Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio says the BBC had reservations about police corruption drama
Michael Hodges talks to Jed Mercurio about how the BBC nearly dropped Line of Duty.
The first series of Jed Mercurio’s police thriller Line of Duty went out on BBC Two in 2012 – so long ago that when DCI Tony Gates finds his life falling apart, he uses a telephone box to make a call.
Gates, played by Lennie James, is a police officer under unbearable pressure, an award-winning detective caught in a web of deceit and corruption. “The series was built around Lennie James,” says Mercurio. “The starting point was the character of a corrupt officer and the architecture of the series was the force that would be opposing him, an anti-corruption investigative unit.”
A corrupt officer under investigation by AC-12 proved to be an irresistible narrative device. Critically lauded and, at one point in 2019, attracting 10.6 million viewers, Line of Duty went on to be a huge success for the BBC. In following series, the equivalent part to Gates would be played by Keeley Hawes as DI Lindsay Denton, Daniel Mays as Sergeant Danny Waldron, Thandie Newton as DCI Roz Huntley and, most recently, Stephen Graham as DS John Corbett. But throughout the show’s run three actors have remained at its core: Martin Compston as DS Steve Arnott, Vicky McClure as DI Kate Fleming and Adrian Dunbar as Superintendent Ted Hastings.
“We all feel very fortunate and privileged that Line of Duty has gone on as long as it has,” Mercurio says of the show’s core team. “We’ve shared the ups and downs of the series and we pull in the same direction creatively. We go out for a drink and a curry together and flesh out the characters’ journeys. Curry conferences if you like. I make some notes, and the next morning I’ll do some script revisions.”
It’s a cause of some satisfaction for Mercurio that the series is coming back on BBC One. He tried, and failed, to get it on BBC One the first time around. “Maybe there were reservations that something about police corruption might be problematic for a mainstream audience,” he says. “That was something that was passed on to me by the drama department, attempting to be constructive about it and therefore giving us hope that BBC Two might be a better home for us. But the fact is that the controllers aren’t accountable.”
Mercurio seems to hold one BBC executive responsible in particular, though he doesn’t care to name her. “That particular controller never had to justify her decision. It didn’t affect her career, that she turned down something that went on to be the biggest BBC One drama currently returning.”
Has he ever mentioned that over cocktails at the BBC? “There’s no point. There’s selective amnesia about things like that. Everybody, and every TV commissioner or TV executive, who was involved in rejecting Line of Duty now pretends that it didn’t happen.” Is he bitter then, still seething at the rebuff to his ambitions? “It’s not that I seethe, we’re in a fantastic position and I’m certainly not bitter. But if you consider all the other projects that have been rejected over the years, the opportunities missed, and the ones that still are rejected, then of course it’s disappointing. You worry that something that you’ve worked on and you believe in is never going to see the light of day.
“Between Bodies, which finished in 2005-2006, until Line of Duty aired in 2012, all the original series that I’d created had been rejected. Just before Line of Duty was rejected by the BBC One controller, there was another drama, a medical drama for BBC One, that had a big star attached to it. That was rejected.”
Mercurio, now 54, lives with the producer Elaine Cameron, they have two children and, these days, he’s mostly at peace with the BBC. “I’m very grateful for the support I get from some people within the BBC,” he says. “I feel a certain sense of loyalty towards them and I enjoy collaborating with them, but there are plenty of people within the BBC who aren’t fans of my work, and people I wouldn’t take material to.”
He’s quick to credit Piers Wenger, the present head of drama, for sticking by his series Bodyguard when its fate was in doubt. “Some people liked it within the BBC and some didn’t,” he says. “It was on a knife edge. Piers could have stopped it because of that.”
When he first pitched Line of Duty, Mercurio was an outsider as far as the industry was concerned. Born in Nelson, Lancashire, the son of Italian immigrants, and brought up in the West Midlands, he wasn’t in the bubble of public school and Oxbridge that produces many television executives. “A lot of people who are involved in making decisions have gone through the same kind of background, been to the same universities, even to the same school,” he says. “Then you have a situation where someone like me comes from a working-class background. I didn’t go through any kind of creative training. I came at things from the outside.”
Was that the attraction of creating a police drama set in a fictional English city where there are apparently no posh people? “No, it’s not that,” he says. “If you work in media, you might end up with a distorted view of how many people come from a privileged background. Actually, it’s because most police officers come from a working-class background, and most criminals do.”
In 2012, already lauded for the RTS-winning medical drama Bodies, he was searching for a new way to write about the police. “We were looking at police misconduct, taking real-world examples to allow us to construct something that felt credible and relevant. The same applies to the portrayal of criminality. The fact is that the tentacles of organised crime spread throughout society and many of us don’t experience it, or we don’t know we’re experiencing it. We don’t know we’re witnessing it, but it’s still present.”
Eight years later the first series is still a visceral experience. Trust me, you’ll grip the sofa and, occasionally, you will flinch. Throats are cut, fingers are removed with bolt-cutters, men are hanged from lamp posts. Corpses are stored in freezers. Mercurio knows about physical trauma and wounds; he trained as a medic in the RAF and was working as an NHS hospital doctor until the success of his medical drama Cardiac Arrest in 1994. For a moment he even considered helping the NHS out during the COVID-19 crisis. “I went onto the NHS England website to look at what their recruitment criteria were,” he says. “But someone like me who hasn’t practised medicine for 25 years now would have very little value.”
Better to stick to what he’s good at then. Series six of Line of Duty, starring Kelly Macdonald as the possibly compromised DCI Joanne Davidson, is presently on hold due to the corona crisis. Will it look corona-compliant? “We’re still discussing it,” he says. “We shot for four weeks pre-lockdown in the early stages of the pandemic. At that point we were shooting a representation of life as it was, there was no social distancing, no mask wearing. Clearly that’s not the world we’re currently in, but what no one knows is how long we are in this fight.”
If you want to know if DI Fleming will wear a mask, then best wait, perhaps, until Mercurio’s local curry house re-opens. I ask him if any great ideas, jotted down on korma-splattered napkins, have ever gone missing. Hastings really is H, or John Corbett doesn’t actually die?
“I put my ideas into my phone,” says Mercurio. “They don’t get lost.”
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.