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One of the great things about British TV is that relatively few shows are written by committee in giant writer's rooms (compared to the US). As a result, writers really get a chance to share their unique voices and develop shows in a way that doesn't sand off all the quirky edges and unexpected twists. One of those unique voices is Jed Mercurio, and he's becoming something of a celebrity in his own right these days.
If you don't already know his name, you'll probably recognize some of his work. Ever hear of a little show called Bodyguard? It was the most-watched BBC drama since 2008. What about Line of Duty? Now in Series 5, the police drama has quickly become an Acorn TV fan favorite, and it's been nominated for numerous BAFTA and Broadcast Awards. It also won Mercurio the British Screenwriters' Award for Best Crime Writing in Television (Series/Single Drama) in 2017.
In short, the guy's a rock star.
Recently, my co-editor David had a chance to catch up with Mr. Mercurio to talk about the latest season of Line of Duty (thanks, Acorn TV!). You can read the full transcript below.
Interview with Jed Mercurio, Screenwriter for Line of Duty
Without giving anyway any spoilers, what can fans expect from Season 5 of Line of Duty?
We break fresh ground in this season. It's completely brand new all the way through, really from the first season – the season with Lennie James there has been a menacing and mysterious presence, which is organized crime. And occasionally, we see the guys who will conceal their identity by wearing ski masks or balaclavas. In Season 5 we go within an organized criminal group and get to know some of these characters. And what that gives us that we've never had before is a view on the relationship between organized crime and corrupt police officers from the viewpoint of the criminals who are exploiting their links with corrupt officers.
Very cool. So Line of Duty is, I think, really unique in that there are always surprises and twists that I don't feel are ever predictable. Do you have kind of a long-term plan that you are working from or do you kind of write season by season and kind of develop the longer term plot as you go?
Yeah, it's kind of a combination of the two. In terms of the big picture, there's a long-term plan. In terms of the details, so find out who the main characters might be, and who the guest character might be in each season as a way of exploring the meta-narrative. Then those are decisions that are made season by season. We learn a lot by how the audience responds to a season once it's aired and people have had an opportunity to reflect on it and we look very carefully at the audience research and also, I take a step back and look at the ground we've covered in the past and what might be a new angle that we can take that can still serve the overall ambition of the series, but feel like we're always coming at it from a fresh angle.
As a writer, do you feel pressured or is it really challenging to feel like you have to keep people guessing all the time or is that kind of something that comes natural to you in your writing process?
I think that one of the things that we do in this series is we present characters who are hiding something, so that draws the audience in, a way to make the audience start asking questions about what someone might be concealing, what the overall objective might be and the relationship we try and create the audience. So, as long as we keep offering explanations and then maybe subverting them and moving on and finding new ways of coming at those questions. The overall result is the audience finds that there are unexpected twists and turns.
Where do you draw inspiration and ideas from your stories? Like in real life or is there somewhere you'd look to get ideas and inspiration?
Some of it comes from real world stories. Often just by following the news or reading up on controversial incidents involving the police forces here in the UK. You can get an insight into police error, police misconduct, how the police as an institution deal with situations where maybe there's been an error of judgment. And it's the same as in the United States where, for the most part, policing is effective and serves the citizens well. Occasionally things go wrong and those incidents shine a light on how the police as an institution can get themselves into situations they don't want to be in and the public don't want them to be in.
Getting into the cast a little bit, by Season 5, Steve has gone through a number of difficult events both mentally and physically. I don't know if he gets into some more in Season 5, but how does that affect the way his character approaches his work as we go into Season 5?
Well, I think that he's a character who is very tenacious. He's 100% committed to his work as an anti-corruption officer. And sometimes he kind of wears his heart on his sleeve. He always wants to do the right thing and crack the case. So occasionally, he's reckless. He breaks the rules, and that leads to tensions with other officers around him, specifically his boss, Superintendent Hastings, and his former partner Kate Fleming, who now outranks him. They were the same rank in the previous season, and in this season she's one rank senior to him. So sometimes he ends up giving her headaches too.
The people have an AC-12 all seem to have trouble with personal relationships, I guess I would say. None of their personal lives go real smoothly in terms of relationships, but from a writer's perspective, do you see that as a result of the nature of the work they do or is it more just their own individual personalities? I guess what I'm asking is what role would you say their work or that type of work has on their interpersonal relationships?
I think in the drama we construct situations in which the characters' professional challenges take over their lives and I think that makes them all difficult to live with. I don't think it's unusual for people in jobs like being a police officer where the demands can be around the clock. They're dealing with very stressful and challenging situations all the time, for personal relationships to suffer. So these three particular characters all end up having different types of stresses on their close personal relationships.
Makes sense. I get the sense reading interviews from you that you really enjoy making people guess about what's going to happen on the show. And I know you go to great lengths to avoid people finding out plot points. Have you ever had any really funny fan interactions where people try to get you to reveal anything?
No, that tends not to happen actually. What we get is a great response from fans who almost immediately say, “Don't tell me anything.” They don't want the viewing experience to be spoiled. Every now and then, maybe when we're shooting somewhere a fan who sees that we're shooting comes and we welcome them. And often they'll take a picture with the cast and we always say, “Don't put it on social media,” because people can figure things out about who is in the scene, what people are wearing, and so forth. And people are great doing that. I think that we are always incredibly grateful when we have a screening or we're filming and fans are so good at keeping secrets so not to spoil it for others.
I know we're almost out of time so I'll just ask a final question. In terms of being a writer, what would you say the traits that have made you successful as a writer are, or what traits does someone need to be successful if they want a career in screenwriting?
I think the most important thing is working hard. It's really tough writing a whole TV show and you've got to be prepared to do the extra drafts to respond to the demands of the production where you might need to change things or revise things in order to respond to the needs of filming. And also you have be collaborative. Everybody wants the show to be the best possible piece of work, so you have to be able to listen to other people and and take advice, and if people give you sincere feedback on your work, you have to be able to reflect on that and use it in the right way.
Well thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it. I'm a big fan of your work, so this was really great, so thank you.
Oh, that's okay. That's okay. My pleasure. Thanks very much for the conversation.
Where to Watch Season 5 of Line of Duty
Seasons 1-5 of Line of Duty are now available on Acorn TV. They describe it as “a cat-and mouse thriller that takes a probing look into modern police corruption,” and The Guardian says it's “stomach-clenchingly tense, visceral, shocking – television best watched in body armour.”
You can sign up for a free one-week trial HERE, or perhaps check out the trailer below to get a better idea of what it's all about. There's a lot of other great stuff coming up in the next couple months on Acorn, including the new Danish/New Zealand thriller Straight Forward and Martin Clunes' Islands of America. And of course – Doc Martin will be back for Series 9 this fall.