Line of Duty is one of those TV shows that I would define as the little drama that could. Originally debuting on BBC Two over the summer of 2012 when everybody was gripped by Olympic-fever, Jed Mercurio's crime procedural garnered critical praise and a loyal audience who stuck with it over five episodes. By last year's third run, it was netting in consolidated ratings of up to six million people so it wasn't surprising when the announcement came that the show's fourth series was to migrate from BBC Two to BBC One. But those like me were slightly apprehensive that the move to the main channel may mean that the drama may lack the creative freedom it had before.
Thankfully we needn't have been worried as, judging by the series four opener, Line of Duty has retained the grit and intensity that fans had come to expect. At the same time, I feel that Mercurio has done a good job of attracting new viewers who may not have seen it before its BBC One debut. That's primarily as the new characters have been put front and centre in this episode with DCI Roz Huntley (Thandie Newton) being the officer who is at the heart of this year's story.
We first meet Roz as she rushes to a burning house where her team have arrived just in time to rescue a young waitress, Hana from the blaze. We the audience had seen Hana abducted in the episode's opening scenes and when Roz learns of the incident she believes that this most recent crime can be linked to do other that she's investigating. When Roz notices that Hana has had her earrings ripped off she is able to make a connection to the other two missing girls, both of whom had jewellery stolen from them. The police feel they have their man in Michael Farmer; one of the occupants of the house who is unable to account for his whereabouts during the time of the abduction. Under pressure from ACC Hilton (Paul Higgins) to get results, Roz charges Michael with crimes relating to all three victims despite concerns from Forensic Coordinator Tim Ifield (Jason Watkins) that there were certain discrepancies at the crime scene.
With Roz constantly ignoring Tim's texts he decides to go to AC-12 and specifically Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) to voice his suspicions regarding the way the case was handled. One of the elements I liked about this opening episode was that Roz Huntley is initially presented as someone who does things by the book. As Hana is recovered from the house we witness Roz instructing her team not to put words into her mouth whilst additionally recording her statement on an officer's helmet-cam. However, it gradually become apparent that Roz may trying to frame Farmer as she wants the case closed so she can impress Hilton and her other superiors. Indeed, the exchanges between Roz and Higgins are some of the episode's most revealing as we discover that the latter backed the former for the role of CIO despite her taking time off from her job in order to raise her children. I feel that Mercurio's storytelling puts doubt in the audience's mind about Roz's arrest of Farmer as there's enough doubt in our mind to believe that she would ignore some rather glaring evidence pointing towards a potentially different perpetrator.
Certainly, when AC-12 start to follow-up on Tim's suspicions they begin to find gaps in the case that were overlooked by Roz and her team. A new investigation means Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) going undercover once again and talking herself into a meeting with Farmer. It's during this meeting that Kate believes that Farmer had been led by the questioning officers and his admission that he 'sometimes gets muddled' makes her feel that he may have been an easy target to pin the blame onto. Furthermore, Steve goes to visit the girl who made the rape allegation against Farmer that landed him on the sex offender's register which was one of the key reasons why he became a person of interest. During the interview, it becomes clear that Farmer may not be guilty of the rape and therefore there's even more doubt that he was involved in all the crimes that he's been charged with. The whole Farmer case is another interesting element of the episode as it explores how people with learning difficulties are occasionally used as scapegoats in these sort of cases. This is amplified by the presence of Farmer's duty solicitor who is barely interested in his client and at one point is even seen nodding off. It'll be interesting to see what happens with this element of the storyline as the series progresses but I think that Mercurio has done a great job of presenting Farmer as a sympathetic character who may only be guilty of being a little slow.
As Steve visits Roz for the first time she discovers that AC-12 are investigating her 'Operation Trapdoor' investigation and it's not long before she realises it's Tim who first aroused suspicions. This leads to a fantastic final ten minutes which makes us doubt the motives and personalities of both Tim and Roz. The showdown at Tim's flat was perfectly choreographed with Roz hitting her head on his kitchen sideboard leading us to believe that she's died. Long term fans of Line of Duty are almost programmed to expect a twist at the end of the opening episode which is usually the death of a major character. At a screening of the episode that I was lucky enough to attend, myself and several other critics were discussing what the twist could be with the most likely hypothesis being the death of Adrian Dunbar's brilliant Ted Hastings. I don't think any of us would've been surprised if Roz had passed away so it was a brilliant masterstroke by Mercurio to have her spring to life just as Tim was about to saw apart her lifeless body. I think by not murdering one of his major characters, Mercurio has diverted the audience's expectations and this twist ending offers up more questions about what the series could offer up next.
As you can probably tell I adored the series opener of series four and all my fears regarding the promotion from BBC Two and BBC One were allayed. In some ways, new viewers were well-served by a story that hadn't previously been covered during Line of Duty. At the same time there were several references that only long-term fans would understand from Tim's mentioning of Steve being a whistleblower to Kate referring to her colleague's undercover investigation of Linsey Denton leading to a court case. One minor criticism is that AC-12 weren't as big a presence here as they have been in prior Line of Duty series and I personally was missing the extended interview scenes that have become synonymous with the drama. I'm hoping that this isn't the case throughout the series and Newton's references to having twenty-page scenes in upcoming instalments makes me think that we'll be getting some classic Line of Duty interrogations sooner rather than later. One element of Line of Duty that is still ever-present is the fantastic writing of Mercurio as well as his brilliant eye for detail. The brilliance of Mercurio's dialogue is that the way the lines are delivered aren't always how they're written and similarly he's able to incorporate long silences into scenes that I feel lesser writers would be afraid to include. One line of dialogue that has stuck with me since the screening is when Hilton tells Roz, 'I have every confidence in you', as it is delivered in such a way as to make the audience feel just the opposite. After attending the screening it's clear just how much of an influence Mercurio has over every part of the series even down to the type of shoes that Roz wears during the episode.
I'm pleased that alongside the brilliant writing, the acting in Line of Duty is just as superb as it has been previously. Thandie Newton presents Roz as somebody who's keen to prove herself as well as a copper who plays things buy-the-book. However, through her performance, she casts doubt in the audience's minds that she actually feels she has arrested the right man. Newton gives Roz a no-nonsense side but there's also a sense of vulnerability that creeps into the character especially as she learns that AC-12 are investigating Operation Trapdoor. As good as Netwon is though, the real stand-out is Watkins as Tim Ifield; who is portrayed as the ultimate jobsworth until the final scenes offer up something more sinister. Watkins throws himself into the role of a man who is possibly adding more importance to his role than he deserves to and despite him being the one who brings concerns to AC-12 it's very hard to sympathise with the character. Watkins is absolutely captivating anytime he pops on screen and I hope that shocking final encounter doesn't spell the end for his character. It goes without saying that the AC-12 trio of McClure, Compston and Dunbar are as brilliant as ever but I'll mention it anyway. The chemistry between the three is as great as ever and I personally enjoyed the playful banter between McClure and Compston as Kate and Steve compete for Hastings' attention. If anything, I just wanted to see more of them but I'm guessing their time will come as the series progresses.
Overall, I feel as if Line of Duty will please both long-term fans of the drama and those who are seeing it for the first time thanks to the move to BBC One. Everything about this episode was brilliant from the acting to the writing to the look of the show itself. Mercurio's scripting and direction is perfect and I personally love the way he misleads the audience up until the final frame. This episode alone makes me think that Line of Duty will retain its crown as the best British TV drama of the last few years and I really think that the quality of the series will only improve as the series continues.
Contributed by Matt Donnelly