How Line of Duty became the biggest British drama in recent memory.

by | Mar 24, 2019 | All, Reviews

Next week the fifth series of the BBC smash hit series Line of Duty starring Martin Compston, Vicky McClure and Adrian Dunbar is set to hit our screens. With such a build up for the return to the series it is worth re-examining why Line of Duty has become such a national event; what makes the show so special that it is considered “water cooler” television, to be discussed and theorised over by fans and critics alike. British television has a long and noble tradition of detective dramas but like Between the Lines years before, this focuses on detectives detecting themselves. As the trailer for Series Four asked: “Who polices the police?” The answer is the indomitable team at AC-12 and this is their story.

Jed Mercurio’s modern classic began in June 2012 on BBC Two with a run of five episodes. It started quietly in the lead up to London 2012.  The series starts with one of the most dramatic and engaging opening scenes in modern British television; anti-terrorism officer DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) is coordinating the arrest of a suspected terrorist. However, when the raid goes wrong, an innocent man is killed whilst feeding his baby. Arnott’s superior, Chief Inspector Osborne (Owen Teal) organises a coverup which Arnott refuses to take part in.

This initial conflict sets out Arnott’s moral code effectively and quickly allows the audience to identify with him – he won’t compromise his ethics for a quiet life. Arnott is moved to Anti-Corruption Unit Twelve, headed by Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar). Arnott’s first case is to investigate allegations of laddering – appearing to solve cases more quickly than they should be by cutting corners- against the new Officer of the Year DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James). Yet what AC-12 don’t realize is that Gates has become far more embroiled in organised crime than they realize – brought into it by his lover Jacqui Laverty (Gina McKee) whose dodgy business dealings force her to murder her accountant. When Laverty is murdered by a group wearing balaclavas, they begin blackmailing Gates so that he will cover up their criminal actions.

Yet Arnott and DC Kate Fleming, (Vicky McClure) an undercover officer working in Gates’ unit are convinced they can nail Gates with Steve stating that “you push from the inside and I push from outside, he’ll crack.” Gates attempts to renew his sense of justice by arresting John Thomas Hunter (Brian McCardie), the man he thinks is behind the balaclava men. Gates sacrifices himself to protect his family, yet it seems it is for no avail – Hunter is released into witness protection and his inside man, “The Caddy”, a member of Gates team DS Matthew “Dot” Cottan (Craig Parkinson) remains at large.

The first series lays the groundwork from which future series build: the modus operandi of AC12, the Balaclava Gang and the network that connects all the corruption. Cottan becomes a character that helps shape the series but so is another figure that I’ve not mentioned – Chief Superintendent Derek Hilton (Paul Higgins). Hilton, though not appearing in all series, is vital to the structure of the show and the development of the conspiracy at the heart of the police series.

What the first series also does is demonstrate what strong characters our central three are, even with all their problems; Kate Fleming is a brilliant undercover officer, yet her work means her family are fractured. Steve Arnott’s ethics are both a strength and a weakness – his inability to have a long-lasting relationship are also an important part of his character. Hasting, split from his wife and spiralling into debt, pursues corruption throughout the series with a religious zeal. Mercurio crafts each of them to be complex people who value the work the police do but are damaged by it – they are outsiders and AC-12 gives them a sense of community and common purpose.

With the Gates investigation closed, Series Two begins with an attack on a group of police officers and the attempted murder of the man in witness protection they are guarding. It appears that information relating to the attack was supplied by DI Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes) who was involved in an attack on the convoy but got out alive. As Kate goes undercover in Denton’s unit, Arnott and his new partner DC Georgia Trotman (Jessica Raine) investigate the case only for Georgia to be killed whilst attempting to stop a balaclava-wearing man from killing the witness. Denton soon discovers that Kate is undercover, and the investigation is forced to step up a notch.

After the witness is revealed to be John Thomas Hunter, AC12 realises that the conspiracy surrounding them is more complex than they at first thought. The team bring Denton in for questioning but during transferring to prison her convoy is attacked and Denton is kidnapped by two corrupt police officers working with the balaclava gang. Denton eventually escapes but is captured by the police and eventually convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. Cottan, now working with AC-12 after having been transferred to AC-9 and promoted to Detective Inspector frames one of Denton’s kidnappers as The Caddy to ensure his involvement in persuading Denton to help in the murder of Hunter secret.

The second series builds on the conspiracy that AC-12 are investigating from Series 1 and helps cements Cotton, or “The Caddy” as a major figure within the series. Cotton’s rise through the ranks helps to give this particular series a certain added edge which was utilised further in Series 3 – the continual tension over when or even whether Dot would be exposed helps to drive the drama.

The third series opens with the murder of an armed suspect Ronan Murphy by Armed Response Unit Leader Sergeant Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays). Waldron, though obviously responsible for the crime to the rest of his team encourages them to collude in faking the scene. AC-12 begin to investigate Waldron’s personal life in an attempt to find evidence that he was responsible for the murder – yet no evidence is forthcoming, and Waldron and his team are put back into active duty. Kate is placed undercover in Waldron’s team – yet Waldron soon smells a rat and attempts to get her transferred out of his unit. Before he can do this, Waldron is killed during a drugs raid.

It soon becomes apparent, after the murder of Ronan Murphy and his uncle Linus at the hands of Waldron, that both of the Murphys were part of a paedophile network involving John Thomas Hunter and other members of the Balaclava Gang. Cottan, whose employers as spooked by this, order him to remove any evidence relating to them and attempt to get him to shut the investigation down. As Arnott becomes more suspicious as to Cottan’s motives, Cottan begins to put in place preparations to frame Arnott as The Caddy.

Meanwhile, Lindsay Denton’s release from prison allows her to demand an apology from AC-12 which she forces out of them by threatening to reveal that herself and Arnott had sex. Denton, desperate to return to being a police officer but still not able to, soon becomes involved in the investigation into Waldron’s death with Arnott. Steve, who feels more and more isolated from Hastings and Fleming because of their growing reliance on Cottan, attempts to work with Denton to find out the truth. Denton finds it and meets with Cottan, threatening him into telling the truth of what happened with Hunter. Cottan kills her just as she sends AC-12 the information Waldron collected about the abuse he suffered prior to his death. Cottan flees the scene and implicates Steve in her death.

Yet Fleming, unable to conceive that Arnott could be corrupt soon begins to realize that Cottan is in fact corrupt causing Cottan to escape from AC-12, pursued by Kate. Cottan stops her from being killed by one of the Balaclava Gang and gives her his dying declaration implicating many of those involved in police corruption and sexual abuse.

In many ways, Series Three is perhaps the most important series of Line of Duty because so much happens. It gives us the finest hours of two of Mercurio’s greatest creations, Denton and Cottan. It also helps to extend the corruption conspiracy further and allow the audience to see some cracks under the relationships between the central characters; Fleming’s closeness with Cottan and the revelations about Hasting’s masonic connections and his friendliness with retired Superintendent Fairbank who helped cover up Councillor Dale Roach’s abuse of the system help to create minor fractures in the team. Steve’s brief incarceration when AC-12 believe he is The Caddy helps to weaken the bond between him and the rest of the team.

Yet with the beginning of Series Four, it seems as if the trouble the team have endured is not over. DCI Roz Huntley (Thandie Newton) is desperate to find a serial killer. Under pressure from the now Assistant Chief Constable Derek Hilton, Huntley charges the suspect Michael Farmer (Scott Reid) with murder. Unsure as to the safety of Huntley’s decision, Forensic Officer Tim Ifield (Jason Watkins) goes to AC-12 to investigate Huntley.

Deciding to investigate, Kate is sent undercover into Huntley’s unit. When Hastings informs Huntley that AC-12 are investigating her and meets Ifield having an altercation with him, killing him in the process. Huntley attempts to cover up for Ifield’s death and conceal her injury as a result of the altercation. Arnott believes that Ifield was right that Huntley is attempting to cover up her failure to catch the true killer. Believing her husband Nick (Lee Ingleby) might also be involved, Arnott goes to Nick’s place of work only to be attacked by a masked Balaclava Man who leaves Steve for dead.

As pressure mounts to bring in both Roz and her husband, ACC Hilton attempts to blackmail Hastings by threatening to imply he is the officer who promoted Cottan in the service at the behest of organised crime. He also institutes a Regulation 15 notice against Hasting in an attempt to get AC-12 to leave Roz alone partly because AC-12 re open the Jacqui Laverty case. Hastings enlists the help of Police Constable Maneet Bindra (Maya Sondhi) and DC Jamie Desford (Royce Pierreson) in an attempt to manipulate AC-12’s investigation into Huntley. However, Huntley betrays Hilton by revealing he was responsible for the attack on Steve. Hilton escapes whilst Desford and the Balaclava Men attempt to take Arnott hostage. Hastings and Fleming intervene, Hastings being forced to kill a Balaclava Man who tries to kill them.

Hilton is later found dead, apparently having committed suicide. Roz is sent to prison and DC Desford is given a disciplinary. Bindra’s involvement is, however, still unknown to AC-12. As Hastings comments at the end of Series Four “This feels like a lifetime’s work.”

All four series of Line of Duty are beautifully crafted with intricate plots and deeply invested characters. I haven’t touched on the acting prior to this part of the review but it is without question stunning. All three regulars are without exception incredible actors – Compston has always ensured that Arnott feels nothing like a caricature of a dedicated police officer; his burning desire for justice is apparent whenever he is on screen.

Similarly, Vicky McClure shines as Kate Fleming a character who, unlike Arnott, is able to fully keep control and be chameleon-like in her ability to blend into any team in which she is undercover in. McClure’s strength is in her stillness, a quality that many actors fail to ever get.

Dunbar’s performance as Hastings is equally nuanced and believable. He invests Hastings with a deep, religious conviction that not only he is right, but he and his team are the only people that can root out corruption in the police. Dunbar gives Hastings a conservative Christianity that both motivates him and somewhat holds him back.

There are a variety of other great performances in Line of Duty besides the regulars. In particular Lennie James as DCI Tony Gates, Keeley Hawes as DI Lindsay Denton and Craig Parkinson as DI Matthew – three truly engaging and stunning performances that have to be seen to fully understood.

Mercurio’s creation is a great epic because it is about people. At its heart, it is about the faults of people, their failings and their desire for crime or for justice. It has captured the public’s imagination because it doesn’t attempt to tell a simple story of good or bad but a story of an institution battling between the rot outside it and within it. Line of Duty is such a good series because it reminds us all that there is some good and bad in all of us and that we must strive, to seek, to find and never to yield to corruption.

Contributed by Will Barber-Taylor

Line of Duty Series Five begins next Sunday on BBC One.

Will Barber-Taylor

Will Barber-Taylor


Will Barber Taylor started writing about Doctor Who and other TV shows back in 2011 and hasn't stopped since. He is the co host of the Debated Podcast and the proud owner of three names and a cat called Mildred."


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