Jed Mercurio, a former Royal Air Force officer and hospital doctor turned novelist, screenwriter and showrunner, tells TV Drama about the new season of Line of Duty, his creative process and keeping the award-winning World Productions show fresh year after year.
Line of Duty wrapped its fifth season on BBC One last week, and with more than 9 million viewers, it ranks as the U.K.’s biggest show of 2019. The acclaimed police procedural from Jed Mercurio (also the creator of another British drama megahit, Bodyguard) about an anti-corruption unit has steadily built a loyal fan base in the U.K. since its 2012 launch, first on BBC Two and then on BBC One. Sold worldwide by Kew Media Distribution, Line of Duty has a new U.S. home on Acorn TV, which launched season five this week.
TV DRAMA: What inspired you to want to write a police drama focused on corruption?
MERCURIO: A lot of TV cop shows are what I would describe as the drama of reassurance. They are very formulaic in that they show police officers getting the job done right and catching the bad guys. And here in the U.K., rather like in the U.S., if you watch the news you’ll see that isn’t always the case. A minority of officers commit misconduct and make errors of judgment, and it felt like TV drama was lagging behind in exploring that.
TV DRAMA: The ratings have almost doubled since season one, which is quite a feat. What’s contributed to that steady build in audience numbers season after season?
MERCURIO: It’s hard to come up with an answer that fully explains it. What we do know is that when people invest in the show, they stay with it. Very few people drop out. As the show has come back season after season, word of mouth has remained strong and that triggered people to commit. That means people who’ve missed a couple of seasons, even if they missed four seasons, they’ve come to the show [in season five]. One of the features of the show that makes it accessible to a new audience is that each season can be watched as a standalone limited miniseries.
TV DRAMA: What’s your process as you embark on each new season in terms of mapping out your story arcs?
MERCURIO: Two things are really part of my process. The first one is, What is the story of the season, the defining limited story? That is something I need to figure out in regard to who the guest character is and what kind of misconduct this character is alleged to have committed. And then I also need to consider how that is going to fit with the meta-narrative, the overall arc of the series that relates to the returning characters—and possibly relates to previous seasons. That’s something we bring in once the first couple of episodes of the season are up and running so that the new audience can buy into it, and they don’t feel they are being bombarded with a lot of backstory that they’re not familiar with.
TV DRAMA: There is so much story packed into each episode. How do you craft how each episode will play out?
MERCURIO: The approach to writing the series is episode by episode. It’s really important to us that we deliver an hour of TV that is really gripping and pacey and covers as much ground as possible. What we don’t do is consider the whole arc initially and then divide and compartmentalize over the six episodes. We want each hour to be as intense a viewing experience as possible.
TV DRAMA: What’s in store for season five?
MERCURIO: Season five features an organized crime group who are involved in relationships with corrupt police officers. So it’s distinctive from other seasons in that we go behind the mask of organized crime and present a story that is breaking fresh ground. With each season we have to find something new to offer our loyal viewers, but also we have to find something which in itself is an exciting proposal for new viewers.
TV DRAMA: I remember interviewing Paul Abbott (Shameless, No Offence) a few years ago and he said he liked to write longhand. What’s your writing process like?
MERCURIO: I always write on a computer. I’ve never handwritten or written on a typewriter. I don’t think I would have become a writer in the age before computers! I started writing on an old word processor. It’s just essential to the process. Otherwise, redrafting is so arduous. I enjoy writing in development at home or an office where it’s nice and quiet and calm. But as we move into production I don’t have that luxury, so I have to be flexible. You’ll sometimes see me writing on-set—and every now and then they tell me I’m going to be in the shot when the camera moves so I have to move. And then other times I’m in the production office and I just have to deal with the distractions and not be a prima donna and just get on with it.
TV DRAMA: How do you juggle being both sole writer and showrunner?
MERCURIO: That is manageable because we do six episodes. Because I write all the episodes, I am knowledgable about everything we’re doing. So that gives me a shortcut into those conversations that are ongoing. And also the shoot is typically 16 weeks, so physically it’s not that demanding.
TV DRAMA: As you know, it’s super rare to have a single writer on a show in the U.S. Would you consider using a writers’ room?
MERCURIO: I would consider a writers’ room. It could be advantageous and might even be a lot of fun. It’s not something that is appropriate to the shows I’m making here in the U.K., but that’s purely because we’re able to do a six-episode season, and also we’re not under pressure to do one season a year.
TV DRAMA: Do you use consultants to offer input on the realities of police work?
MERCURIO: We’re fortunate to have a couple of police advisors. We had a police advisor who started with us at the beginning of season two who was actually someone I went to school with. I’d completely lost touch with him and he got in touch with me via social media to reintroduce himself and announce that he was a senior police officer. So he became a great asset and we’ve added other advisors as we’ve gone along who are able to give specialist advice if required.
TV DRAMA: Speaking of social media, people tweet about the show a lot. How much do you pay attention to all of that online commentary?
MERCURIO: It’s very flattering that people tweet about the show so much. It’s a bit of an asset to the series. Because of the linear distribution here in the U.K., there’s a week between episodes, so people want to talk about the show and there’s a lot written about it in the press. We definitely see social media as an adjunct to the fan experience. Personally, I don’t track it. I do occasionally go on social media if there are specific questions or misunderstandings out there. But I never engage with people’s opinions; it’s only if there’s a factual question being asked that needs to be answered in the right way.
TV DRAMA: Tell us about your path to becoming a television writer.
MERCURIO: It was a real twist of fate. I was a hospital doctor and I responded to an advert which was put forward in connection with a medical drama that was being developed. And that brought me into contact with a television production company and eventually, through various twists and turns, led to me becoming a scriptwriter.
TV DRAMA: It’s been a couple of years since you made a medical drama. Would you consider doing another one anytime soon?
MERCURIO: No. [Laughs] I’m really pleased with the medical shows I’ve done and I feel they’ve covered the ground. At the moment, and certainly in the near future, it’s hard for me to conceive of any fresh ground within the medical genre that I would be qualified to take on.
TV DRAMA: I read that you were a huge Star Trek fan as a child. Is sci-fi or fantasy something you’d like to try your hand at?
MERCURIO: It is. It’s something I would certainly take on with caution though. There are a lot of great sci-fi shows out there. The bar has been set very high. It’s also something that maybe in the U.K. is a difficult proposition, so it would probably be something that would only happen if I were fortunate enough to be developing a show in the U.S.
TV DRAMA: When does work on season six begin?
MERCURIO: We’re in talks about that. We’re still trying to figure out when is the best time for us to do that with respect to everyone’s availability.
Line of Duty season five is available in the U.S. exclusively on Acorn TV.