For someone who writes edge-of-your-seat television shows, Jed Mercurio is surprisingly low key in conversation. The creator/writer of the Netflix series Bodyguard, one of 2018s most buzzed about shows, Mercurio is no stranger to creating hit television series — the British screenwriter has been creating suspenseful content for years.
One of his most popular works is Line of Duty, a five season (so far), superbly scripted police procedural that follows Anti-Corruption Unit 12 and centers on Superintendent Ted Hastings (brilliantly played by Adrian Dunbar), D.S. Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), and D.S. Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) as they investigate unscrupulous colleagues.
While each season begins with a police-involved crime, much of the subsequent narrative takes place in a glass walled conference room in which AC12 interrogates its suspects. In the wrong hands, the show could easily become bogged down with tedious procedural minutiae. With Mercurio at the helm, it is anything but. The dialogue is taut; the story lines twist and turn as morality’s murky waters are explored; and the acting is top-notch. Each season is also energized with A-List guest stars such as Keeley Hawes and Thandie Newton who give psychologically electrifying performances.
I spoke over the phone with Mercurio about writing gripping dialogue, the allure of police procedurals, and what’s to come.
Some of the most intense scenes in Line of Duty happen in the interrogation room. They’re just talking, yet it’s an edge-of-your-seat experience. Well, one of the things that we attempt to achieve with the show is to try and make it feel like a very taut procedural show that reflects what the real world is like. So, I think that there’s a certain level of credibility and authenticity in the series, which helps kind of lend the stakes of the show and reality of the world. I think that those are the elements that we go for in order to create quite a tense viewing experience.
That’s difficult to do when there’s not a lot of action. You have a talent for writing very good dialogue. What is it that makes these situations feel so heightened?Well, I think one of the things that comes across is that there are rules in this environment that the authentic procedure makes it clear that there’s no escape, that if someone has crossed the line, then a whole load of misconduct procedures are enacted. And we do have characters who are very knowledgeable about the world they’re in, so often they’re trading blows based on technicalities of procedure. And again, I think that goes back to making it feel real, and therefore you understand the stakes. You understand that someone’s fighting for their career or that they’re fighting against the possibility of facing very serious criminal charges and going to prison, so the stakes aren’t overblown. They feel proportionate to the authenticity of the world that we’re attempting to portray.
How did you decide to write about this particular anti-corruption world? I’d wanted to write about police misconduct because it felt like something that wasn’t being represented in British TV drama… Shows over here are largely the drama of reassurance in which you see hard-working, smart cops solving crimes and catching the bad guys, and I think the U.S. audience is familiar with the kinds of news stories about U.S. policing, which show that may be the story for the majority of police forces. But there are plenty of occasions when police officers get things wrong and sometimes make quite tragic and surprising mistakes.
So, the reality over here is exactly the same, and it’s just part of the distinctive identity of the series that it carves out that particular piece of territory where we have a launching-off point in every season where a police officer is alleged to be involved in some kind of corruption or misconduct, and then that leads us into a story about the way in which the police is an institution investigating themselves, and again, that has real-world correlates. I think people are smart enough to realize that there are pros and cons to the police investigating themselves.
The main characters are complex humans with foibles, and yet they’re purporting to be superior to the accused. Well, it’s part of the design of the show that the investigators are holier than thou, that the regular officers do understand that they’re meant to uphold professional standards, but they also appreciate that it’s not always possible for working police officers to provide a gold standard of service every day they go out on the job, and that’s something that’s reflected in the foibles of the investigators themselves.
Have you had any comments from professionals who say, “That’s not how it is” or “That’s exactly how it is?” Yeah, you get both. I think that it’s not possible for there to be a single response from the police as an institution because the institution of policing is made up of lots of diverse and contrasting individuals. So, generally the level of response to the series is good from police sources, and generally they compliment us on following procedures and representing those as authentically as possible within the drama, but there are other police officers who take a different view, and it’s rather like anyone in any profession. There isn’t a unanimity of opinion. In jobs I’ve done in the past you could work alongside someone, doing exactly the same job and facing exactly the same experiences, and one person says everything’s going really well and the other person says everything’s going really badly.
How do you juggle all the work — writing, directing and being the showrunner? Yeah, Bodyguard came between season four and season five of Line of Duty, so there was actually a two-year gap between those two seasons, and that was because of the demands of the Bodyguard production. These things are done sequentially rather than in parallel. I’m never juggling Line of Duty against Bodyguard. So, when we go into making season six, I will have enough time to write all the scripts and then to work as a showrunner.
And you just fell into the writing side of things? Actually, I responded to an advert in the British Medical Journal, requesting advisors for a medical drama that was in development, and I initially responded with the intention of becoming an advisor on the show. I thought that might be quite interesting, but then I became involved in story lining and writing, and that took me into a sabbatical from medicine while I worked on that show, and my career kind of picked up momentum from there, and I became much more involved in TV than medicine, and eventually I left my medical career behind.
You probably never thought that when you went to medical school that you would be an award-winning television creator. No, I didn’t. I never really had much of an opportunity to do creative things. I went to a very ordinary school where really wasn’t much opportunity, and I happened to be quite into science and that’s what led me into a medical career. So, I was very fortunate that I had got an unexpected opportunity later on, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to make a living from this job ever since.
What’s coming up in the future for you? Have you got other things in the hopper besides Bodyguard two? Well, we’re obviously talking about Line of Duty six. That’s something that we know is ordered into production, so that’s the main focus at the moment of my planning, when we can shoot that, and that depends on availability of cast, so we’re just going through the logistics of that.
Were you surprised by the popularity of Bodyguard in the States? Well, we were all thrilled that it did so well, and that’s just something you can’t ever expect or plan for. All you can do is the best possible job when you’re making the show, and then what happens after that is kind of in the lap of the gods, really. I mean, we were very fortunate with the way that Bodyguard performed so well in the U.K., and I think that that created a lot of interest in the series, which then I think it helped bring an audience to it.
Line of Duty streams on Acorn TV