centre at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, south London. “He’s a no-nonsense kind of man, but he’s also brilliant,” James enthuses. “There are very few people left on this planet that I truly want to impress and Gary Maytham is one of them. He says a nice word to me, I can ride it for the whole week. On one particular Friday I sat in on four or five ops – I’d scrub up and walk in behind him.”
Did James learn enough to try his own hand? He laughs. “There were moments when I would like to have seen whether or not I could do an operation,” he grins. “I’m not lying. I’d be out in a social situation thinking, ‘Somebody do something where they need opening up. Just give me one go at it!’”
He shakes his head. “Although I’ve got a friend who is a very good snooker player, and I used to play with him, which was like Roger Federer playing Minnie Mouse. But because he was so good, he could talk me through a shot. When he wasn’t there I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. That’s like the surgeon I am at the moment. If Gary Maytham is stood there I think I might stand a chance, but if he’s not there I would not have the first clue.”
With the discussion around colour-blind casting still rumbling, it feels like James – with his flourishing US career in The Walking Dead, as well as the role of Boyle in Critical – is one Londoner who isn’t restricted by his Trinidadian roots. Are things changing for black actors?
“I get asked this a lot,” he says, then sighs. “It has got better, but it’s not good enough. The difficulty is you’re asking the wrong person. The people who need to be answering are the ones who make the decisions about why their cast doesn’t represent the people who are watching the programme. A lot of the time, they will blame it on the audience – but the audience will watch, over and over again; I know from personal experience. I’m sorry if I sound slightly wound up, but I’m bored with being asked a question that the generation of actors who came over on Windrush were asked – and they had the same answer.”
His flash of fire isn’t completely unsettling. Typically a Jed Mercurio drama comes with controversy. It’s usually found in the real-life struggles faced by the ordinary cops or doctors he makes his heroes, and Critical is no exception. With the general election looming, ask Mercurio about the NHS and you get a long, low sigh.
“I think you get better care as a patient than you did 20 years ago, but the morale of medical staff is lower than it was 20 years ago,” he says. “I was part of an unlucky generation – having had it tougher than any other group as juniors, my peers are now consultants or GPs and a lot of them feel that the changes have made their working lives much tougher than they were when they were juniors.”
It’s tempting to think he feels a tremble of longing for the operating theatre, but when prompted by the thought he gives a little laugh. “I enjoyed my time as a doctor, and I certainly have fond memories of practising medicine. But I’m very happy with what I’m doing right now.”
We’ll probably all feel a little safer if the only cuts he makes are to scripts…