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Friday, 29 April 2016

TheCustard chats to Line of Duty mastermind Jed Mercurio

Monday sees the release of Series 3 of Line of Duty on DVD. It's a drama that has literally gripped fans from beginning to end. Ahead of the release I spoke to writer and showrunner Jed Mercurio about creating the series and keeping its many twists and turns a secret.


A show like Line of Duty is very rare. It's appointment television. Come Thursday at 9pm we were sat in front of the TV waiting for the show to start.. How have you felt about the amazing fan response this series??
I think you're absolutely right it's increasingly rare nowadays. We have so many different ways of accessing content so people choose all kinds of different ways of viewing, We've been very excited by the particular response this series has had. I'm happy that people have felt that each episode has delivered some shocks but also asks big questions. From the fans reaction it seems that they spend the week between the episodes reflecting and wondering what happened and who is to blame. As a writer that's brilliant and very gratifying. It reminds me of watching TV when I was a kid where we had to go along with how things were scheduled and if you missed things you missed them. 



Keeley Hawes made a surprise return in 2016
One of the biggest shocks was also one the most pleasent surprises, the return of Lindsay Denton! How soon did you know Keeley Hawes would be reprising her role?
That was something that came up when we finished series two. There was a delay while the BBC decided whether not to recommission the series and that meant we had some thinking time. During that time we stayed in contact with Keeley and were very pleased by the response and deserved plaudits she was getting for her role in that second series. We just discussed whether she'd be up for coming back and she was so we took from there. She kept very tight lipped whenever she was asked about it in interviews, it was great that she was able to do that. 

Craig Parkinson as 'The Caddy' took further dark turns this year.

As a fan from the beginning I loved that this series has called back to series one. Was that conscious idea?
That's something that has developed over time really. When we started out we had no idea we'd be lucky enough to go for a third and now a fourth series, so it's not that there was a grand master plan. We've made each series in their own right, but as we've gone forward we've been able to bring back things from the past that can haunt the principal characters. 

There's a sense of moral ambiguity with the characters. One minute you're rooting for Lindsay Denton the next you're not sure of her motives and who she really is. Do you work with the actors to achieve that and how much are the actors aware of their character's backstory?
That is achieved in various way. It's a collaborative thing between the actor, the script and the direction. We discuss a lot as we go along about who these people are and why they're behaving the way they are, even it might not be immediately obvious to the audience. 

Series three and four where commissioned together. what has that allowed you to do?
It's great because it has allowed us to plan the productions. It means that we can talk to the actors well in advance about their availability. On the creative side we just decided to put all our efforts into series three and make that the best it can be before even thinking about the fourth.

You're not only the writer, but you're always the showrunner overseeing nearly every aspect of the production. 
I'm involved at every level. Once I've sent the finalised script over I'm involved with how it looks and the final edit. I'm very fortunate to be in that position. It started with a series I did called Bodies. I wrote and produced that series and that gave me the chance to collaborate with the directors and actors in a way that is often off limits to writers. I know that some writers have had bad experiences and I've had one or two in my career where I was marginalised from the production. Sometimes decisions were made that I felt were the wrong creative decisions. Being in a showrunner system allows us to have a very  joined up relationship so that everyone knows what is scripted and what the intention of  what each scene is. 

I spoke to Jimmy McGovern once and he told me that as much as he loves writing he hates writing page one. How easy do you find it slipping back into Line of Duty?
It has gotten easier. I've done returning series before and my experience has always been that once you're back for the second or third time you know the characters really well and you also know the actors so you can picture them delivering the lines and hear their voices when you're writing the dialogue. All those things that you struggle to imagine initially because the sets haven't been built or what the locations might be, when you've done it once or twice all those things are at my fingertips so speak so that makes it enormously easier for me.



How do you tend to go about writing that first new episode of the new series?
I don't outline the whole series but I do outline each episode before I start. When I sit down to write the script I pretty much know what the scenes should be so I don't really find it that difficult. The biggest challenge with Line of Duty is coming up with a storyline for each episode that moves the overall story forward but still creates shocks and raises questions that aren't immediately answerable. 

How much do your scripts change once you start filming?
The scripts are delivered to production weeks before we start filming and we have a lot of discussions about whether they'll work so things may change at that point. Once we get the shooting script you tend to stick to the plan. It may be that a few days before we shoot a scene an actor is struggling with a scene and some dialogue needs to change. We've had times where the weather changes or a location doesn't work for us and it's great as a writer to be involved with all of that because sometimes the solution to a problem can be changing something that's in the script.

The first two series focused on AC12 taking down a new cop. Tony Gates in 2012 and Lindsay Denton in 2014. We sort of had that this time round but you also decided to continue on from series two. Where you ever concerned that could alienate new viewers?
Not really. Throughout we've been keen to references to the past but also keep the story moving forward. Our intention is always that each series should be accessible to new viewers, but I also like to reward the people who have been loyal from the start by exploring the secrets of the characters they've known from series one. 
Daniel Mays only appeared in the opening episode.

For fans who think they know how the show works, the death of  Danny Waldron was massive shock. Did you always know that your new lead was going to only appear in the first episode?
No! Not at all! 

Ooh! So when did that idea first come to you?
The original first script ended differently and I went away and worked on something else for a couple of days and that gave me time to reflect on the first script and whether it had enough impact. I decided to redraft it without discussing it with anyone and sent it back to the production company. They read it and were very shocked by the ending but we all agreed that's what we should do. I done a second episode where the character was very much alive and going about his business, sometimes these decisions happen along the way.  Although I storyline each script we have that capacity to improvise and change things and so far that's worked really well for us I think.

We're inundated with dramas about the police or crime dramas. How do you view where Line of Duty sits?
I would describe it as a police thriller. It's less about the crime because it looks at the police as an institution. The thing that makes it unique is that it pits the police against the police in an interesting cop vs cop scenario. There isn't another show on television that tells police stories in this way where the antagonist is a police officer as well.

The final episode is extended to ninety minuets, what did that extra time allow you to do?
It really allowed us to tell the story in more detail. At an hour you often feel like you're either cramming things in or having to miss things out. The extra half an hour really gives us a broader canvas to work on.

How have you been affected by the wonderful audience response?
It's hugely important and hugely gratifying. As a writer having the platform of a national broadcaster that everyone can watch is a very privileged position. People seem to really care about these characters, they're responding to the twits and turns and can't wait to see what happens next, that's a bit of a dream from a writers prospective. To have that level of interest in something you've done is very exciting. I'm not on twitter myself and I don't tend to look at it, but I do will read the odd thing. There's such a diverse amount of comments out there that it can be hard to see the wood for the trees, but I'm very happy with the audience response to this series.

Jed's second medical drama 'Bodies' ran on BBC Three and two from 2004- 2006
I first became aware of your writing when Bodies started on BBC Three. I felt like it was a medical drama that changed my view of the genre, did you feel that too?
The first thing I'd ever written was a medical drama called Cardiac Arrest. That was really my breakthrough, I'd never written for TV before that so that launched my career. When we finished Bodies I'd been writing for about ten years so at that point it felt like writing was my full time job, but it was definitely my intention that Bodies should be a more intense and mature piece of work. For me that series was about me focusing on how I wrote about medicine really. Although I've made shows like Cardiac Arrest, Bodies and more recently Critical, the more mainstream medical dramas like Casualty and Holby just carry on, they're like juggernauts. You could argue that attempts to break new ground in that genre tend to fail really. 

What was the last TV drama that really had you hooked?
I thought the most recent series of Happy Valley was brilliant.

Finally, do you have advice for any aspiring writers??
You need to have a good knowledge of TV drama. If you're pitching things to a broadcaster they're going to ask you if it's been done before. If you pitch something that feels to similar to something that's on the air now or that's been done before they are unlikely to commission it. You need to make sure your making distinctive material, the only way to that is to be familiar with what's gone before.

Line of Duty Series 3 and the Line of Duty Series 1-3 Boxset is available from Monday 3rd May.


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