Line of Duty mastermind Jed Mercurio: There's a feeling that the apparatus of the state is for the elite
As the nation gears up for this weekend's nail-biting Line of Duty finale, one person knows the answer to the show's key question. Alastair McKay meets TV mastermind Jed Mercurio and hears how he's transformed Sunday nights
How do you suppose a conversation with Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio would go? Would it be an indiscreet ramble through the issues of the day, in which the writer lets rip? Or an act of forensic dentistry in which opinions are nuanced and the true intentions of the interviewee are unstated? Or a blunt: "Why are you asking?"
A clue: Mercurio is a master of dramatic tension and a black belt in shadow boxing. There are many things going on within his fictional police anti-corruption unit, AC-12, but Mercurio's dramatic signature is scrawled across those tense interview sequences where the good, the bad, and the merely suspect square up.
In last night's episode the tables turned: the man under interrogation was Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), who was humiliated by DCS Carmichael (Anna Maxwell Martin). It felt like a changing of the guard, with Hastings as the bewildered symbol of grey-templed male authority.
Is Hastings "H", the show's criminal mastermind? The fact that everything points in that direction suggests he may not be, because Mercurio eschews the obvious. But he has sacrificed major characters before. Fans of his recent hit Bodyguard still refuse to accept that Keeley Hawes's exploding Home Secretary, Julia Montague, is deceased.
But let's talk about Ted. Does he represent the obsolete white male struggling to adapt to the contemporary workplace? Not exactly. Hastings - who comes from Northern Ireland - has always been an outsider, but his private life has received less exposure than those of Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) and Steve Arnott (Martin Compston). It was Ted's turn. "He's the longest serving," says Mercurio, "and he's possibly got connections going back further."
He also has a track record for blundering sexism. "It felt like anyone appointing people to investigate him would choose to make the investigators female, in the hope that would make him uneasy and defensive. In series four Thandie Newton's character Roz Huntley used accusations of sexism against Hastings to gain the upper hand."
Maxwell Martin's character, says Mercurio, "brings a different energy to those interview sequences. Beyond the fact that she's female, she could be someone who is very harsh and is attempting to shout him down, whereas she is calm and soft-spoken and has a much more elliptical way of approaching an interview. That was the different energy that we were going for, to contrast with the way Hastings in these interview situations can be quite oppressive."
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Mercurio bristles at the suggestion that Line of Duty presents a workforce that is more diverse and gender-balanced than the reality. "You'd need to put forward data for that," he says. "That seems like an odd position to take without evidence. If you look at the prevalence of senior police officers at the moment, there's a statistical cluster. The commissioner of the Met (Cressida Dick) and the head of ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers, which was replaced in 2015 by the National Police Chiefs Council, headed by Sara Thornton) and the head of the National Crime Agency (Lynne Owens) are all female. That's powerful data showing the representation of women in my shows reflects society."
Mercurio continues in this vein, suggesting such criticism - though it was meant as a compliment - is part of an "agenda which criticises drama as being virtue-signalling. That ends up being part of an argument where people criticise content and ascribe those decisions to the BBC. There's no BBC policy of casting senior police officers as female."
It is true that Mercurio's dramas are politically charged. His most underrated series, Bodies (available on iPlayer), was inspired by his time as a hospital doctor. It examined an institutional cover-up, an approach which bleeds into Line of Duty. In a forthcoming South Bank Show Mercurio suggests that incompetence is the norm in public institutions. "I think what I said was it was accepted, rather than the norm," he says. "If an institution is founded on excellence, then it wouldn't tolerate incompetence, it would retrain people, it would replace them. Whereas a lot of people in society who encounter our biggest institutions, like the NHS, local government, what they find is a sense of frustration. People who grasp the nettle of a problem and who drive through a solution - those people aren't necessarily the norm. There's more of an attitude of accepting that bureaucracy will get in the way, that people's problems can't be solved. That creates a whole different ethos.
"It boils down to direct experience. There are some people who can access medical care and get treated very well. The majority have to go through a different process and end up being frustrated by delays and a general sense that their case isn't very important. That can also apply in the criminal justice system. That is the direct connection, psychologically, between the experience of our largest institutions and a feeling that the apparatus of state is built around the interests of an elite rather than the population as a whole."
The politics of Bodyguard were ambiguous but they were informed by the disillusionment of some of Mercurio's friends from his time as an RAF doctor. "Once we'd settled on the idea that there would be an assassination plot directed at the Home Secretary it was really a case of looking at who might be interested in carrying out that kind of crime, and why. I needed to create a political divide between David Budd (the bodyguard) and Julia Montague. He'd served in the Middle East and those operations were controversial. People would accept that.
"I didn't have a strong view either way that I wanted to express in the drama. I may, personally, have a view, but I still had to be able to write Julia Montague's view supporting the war on terror in a way that chimed with what a lot of people believed. The same with David Budd, who chimed with contrary views." If that sounds cagey, it's worth noting that Mercurio is not a polemicist but a writer whose skill is being able to exploit our worst anxieties while still delivering a sense of moral rectitude to the thriller.
"In series four of Line Of Duty there was an argument over a miscarriage of justice," Mercurio says. "The senior police officer (played by Paul Higgins) said: 'There's the facts, and then there's the truth', as if those two things are separate. That is part of the attack on rationalism, where people feel justified in pushing back against evidence. Whether that's about our political future or about whether children should be vaccinated, it's the same discussion. As a writer and as a human being, I come down hard on one side of argument, which is that scientific facts and evidence are our most powerful assets."
Line of Duty concludes on Sunday at 9pm. The South Bank Show featuring Jed Mercurio is on Sky Arts/Now TV at 10.30pm on Sunday
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