In the course of his eclectic and intimidatingly high-achieving career, Jed Mercurio has gone from being a doctor and an RAF pilot to arguably the most successful and powerful writer-producer in British television. And he owes it all to an episode of Blockbusters.
“When I was in the lower sixth, there was a kid on Blockbusters who told the host, Bob Holness, that he was applying for medical school,” Mercurio recalls of watching the 80s teatime TV quiz at home in the West Midlands. “My dad spoke very highly of this contestant, and said he must be a clever lad, because he was going to be a doctor. And in my teenage way, I said, ‘I don’t think you have to be that clever to be a doctor’, to which my dad said, ‘Well let’s see if you could do it’. And that’s what made me start thinking about medicine as a career.”
It was the start of a circuitous journey that’s taken the 54-year-old from the hospital ward to creating mega-hit, water-cooler dramas like Bodyguard and Line of Duty – the sixth series of which gets underway on Sunday with another serpentine, compellingly murky tale designed to wrongfoot armchair sleuths at every turn.
Having qualified as a doctor – via a stint in the Royal Air Force Medical Service, where he distinguished himself by being promoted to Flying Officer – Mercurio was working as a junior houseman when he answered an ad in the British Medical Journal looking for an adviser for a new TV hospital drama. He ended up persuading them to let him write it himself, and the result was Cardiac Arrest (1994-96) – a brilliantly scabrous, blackly comic insiders’ view of the NHS a world away from the swoonsome heroics of George Clooney in E.R. A decade later, he wrote another grimly addictive medical drama, Bodies, about a dangerously incompetent senior obstetrician and the system that closed ranks around him, before taking his forensic scalpel to police corruption with Line of Duty.
“In retrospect, I realise I’ve written a lot about public institutions,” Mercurio, who was awarded the OBE for services to television drama in the recent New Year Honours, tells Weekend over Zoom. “And they tend to be institutions that have featured a lot in other dramas – the police and the medical profession – but I’ve always come at it from a slightly different angle.
“Having worked in the NHS and having followed stories about policing, I’ve always been interested in how an institution examines itself, and protects itself, and how that affects the workers at ground level. A lot of other dramas just aren’t interested in that – they’re fundamentally dramas of reassurance.”
Mercurio’s background also gives him a different toolkit to writers who came up via more traditional routes. “The thing that has principally shaped my writing is having primary experience of doing very technical jobs,” says the man who, a little mischievously, has described arts degrees as “a soft option”.
Since its launch in 2012, Line of Duty – each series of which pits the officers of Anti-Corruption Unit 12 against a different guest turn antagonist – has grown from a cult BBC2 hit to the UK’s biggest returning TV drama. “It’s been great to watch,” says Mercurio. “The first series was turned down by BBC One, and we were honestly worried we weren’t going to get into production at all, until BBC2 offered us a lifeline. And then it just kind of took off, and later there was an opportunity to move to BBC One [from series four], which gives you a bigger audience. So we’re incredibly grateful.”
Is whoever originally declined it for BBC One the TV equivalent of Decca turning down The Beatles? “I don’t think such things affect the careers of TV executives,” chuckles Mercurio. “They’d find a way to deny it was anything to do with them.” [In a quirky twist to the tale, the show is now also effectively made by ITV, which bought out the independent World Productions in 2017.]
The first series was turned down by BBC One. We were honestly worried we weren’t going to be able to go into production at all.Jed Mercurio
The new series was delayed from last year by Covid. “We got through four weeks of filming before shutting down. When we re-started, we established our own testing regime, rigorous mask-wearing, measuring people’s antibodies… It was tough, but the level of dedication and diligence people showed was brilliant. Given how hard it is shooting anything anyway, it was a great achievement.”
This time around, it’s Kelly Macdonald who takes headline billing as DCI Joanne Davidson – “the most enigmatic adversary AC-12 has ever faced”, according to her creator. “She’s the senior investigating officer on a murder investigation that remains unsolved, and on which progress sometimes appears to be heading in the wrong direction. It’s deliberately constructed so there are times when you feel you know what’s going on, and at other times you’re really going to struggle to get a handle on the character.”
The story also introduces a new AC-12 recruit in the form of DC Chloe Bishop, played by Shalom Brune-Franklin. But how long she’ll last is anyone’s guess: the series is known for its shock twists and sudden, brutal exits, and Mercurio has previously said there is always “a sword hanging over” his AC-12 team – DI Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) and their guv’nor, Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar).
It must be interesting, having the power to play God over longstanding friends and colleagues? “We really love working together, but Martin, Vicky and Adrian are professionals,” he says. “They understand the best interests of the show come first, which means none of their characters is safe. They know that, if it was the right thing to do, dramatically, we would create a storyline in which something untoward might befall one of them. Or two or three of them,” he adds, with a wicked grin.
In particular, there’s shadow over Hastings, who hasn’t quite shed the lingering suspicion he might be the senior corrupt officer known as ‘H’. Surely Mercurio appreciates that Ted is now a national treasure, and that outing him as one of the very ‘bent coppers’ he’s dedicated his life to pursuing might risk crushing the nation’s already battered spirit? “I know people are really invested in that character, and that’s brilliant,” is all he will say.
The real burning question, though, is surely: has Ted finally got his toilet fixed? “I’m afraid that doesn’t feature,” says Mercurio. “It felt like somehow we’d got all the drama out of that.” (Pity – Weekend was really hoping his plumbing problem would turn out to be a piece of bent copper.)
They key to writing the show, says Mercurio, is striking the right balance between the plausible and the unexpected. “If something is unexpected, it’s by definition implausible, and if it’s highly plausible than it’s kind of expected. So to make a thriller work, you’ve got to find the sweet spot that takes the audience by surprise, but doesn’t seem too outlandish.”
Having excelled in so many fields (along the way, he’s also written several novels and a hit sitcom, The Grimleys, inspired by his own working class Midlands childhood), would Mercurio describe himself as very driven?
“I grew up with a work ethic I inherited from my mum and dad, who came to England from Italy after the war to work hard and to make a new life,” he reflects. “My dad started off as a coal miner, my mum worked in textile factories. Like a lot of new immigrants to the UK, they believed the way to get ahead was to knuckle down, work hard, and convey to their children the importance of doing well in school.”
Gratifyingly, for an industry that’s increasingly moving beyond the reach of those without access to trust funds, Mercurio and his AC-12 team all come from solidly working class, non-London backgrounds. “That wasn’t deliberate social engineering,” he says. “But I guess being the kind of actors they are and the kind of people they are meant they were really grounded in the stories of these characters. The characters themselves are from working class backgrounds, so they have all the right reference points.
“One of the things that has contributed enormously to the success of Line of Duty is the work ethic of the principal cast. They have a lot of line learning to do – much more than almost any other TV drama, and they work around the clock, getting together to run lines and do mini-rehearsals. I don’t want to be guilty of making generalisations, but that’s a different kind of life experience than someone who has maybe gone to drama school and lived off inherited wealth, and been able to pick and choose the work they do through their twenties.
“Martin and Vicky didn’t go to drama school – their families couldn’t afford that. They got breaks in acting when they were young, and it was a while before they could be full-time actors. Vicky was working in an office well into her twenties, after doing This Is England. They knew that if they didn’t earn money, they’d have to stop being actors. That’s a real barrier to the arts.”
If he hadn’t been diverted into an accidental career as Britain’s most in-demand screenwriter and TV exec, Mercurio reckons he’d have stayed in the NHS. “If all had gone well,” he says, “I’d probably be something like a cardiologist or a respiratory physician now.” And an excellent one, no doubt. So is it wrong to be secretly grateful he’s chosen to spend his days bumping people off instead?
Gerald Gary Mercurio was born in Nelson, Lancashire, in 1966, and grew up in Cannock, Staffordshire. He lives in London with his wife, TV producer Elaine Cameron, and their two children.
His 2018 thriller Bodyguard is the most watched drama of the last 10 years. But will there be a sequel? When Weekend asked Keeley Hawes recently if she thought her character, home secretary Julia Montague, was really dead, she replied with a cryptic “no comment”… “Add my ‘no comment’ to Keeley’s ‘no comment’, and it will still spawn 20 clickbait articles,” grins Mercurio.
Mercurio has joined forces with Hat Trick Productions to form a new company, HTM, whose first production was recent BBC thriller Bloodlands. Trigger Point, starring Vicky McClure, and a sequel to Bafta-winning drama The Murder of Stephen Lawrence are both in the works. Staying true to Mercurio’s interest in probing public organisations, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Stephen will focus on Doreen and Neville Lawrence’s fight for justice in the face of the “institutionally racist” Metropolitan Police.
Doctor, pilot, writer, producer, director, novelist… Is there anything Mercurio is completely rubbish at? “Loads of stuff,” he insists. “Just ask anyone who’s played tennis or golf with me. I’m not someone who goes around thinking I’m all that good at things, anyway. I just work hard.”
Line of Duty, BBC One, Sunday at 9pm
An edited version of this article appeared in the issue of Waitrose Weekend published March 18, 2021. (c) Waitrose Weekend