With credits including medical dramas Cardiac Arrest, Bodies and Critical, Jed Mercurio is best known for his thrilling police drama Line of Duty.
As the series returns for a fourth season on BBC1, Mercurio tells DQ why the show isn’t a typical police drama, why he prefers to be its sole writer and how he constructs its trademark interrogation scenes.
He also reveals how his role as a showrunner grew from a feeling that writers were marginalised from the rest of the creative process.
It’s been a busy end to August in terms of commissions and acquisitions. In the UK, the BBC has been especially active, taking advantage of the Edinburgh International Television Festival (EITF) as a platform for announcing or discussing new developments.
One of its most high-profile announcements is a deal with Agatha Christie Productions that will see seven Agatha Christie novels adapted for TV over the next four years. This follows an earlier announcement that it would be making The Witness for the Prosecution, with a cast led by Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Kim Cattrall, David Haig, Billy Howle and Monica Dolan.
The first of the novels to be adapted under the seven-book deal will be Ordeal by Innocence. Other titles so far confirmed include Death Comes as the End and The ABC Murders, which focuses a race against time to stop a serial killer who is on the loose in 1930s Britain.
Commenting on the deal, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “These new commissions continue BBC1’s special relationship as the home of Agatha Christie in the UK. Our combined creative ambition to reinvent Christie’s novels for a modern audience promises to bring event television of the highest quality to a new generation enjoyed by fans old and new.”
The decision to plan so far ahead came after the success of And Then There Were None for BBC1 in 2015. That adaptation was written by Sarah Phelps, who is also working on the next two Christie projects. Further writers will be announced in due course.
Hilary Strong, CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd, said: “And Then There Were None was a highlight of the 2015 BBC1 Christmas schedule, and we are truly delighted to be building on the success of that show, first with The Witness for the Prosecution, and then with adaptations of seven more iconic Agatha Christie titles. What Sarah Phelps brought to And Then There Were None was a new way of interpreting Christie for a modern audience, and Agatha Christie Ltd is thrilled to be bringing this psychologically rich, visceral and contemporary sensibility to more classic Christie titles for a new generation of fans.”
The Witness for the Prosecution is a Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions’ drama for BBC1, in association with A+E Networks and RLJ Entertainment’s development arm, Acorn Media Enterprises. RLJE’s streaming service, Acorn TV, is the US coproduction partner and will premiere the adaptation in the US. A+E Networks holds rest-of-world distribution rights to The Witness for the Prosecution, and will launch it at the Mipcom market in October.
Alongside the Christie announcement, the BBC’s Moore used the EITF to unveil a range of other dramas. These include an adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed young-adult novel Noughts and Crosses and a new six-part drama from Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) entitled Bodyguard.
There is also an Edinburgh-set drama called Trust Me, written by Dan Sefton, and a new series from Abi Morgan called The Split. This one examines the fast-paced circuit of high-powered female divorce lawyers, through the lens of three sisters – Hannah, Nina and the youngest, Rose.
Moore’s announcements for BBC1 were built upon by BBC2 controller Patrick Holland, who also announced plans for new scripted series at the festival. “I want BBC2 to be the place where the best creative talents can make their most original and exciting work, where authorship flourishes,” he commented.
Holland’s headline drama announcement was MotherFatherSon, from author and screenwriter Tom Rob Smith (Child 44). This is an eight-part thriller that “sits at the intersections of police, politics and the press,” according to the BBC. “It is as much a family saga as it is a savage, unflinching study of power and how even the mightiest of empires can be in peril when a family turns on each other.”
Holland also greenlit The Luminaries, a six-part drama from Working Title Television based on the novel by Eleanor Catton. A 19th-century tale of adventure, set on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island in the boom years of the 1860s gold rush, The Luminaries is a story of love, murder and revenge, as men and women travelled the world to make their fortunes.
Catton, who will adapt her own novel for television, won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries. She said: “Learning to write for television has been a bit like learning a new musical instrument: the melody is more or less the same, but absolutely everything else is different. I’m having enormous fun, learning every day, and I’m just so excited to see the world of the novel created in the flesh.”
Filming on the six-parter will begin in 2017, taking place in and around New Zealand.
While the BBC dominated the drama announcements at the EITF, ITV also used the event to reveal that there will be a second season of crime drama Marcella, written by The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt and starring Anna Friel. Produced by Buccaneer Media, the first season of the show was a top-rated drama on ITV, achieving an average of 6.8 million viewers across its run.
Commenting on the recommission, Rosenfeldt said: “I was delighted at the reaction to the first season and am thrilled to be revisiting Marcella for ITV. In the second season, the audience will get the opportunity to spend more time in her world, exploring some of the characters and getting to know them better.”
Other interesting stories as the industry gears up for autumn include the news that Amazon has acquired Australian drama The Kettering Incident from BBC Worldwide for its Prime Video service. The show was co-created by writer Victoria Madden and producer Vincent Sheehan was shot entirely in Tasmania. The eight-episode series tells the story of a doctor who returns to her hometown years after the disappearance of one of her friends.
In mainland Europe, Telecinco Spain has ordered a local version of hit Turkish series The End. Produced originally by Ay Yapim, the new version will be called El Accidente and will be the third local version of the show in Europe after remakes in Russia and the Netherlands.
The show, which was also piloted in the US, tells the story of a woman investigating her husband’s death in a plane crash, only to discover that he wasn’t on the flight. It is distributed by Eccho Rights, which has also sold the original to 50 countries.
In the US, premium pay TV channel Starz has renewed Survivor’s Remorse for a fourth season. The show has had a particularly strong third season having been paired in the schedule with Starz hit series Power. Across all platforms, it now draws around 2.9 million viewers per episode.
“We are thrilled to renew Survivor’s Remorse for a fourth season,” said Starz MD Carmi Zlotnik. “Critics have consistently called it one of the smartest and funniest comedies on TV, and we are delighted to see audiences embracing the characters and the storyline with that same enthusiasm. Mike O’Malley and his tremendously talented team of writers and actors boldly tackle today’s most pressing issues, from race, class, sex and politics to love and loss, but with such a deft touch that nothing ever feels heavy-handed.”
In other news, ProSiebenSat.1-owned Studio71 is producing a live-action series inspired by the Battlefield video game franchise that will launch on Verizon’s Go90 platform. Rush: Inspired by Battlefield will stream on the mobile service from September 20.
The Battlefield franchise, developed by EA Dice and published by Electronic Arts, has amassed more than 60 million players since launching in 2002. “Gaming is one of the most popular forms of entertainment today and there is a huge appetite for content inspired by video games,” said Studio 71 president Dan Weinstein.
BBC2 in the UK is having a great year in terms of its drama output. The first part of 2016 saw a solid performance for US acquisition American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, while tomorrow sees the much-anticipated return of Peaky Blinders for season three.
Sandwiched between the two was the third season of Line of Duty, which has proven to be a huge hit for the channel. So successful, in fact, there are reports that season four, which is scheduled to air in 2017, will move to flagship channel BBC1.
As the dust settles on Line of Duty’s ratings, various claims are being made, but probably the most eye-catching is that the series is BBC2’s most successful drama in 15 years. With an average audience of just under five million per episode (live+7 day ratings), it even managed to outperform Wolf Hall, which was a strong performer in 2015 with an average audience of 4.4 million.
Line of Duty focuses on the activities of an anti-corruption unit led by superintendent Ted Hastings (played by Adrian Dunbar). It is the latest masterpiece from Jed Mercurio, widely acknowledged as one of the top talents working in British TV.
Mercurio actually started out as a doctor before breaking into the business with acclaimed medical drama Cardiac Arrest in the mid-1990s. Since then he has had pretty consistent success as a TV writer while also carving out a decent career as a novelist. Indeed, his second TV series was an adaptation of his first novel, Bodies.
He has proven particularly adept at creating procedurals with a twist. Aside from Cardiac Arrest, Bodies and Line of Duty, for example, he also created Critical, a medical drama for Sky1 set in a fictional trauma centre.
He has also tried his hand at a number of other sub-genres of the scripted TV business. The Grimleys (1999-2001), for example, was a comedy drama, while Frankenstein (2007) was a modern-day re-imagination of Mary Shelley’s iconic gothic novel. He also set up Left Bank’s long-running action-adventure series Strike Back (2010) and adapted DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover for BBC1 last year.
Within the UK system, Mercurio is unusual in that he is more akin to a US showrunner than a European writer/auteur. Typically, he will write and produce his shows – sometimes directing as well. As a consequence of this level of control, Mercurio is well placed to ensure his creative vision hits the screen.
Mercurio recently gave a very insightful interview to Den of Geek in which he distinguished his work from procedurals that delve into the private lives of their protagonists. “Part of me isn’t that interested as a person and a viewer in people’s personal lives. I’m more interested in what people do in the workplace and what goals they set themselves. I guess that’s why I write a lot of precinct drama. (There’s often) an expectation, or pressure sometimes even, to feel that the way to succeed with drama is to see all sides of a character by going into their personal lives, even if you’ve got nothing to say.”
It’s interesting to note that Line of Duty’s ratings have been building across the first three seasons, giving it the feel of a show that slipped under the radar but is now attracting new swathes of fans. All of which augurs well for season four, regardless of the channel it airs on.
In the US, this is a critical time of year for the scripted business as the major networks decide which pilots to take forward to series. Most announcements will trickle through in the next few weeks, though a few new shows have already been given the go-ahead.
One of these is ABC’s Designated Survivor, which will star Kiefer Sutherland (24) and is being written by David Guggenheim (Safe House, Bad Boys 3). Another is Taken, a spin-off from the hit movie franchise. The TV version, for NBC, will be penned by Alex Cary (credits include Homeland, Lie To Me).
Not yet greenlit but looking good is Fox’s Lethal Weapon, another reboot of a movie franchise. This one is being scripted by Matt Miller, whose writing credits include ABC’s short-lived Forever.
Also, this week, DQ’s sister site C21 Media reports that long-running CBS drama The Good Wife is being adapted for the South Korean market by broadcaster TVN. The show, created by Robert and Michelle King, comes to the end of its seventh and final season in the US this week. All told, that means TVN will have 155 episodes to work with.
The Korean version of the show will be produced by Jung-Hyo Lee (I Need Romance, Heartless City) and written by Han Sang-Woon. Like the CBS original, it will centre on the complicated relationships of people in the legal system working against a backdrop of scandal and corruption.
Interestingly, this is not the first adaptation Han Sang-Woon has worked on. Last year, he wrote Spy for KBS2, based on Israeli drama The Gordin Cell. Previously, he wrote the movie My Ordinary Love Story. Commenting on the production, TVN parent company CJ E&M told C21: “For the Korean version of The Good Wife, we focused on the casting and were successful in casting Korea’s biggest actress, Jeon Do-Yeon – who has won many awards in her career, including best actress at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival – in the lead role, marking her return to television after 11 years.”
Finally, continuing the writers-as-brands theme we discussed in last week’s column, Amazon is about to air ITV period drama Doctor Thorne in the US (May 20). When it does, it will call the series Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne, another indicator of the marketing leverage that leading writers increasingly possess.
Hard-hitting crime drama Line of Duty is back on the beat for what its cast describe as the best season yet. Michael Pickard reports.
It’s been away from screens for almost two years, but British crime drama Line of Duty is set to return for its third season this week.
Continuing the show’s part-anthology format, the new run opens on March 24 with a brand new story that begins with the fatal shooting of a criminal suspect by an armed response unit led by sergeant Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays).
Danny and his team claim they acted in self-defence, but anti-corruption squad AC-12, led by superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), gathers evidence that suggests the killing was deliberate. DC Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) is then sent undercover into Danny’s team to find out more.
Ingratiating herself to her new colleagues, Kate is quick to identify tensions and conflict among Danny and his team. But when Kate’s own conduct comes under scrutiny, she finds herself sidelined from an armed drugs raid that goes very badly wrong.
Produced by World Productions for UK pubcaster BBC2, Line of Duty is executive produced by series creator Jed Mercurio (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Critical), Simon Heath (The Great Train Robbery, The Bletchley Circle) and Stephen Wright. It’s distributed by Content Media.
With more than three million people tuning in to the season two finale, the BBC took the unusual step of ordering two more seasons back to back.
Mercurio says this “incredibly exciting” opportunity was made possible by the fervent support from the show’s fans, adding that he never entertained tinkering with the single-story-arc format, ensuring season three will stand alone from the fourth instalment in the series.
He does, however, promise more of the twists and turns that have so far made Line of Duty stand out from other crime dramas on television. “What makes Line of Duty distinctive is that it’s cops versus cops,” he explains. “Most police shows are about hunting and chasing criminals, whereas we have police officers in a quest to bring other police officers to justice.
“Also, we’re a serial, so we can do six hours of one story. That means we can get deeper into the story and have time to establish its direction, which allows us to produce some big surprises.”
Mercurio reveals that the level of jeopardy in the latest run is taken to new heights, with Mays’ Sgt Waldron showing his violent side in the first episode.
But why has the series been so successful? “I’m excited and flattered by the success of it,” Mercurio admits. “It’s always hard to diagnose what makes something successful but all you can hope is that if you stay true to the characters and stay true to the style of the show, people will keep coming back.”
As a fan of Line of Duty’s first two outings, Mays was keen to sign up for season three, which he believes will keep viewers on the edge of their seats. But he was under no illusion about the amount of dedication Mercurio’s writing demands from his actors, having watched Lenny James and Keeley Hawes in seasons one and two respectively.
“Then when they showed me the actual scripts I was blown away,” he reveals. “The quality of Jed’s writing is so brilliantly detailed and has its grounding in absolute social reality, which is a great combination. I recognised it was a great opportunity to be part of the long-running success of Line of Duty, and it’s certainly one the most complex and exciting characters I’ve taken on in a long time.”
In particular, Mays describes an interrogation scene in episode one as the hardest passage of dialogue he’s ever had to learn – but says it also made for one of his most thrilling days on set.
“Running and chasing suspects wearing all that gear was also a challenge,” he adds. “We went on weapons training for a couple of days, which was really beneficial and also allowed the actors to bond. It’s a great credit to the opening episode that we all look comfortable in the gear and believable as an armed response unit. Another challenge was trying to get into the mindset of a character so damaged, twisted and unpredictable.”
While Mays has joined the cast for the first time, McClure has been ever present alongside Dunbar and Martin Compston (who plays Steve Arnott).
“At the start of the series she’s back undercover with a brand new team,” This is England star McClure says of her character. “Filming that was really different, as it felt like a completely different show at first, with a brand new cast and new firearms.”
Compared with other police dramas, Line of Duty “feels very real” in every way, she says – from the characters’ relationships and the way they dress to the language they use.
“We don’t brush over anything,” she adds. “It is a drama and is dramatised but ultimately it is played as real as possible, which is why it’s so gripping.”
And with season four around the corner, it will have to go some way to beat what McClure says is the best season yet.
“It’s action-packed and has a lot of amazing new characters with great storylines,” she adds. “Also, with the cast and crew, we have such a good relationship that it’s nice to come to work every day. We have such a laugh, which is important when a lot of the show is so intense.”