In the summer of 2012, the first series of Jed Mercurio’s new police drama Line of Duty aired on BBC Two. Despite receiving critical acclaim, it was hidden beneath the excitement for the London Olympics and became somewhat of a sleeper hit, with its viewers aware of the secret gem of a show they had discovered. From the moment that Superintendent Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) said to new recruit Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), “Have you any idea how many people have died as a direct result of police action in the last 10 years?”, the show began to turn the traditional police procedural on its head, considering that the criminals may be those with all the power within the justice system. The viewership continued to grow, and by series 3 in 2016, Line of Duty was the show that everyone was talking about – creating a host of watercooler moments and becoming BBC Two’s most successful drama in 15 years. There is no doubt that the show has evolved as its audience has grown, particularly since its move to BBC One, with more ambitious stunts and thrilling action scenes. However, if we look back to that understated first series, it is also evident that Line of Duty’s most celebrated features, that make up the DNA of the show we know now, were there from the very start.
From the first notes of the opening theme music, composed beautifully by Carly Paradis, a tension is created within Line of Duty that is then built on and developed, through dialogue, direction and performances. The soundtrack is as infamous as the show itself, and it gives the drama a strong identity, alongside the way the opening minutes of a series are constructed. The high-octane train sequence that opened Mercurio’s 2018 hit Bodyguard was rightly praised, yet its intensity felt reminiscent of the opening sequence of Line of Duty, in which a tragic mistake during a counter-terrorism police raid ends in the death of an innocent man. It is indicative of how compelling and unpredictable the series is going to be, and an action scene of a similar nature has introduced audiences to every subsequent series of Line of Duty.
Undoubtedly, one of the key strengths of the series is its characters, and it is the first series that does the groundwork in this sense, establishing the main players and their relationships with one another. The focus is on Lennie James’ character, DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James), who is perhaps presumed to be the protagonist before becoming an antagonistic figure in the series. Gates is a character that is crafted with such nuance and ambiguity, both by Mercurio’s layered writing and James’ captivating performance. As the subject of an AC-12 investigation, Gates is perhaps naturally suspicious to the viewer, but to his force, he is a hero, and to his wife and children he is a devoted family man, and it is these different personas and roles that create this wonderful complexity. As Gates and his work is scrutinised, the line between moral and immoral blurs further – what is right and wrong, and does the bad outweigh the good? Mercurio’s creation and James’ portrayal of Gates was pitched perfectly and was perhaps the blueprint for the leading roles given to actors such as Keeley Hawes, Thandie Newton and Stephen Graham in later series.
But in a show about police corruption, the presentation of the officers within AC-12 – Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) and Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) – is arguably the most important aspect of characterisation of all. As viewers, we are asked to trust these characters whilst they uncover misconduct within their own profession, and although this is a difficult balancing act, Line of Duty achieves this skilfully. In the first series, we only know these characters within the context of work, and their own personal lives aren’t necessarily explored until future series. However, what series 1 does do is demonstrate the integrity and morality that all three police officers possess. The defiance that Arnott shows within the opening minutes of the show, in refusing to take part in the cover-up surrounding the failed police raid, shows his commitment to making sure justice is served, and this is reflected in the work ethic of all of AC-12. The effectiveness of this characterisation in the first series means that although some of their future actions may be questionable, they remain sympathetic to the audience.
Series 1, which is being repeated by the BBC from the 3rd of August, introduces us to a complex, intricate story that audiences are still gripped by eight years later. The plot is elaborate yet it remains focused, and whilst the show is tense and exciting, nothing is ever sensationalised or unnecessarily heightened to further the dramatic element. Perhaps its earliest series is the best example of the raw, authentic quality that Line of Duty possesses, and the dedication to telling a great story, even if the end product isn’t the flashiest. Adding to this sense of realism is the superb casting choices; the actors involved are not necessarily those typically associated with police dramas, yet they bring the characters to life and commit to the nuanced roles and long interview scenes. The performances from all of the central and supporting cast (which, in series 1, included Craig Parkinson and Neil Morrissey), as well as the precise, dynamic dialogue, are what drew people to Line of Duty, and are what made it the phenomenon it became.
Series 1 of Line of Duty is airing on BBC One on Monday and Tuesday evenings, and it is well worth your time, regardless of your relationship with the show. For those who have never seen an episode, this is the perfect opportunity to discover one of the greatest dramas of recent years, with all five series available on BBC iPlayer. For those who are all caught up, it may also be fun to reminisce, to spot details that were missed on first viewing, and to get excited for the upcoming sixth series – of which production has been delayed due to the pandemic. But for those who may have only watched the more recent series of Line of Duty, this is your chance to see where it all began, to find connections between old and new plotlines, and to watch the impressive origins of arguably the biggest TV show of today.
Contributed by Erin Zammitt
Line of Duty Series 1 is airing Mondays and Tuesdays at 9.00pm on BBC One and is all available now on BBC iPlayer.