"It's not really possible to plan that far ahead, it would entail an enormous amount of work" In conversation with Jed Mercurio
It's a sunny day in Hyde Park and I'm waiting to speak with Jed Mercurio, show runner (aka writer, creator, and general overlord) of the BBC's biggest drama for years, Line Of Duty. As well as its second biggest drama for years, Bodyguard. Today though is all about AC-12 and bent coppers.
If you follow Jed on social media you'll have seen he's not afraid to speak his mind when someone says something he's not on board with. Usually it's a journalist so there's no little trepidation about what kind of conversation it's going to be. It goes very well, and despite a day of interviews, it turns out he's the nicest, most affable bloke you could want to talk to.
One of the things that I've always wondered is what the people who create and star in successful TV shows are doing while the rest of the nation are glued to their TV sets. So I asked.
"It depends what I've got on. Sometimes there's something that I particularly want to watch on TV, so I might watch something else. I think there was one night I was watching the World Match Play golf. And there are times that I've been out of the country. I'm actually out of the country for the bank holiday weekend. [Ed: aka series finale weekend] So I don't build my week around a viewing experience.
It's just a coincidence that he'll be out of the country on the weekend of the finale though "I don't put my life on hold because the series is on air." but surely there must be a time when it's just happened to be on?
"I think that by the time the transmission comes round if it's not that long since we finished the whole post-production process then I'll have seen the episode a lot. I've seen every cut, I've been in the edit and I've been in the grades and the sound mixes, and so on. Whereas if the series has been shelved for a while, so it's six months or even longer before the series goes out then it is a fresher viewing experience and I might watch it."
With the complex plotting, the constant callbacks to previous series, and characters appearing four series after they first appeared, the real question is how much of this was planned out at the beginning?
"It's been an evolving process because when we started out we had no idea that we'd still be on air after five series, with a sixth already commissioned. So it's not really possible to plan that far ahead, it would entail an enormous amount of work because most series don't tend to go on for this length of time it might end up being a lot of wasted work. There was enough planning that would allow us to pick up with a second series and have things to play with that were established in the first. But certainly there wasn't any detail planning of the overall arc.
The seeding of ideas is an interesting concept, with storylines like the current who-is-H dipping and weaving, being introduced in series three, resolving in series four, then with the final scene opening up again. It turns out the story develops over time though.
"A little bit of it ends up being a dynamic evolving decision-making process, about how important a storyline is in any given series. It's only if we feel that they're sufficiently dramatically interesting that we would keep exploring them. Some things that we set up when we actually get to exploring them in a later series or a later episode turn out to be dramatically less interesting and therefore we wrap them up more quickly."
But there don't seem to be many surprises for the writer despite this evolution of story "Part of our general approach to the series as a whole is that we don't expect anything. We like to play with the options and to change things that maybe have been already established as a direction that we were going to head in. So it's really a constant process of assessment."
And that's at the service of the drama as a TV show "The purpose of that is that it does give the series a sense that it can balance on a knife-edge at times, that it could go one way or another, it doesn't feel like the future is mapped out."
So H wasn't a thing in series one, and Huntley isn't H (or is she?) The amount of fan theories that spring up online around successful shows is mind-blowing, and the amount of criticism when things don't turn out as everyone wanted, means that you'd imagine those things are taken into account during the writing "It's only really relevant in looking at the next series because when are the current series on the air it's already been made and there's nothing we can do to change things. After the whole series has gone out, we do get all the audience research data and sometimes there are interesting things about how certain stories performed and how certain episodes performed. But overall we just want to keep things fresh and we don't necessarily want to do the expected."
So if it turns out to be Hastings (or not) don't be surprised or angry. But half the fun of Line Of Duty is working your brain, making sure you understand what's going on, following the dialogue onscreen, the opposite to a lot of the drama on television these days, despite this being the golden age of TV, and Line Of Duty is different.
"I think that Line Of Duty and Bodyguard have their own identity. So the only way to tell the story that has been created is to make it quite complex and twisty and turny. It's not really a kind of mission that we're on in any way. The truth of it is that the way in which people are now able to watch TV, where they can go back and watch a scene again or they can rewatch an episode or go back to earlier in the series and remind themselves of things, means that there is an appetite from a certain cohort of viewers for complex material and that was something in the past that drama commissioners used to advise against."
You wonder whether Mercurio is talking about Bodies, his much heralded (now) but relatively short-lived medical drama from the early 2000s, he doesn't name it, but has lambasted TV commissioners in the past.
"Your series would only really get one chance on the air, and there were times when commissioners wouldn't go to material that was felt to be too challenging and too complex. I'm certainly grateful for the position we're now in where there is an appetite for more complex material."
And now, it's not commissioners but the public that has an output, better known as Twitter, for whining about complex TV
"In terms of the threat of people commenting that something too complicated for them. I don't honestly think that that's very robust data anyway. There are always people who will go on Twitter or critics who will write that they don't get something. To be honest that's meaningless. The best data we have of the viewing figures and the audience research and that's what tells a programme maker what they're getting right and what they're getting wrong."
And Line Of Duty plays up to that want for more interesting and thoughtful drama, using seemingly true to life language that has become a motif of the show, and Mercurio feels "It's important to the identity of the series that it feels respectful of authentic police procedure."
And topping off the dialogue are the series selection of actors, some veterans of five series (Adrian Dunbar, Martin Compston, Vicki McClure) and some new to series five (Stephen Graham and Rochenda Sandall). They're an important part of the show "Casting is obviously hugely important so all of us and our casting director Kate Rhodes James is one of the best casting directors in the country. With leading roles the BBC will have a view as well about who might be suitable casting for the more high profile characters."
Do the actors pick the role, or does the role pick the actors "It's always about the character that's written coming first. Purely because you never know come the time of production whether a specific actor is going to be available or interested so you wouldn't want to take the risk of basing it around a particular performer.
The thing everyone wants to know is if you buy Mercurio a few beers on a night out, would you be able to get the scoop on series six?
"No I don't [have the script written]. The way we like to do it is to have a period of reflection after the series has gone out as there are always some ideas but those then get refined based on how the current series has performed."
It's a fitting way to finish, Line Of Duty creator Jed Mercurio talking about the data, the little things, the detail. It's what his show is based on, what it's good at, and why it's the biggest thing on British TV right now.
Line Of Duty series five (and series one to five) are available to buy now from Amazon.