In-Depth With Jed Mercurio
by Laura Owen
Jed Mercurio is one of Britain's most prolific screenwriters with his writing gracing our screens for the last 24 years, his body of work includes, Line of Duty, Bodyguard and, Cardiac Arrest. Mercurio is recognised for his efficient, detailed, procedural writing style that never underestimates the audience and has recently been appointed an OBE in the Queen’s New Years Honours.
Needless to say, there’s a lot to learn from his body of work and in the midst of the pandemic and his busy schedule, Jed took the time to sit down with me to answer some questions from one screenwriter to another.
L: Let’s begin by talking about how your career began.
J: Sure. So, It was quite an unusual way into the industry for me. I didn’t really have any involvement in writing at all. I didn’t have any ambition that I felt was at all plausible to enter into the media. I went to an ordinary comprehensive school in the west midlands, I liked science as a kid. I was a fan of TV and films but a career in that field didn’t seem open to people like me. So, I went to medical school and then I was in my first year as a hospital doctor when I spotted an advert in the British Medical Journal. A TV Production company was looking to develop a series that was set in the world of medicine and they were putting out a call for advisors and I guess it just struck a chord with me. I didn’t feel that medical shows that were on TV at that time were really that representative of what life was like in the NHS for junior medical doctors. So, I responded to the add. What happened after that was completely unexpected. The more I talked to them the more they invited me to suggest storylines or scene ideas. They took me completely by surprise when they suggested that I might outline an episode. So I did and they were willing to take a risk by giving me an opportunity to write a draft of the script.
L: Working with a production company so early in your career is a very unique experience for younger writers. Can you talk a bit about what that process looked like from the inside?
J: Yes, it was very different I think from what it’s typically like for writers who develop their skills in a more theoretical setting. They study writing or their practising on their own before getting an opportunity to present them to people with the hope of them being developed further. I was inside of the development process with an established production company staffed by people who really knew what they were doing.
They were able to guide me through that process much like an apprenticeship. I would deliver material and they would give me very focused feedback about how we get this made rather than the quality of the writing. Although, the latter was a big part of it. I learnt a lot from them about the technical side of writing. Including, how you avoid some of the basic pitfalls such as telling the audience rather than showing them or telling the audience thing they already know from the story.
L: Can you talk about the experience of writing for your first show?
J: Sure. Well, Cardiac Arrest was a real step away from my comfort zone because it was a half-hour show that had been made for the BBC shot up in Glasgow. I didn’t really get to be around very much for the first season. I was still working as a hospital doctor. I had no idea that the series would be a success. So I went up to visit the production during the rehearsal period. I was there for the read-through and maybe one day of the cast getting training for the medical procedures and getting their mouths around the jargon and that was my main input.
There was a medical advisor on the series, he was actually someone I worked with and, really trusted to keep things on track. That was really helpful because he could call me up if things were veering off from what we’d agreed. So, like most writers, I handed the series over. The first I’d really knew if things had been changed or when things hadn’t been done in the way I’d expected them to be done was when I actually saw the first cut in assembles. Again, I wasn’t given much opportunity to give input. That changed as my career went on, I became more involved in my productions. In subsequent series, I was more hands-on with casting because I became a medical advisor and took a sabbatical so I could be there. That was really important in terms of being able to have a say in how the show is realised, but also, learning the technical side of production.
“I think it’s a process a lot of writers go through trying to find their voice.”
L: After Cardiac Arrest you move away from writing medical material for your next few projects until Bodies in 2004. Can you talk a bit how it was moving away from your medical content?
J: I think it's a process a lot of writers ago though trying to find their voice. I don’t think many writers arrived fully formed and even if they appear to, they have gone through maybe an invisible process of working in a different genre, possible doing a lot of plays, a lot of performance before they then get to a point of their work being seen more widely in TV. I was sort of playing catch up because I didn’t have any real background as a writer, no time on the nursery slopes because I was thrown into it by having a prime-time series straight away. So, the other things I did or was interested in were just representative of the genres that I was a fan of or things I felt I could write about in a confident way. They kind of had mixed success. I did a comedy series that did pretty well and I did a drama series that did okay but the broadcaster wasn’t a fan of it so it kind of died. Then I came back to the medical genre.
L: It’s 2012. You’re starting Line of Duty. You’re a more seasoned writer how different did you find the process? Did you have more of a say and set more of the tone?
J: So, the turning point in my career was actually Bodies. It was the first thing that I was the show-runner on. We did two seasons and a finale that I produced. That really demonstrated that I could fulfil that role. It was great experience and allowed me to kind of hone the skills you need to be a show-runner so that by the time Line of Duty came around although it was considerably later and I’d worked on other things and it was the first original series that had gone into production since bodies. By original, I mean something that I’d actually created myself. There was never any real argument about the fact that I would produce Bodies. I produced series one and then after that, I became an executive producer working with another producer that was more hands-on to give me more creative freedom.
Line of Duty was approached in exactly the same way. I was on set a lot. I was in the edit a lot. I worked very closely with the directors, the AD’s and, the cast. The end result is that I had a lot of influence on how it turned out in the end and also people had me as a point of contact. People on the production, people at the broadcasting company, they could all call me and liaise with me. I was able to pull together a creative consensus.
L: Does knowing that you will be so involved in the production affect the writing process?
J: It does affect the process in a positive way. You know, a lot of the time we as writers we write in the dark a little bit. We don’t know whether something is going to get made. We know that we’re handing over to directors and cast that may not quite get what we mean. We try to build things into the script that make it director-proof or actor-proof, to be honest, you just can’t achieve that.
No script is director-proof or actor-proof. So, knowing that I’m going to be there if there are questions raised or things require clarification even if things are challenged and you need to have a conversation about them at least I have the confidence of knowing that I’m going to be around to participate fully.
L: It’s fair to say that Line of Duty is a massive success. It’s every writer’s dream to have such a successful show, but can you share some of the challenges that come along with having a show that’s been on TV for eight years?
J: Of course. It definitely has its pros and cons. The advantages of working on a returning series is that get to know the show really well and you know the directors really well. It allows you, in your writing, to be able to predict more accurately how your dialogue is going to land because you know the actor that’s going to be delivering the lines.
You know how they talk, how they move. You also know what the sets look like, where the doors are and so many other little things like that that allow you to picture the scenes as you write them. I would always say that is an advantage that outweighs anything else. The disadvantages of having a show that’s been running so long is that you’ve already covered some ground with the characters. While you want to exploit what the audience knows about the series and loves, the history of the characters. You also need to promise them new things. So the more you do the less scope there is to do something new.
“Your first responsibility as a writer is to deliver the best piece of work that’s going to function in the present.”
L: Each series has its own life but they all share the overarching theme of ‘who is “H”?’ Was this plot anticipated at the very beginning or was it something that you just built on as you go?
J: It was more of an organic process. For a start when you embark on a series you may have some ideas on what an overarching narrative might be, but you can’t do a huge amount of work on it because there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a second series. If you do a first series about building up to a meta-narrative and it doesn’t really establish itself with an audience then they’ll never get to find out what the long term plan was.
Your first responsibility as a writer is to deliver the best piece of work that’s going to function in the present. The series you’re writing at the moment needs to be successful. So with Line of Duty, rather like with Bodies and with Cardiac Arrest there was scope, built-in scope for return-ability. That was something that wasn’t necessarily visible in series one of Line of Duty, it was something we discussed with the BBC so they understood that the series could potentially come back if we were lucky enough to be successful. The return-ability was available through the investigators that were actually in supporting roles in series one.
So, the fact that we had a device for return-ability was essential. I definitely would say that’s something you have to consider if you want another series. You need to build the device into the first series even if it isn’t visible to the audience. In terms of the detail concerning the meta-narrative, when we did season two we started looking at elements from season one we might bring across apart from the investigators from AC-12. There were decisions made about hacking back to smaller plot elements from series one, for example, seeing Tommy Hunter again then the character of DI Cotton joining AC-12. So, that ended up becoming a bit of a meta-narrative. DI Cotton staying in AC-12 and coming back for season three, it was only really when we got into season four and beyond that, we started creating a phantom, the “H” character, someone who wasn’t visible to the audience because, in previous seasons, Cotton and Hunter and previous villains were visible to the audience.
L: The world in which the story takes place in is integral to the credibility of the show. How long was the research beforehand?
J: There wasn’t a huge amount of research. I read a couple of books that were about the inside of policing and a little bit about anti-corruption. There isn’t a lot of material about anti-corruption so we tried to gain as much information as we possibly could from talking to serving police officers. However, that was also problematic because a lot of them weren’t given permission to speak to us by their bosses because we were writing about something that is a sensitive subject for the police; police corruption.
They really didn’t want to tell us too much. That was something we had to work around. We spoke to retired police officers. One of them used to work in anti-corruption and he was prepared to speak to use off the record. It was only really when we got to season two that we started to get more cooperation, not by the police as an institution, but by individual officers who were prepared to act as official advisors. One of them was a serving officer that assisted us anonymously and that was just someone that I was in school with, it had been years and we’d lost touch and I didn’t even know that he was a police officer. Those conversations turned out to be a really valuable source of information and then, later on, we took on another recently retired officer that was at the end a very long career and reached a senior rank. He was incredibly helpful. So, we use advisors a lot now and because the series is well known, people are more forthcoming about helping us.
L: Did the research inform the story or just make it more credible?
J: I’d rather think that the work leads to the research. I think you can end up finding yourself completely drowning in research without identifying the story. You can spend a year and a half immersing yourself in material because you haven’t quite found the story. Or it may be that it’s just one event. Like a real-world news report for example that inspires you to construct a story. So, what I found on Line of Duty is that there were some high-profile stories about police failings or misconduct that kind of attracted my attention and they kind of gave me a framework for how I might try and construct the series. It was mainly thought that it would be constructed around an anti-corruption unit. So, it would be an investigation into alleged misconduct or wrongdoing that then allowed the research to become more targeted.
“It’s about finding the best way to deliver the dramatic point.”
L: Let’s talk about Bodyguard. One of my favourite things about the series is how the information is delivered so well to the audience. It’s written in a very clinical fashion. There’s no excess, no filler, every detail is relevant. I’m interested in how you did this. Talk me through your process.
J: The concept was really about deciding on the arena. The idea of something being set in the world of politics. Then it was about what would be the way into that and allow it to be a thriller and lastly, it was about the character desire. How do we construct these characters so they serve the thriller? When it came to talking about the writing style, that was something that was really established in the first episode. The opening sequence which delivered all that you really need to know about the characters back story but doing it in a high stakes, high jeopardy, adrenalised way so that you’re seeing event happen in the present but through them, you’re finding out about the characters relevant back story.
So the design of the protagonist, David Budd, was that we didn’t want him to just be the square-jawed protector. The design of the character us that it could be completely possible that he was the assassin and certain things were necessary to make that plausible. Budd needed to have specific animosities toward the politician that he’s been assigned to protect, he also needed to be unbalanced in some way and lastly, he needed to not have very much to live for in his present life.
So, all those requirements lead to the police officer who was a war veteran that has been traumatised by his experiences. He also felt that the military operations that he witnessed in the middle east were misguided. The suffering that has been caused by the military efforts in the middle east had either been denied or disregarded by the politicians that had ordered them. Budd is separated from his wife that he has a troubled relationship with and all this information is delivered in the first 20 minutes. We see that he has empathy for someone he perceives as a reluctant suicide bomber. Budd needs to gain her trust so he explains that he’s experienced a similar sense of frustration, injustice and even oppression. Then after that sequence that has been realised we then establish his home life, he’s separated from his wife and there doesn’t seem like there’s a chance for them to reunite.
L: Stylistically there are similarities across your works. One being the choice to have scenes that last 20mins. Could you talk about your thought process there?
J: It’s all about finding the best way to deliver the dramatic point of the story. With Line of Duty because it’s a cat and mouse thriller, it’s about an investigation into a police officer by other police officers. The investigators in AC-12 don’t have much direct contact with the officers that they’re investigating, but one of the ways that this could happen is through a formal interview where they go over the facts of the case.
Generally, when we reach those points because of the lack of contact there’s a lot of ground to cover. That, therefore, means that the scene has to earn its place. I would feel like we were shortchanging the audience if the interview scene was only a couple of questions. The interview format works well for this. It just came down to the scene needed to be longer than usual to fit everything in and do justice to the plot and the characters. With Bodyguard is was just about sustaining the action. It’s not that I set out to write these long scenes it’s just that there was a lot of ground to cover.
L: So I’m aware that you’re currently working on the sixth series of Line of Duty. With everything going on right now can you shed some light on how that’s changed the process?
J: Life on set was very different because of covid and the precautions that we needed to take to keep everyone safe. We were very careful about the locations that we used and made sure that there was adequate ventilation on site. The intention though is to make these changes invisible to the audience. We’d already been shooting for four weeks pre-pandemic it would have been impossible for us to then build the pandemic into the series. Even though the series in a contemporary series it would completely disregard the pandemic like a lot of other series on TV right now.
“If you want to be a writer you typically want to get your work to get made. I have a lot of advice about how to get your work read and how you get your work into the right hands.”
L: Lastly, do you have any advice for new writers looking to get into the industry in this climate?
J: I think it’s really important to practise your craft. There’s only so much you can do to develop your skill by studying and absorbing information. You need to knuckle down and write a script and get feedback on it and try and learn from that process. What you’ll learn is that if you’re encountering problems on every page and working successfully to solve them you’re developing the essential skills to carry you forward. If you’re writing any script there are going to be unforeseen problems. There are going to be areas that you just can’t make something work. If you’ve got the experience of problem-solving behind you then you’re going to be able to fall back on it.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Jed’s BBC Maestro class follow the link.
Keep an eye out for the sixth season of Line of Duty on BBC One or BBC iPlayer due to hit screens at the end of March.