Line of Duty and Bodyguard showrunner Jed Mercurio speaks to DQ about his latest project, Northern Irish crime thriller Bloodlands, and his ambitions for his recently launched production company.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK, the BBC’s Line of Duty was among the TV shows forced to suspend production, with filming on the hit crime thriller’s sixth season brought to an abrupt halt. Fortunately for showrunner Jed Mercurio, however, he was still able to continue working on another crime drama that wrapped filming the week before the country went into lockdown.
Bloodlands, created by Chris Brandon with Mercurio as an executive producer, opens when a car containing a possible suicide note – and no body – is pulled out of Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland. Detective Tom Brannick (James Nesbitt) quickly connects it to an infamous cold case with enormous personal significance.
The case relates to the investigation into a notorious and long-buried series of mysterious disappearances and Tom’s obsessive campaign to identify and unmask the semi-mythical figure behind these events, a person codenamed Goliath.
The four-part series marks the first commission for HTM Television, the fledgling production company Mercurio launched with Hat Trick Productions (Flack, The Secret). But with the pandemic taking hold around the world, he admits “we were incredibly lucky to get [filming] in just under the wire.” For the past few months, post-production has taken place remotely ahead of the drama’s launch later this year.
“One of the effects of people working from home is we’ve got to extend our post-production strategy slightly, just because it takes a little bit longer for everyone to see the material, give notes and for those notes to be acted upon,” Mercurio explains.
“So much of post-production involves groups of people sitting together watching a cut, listening to a mix or watching a grade. Because those things aren’t possible, we’ve had to come up with solutions that involve a little bit more time being taken.”
With series like Unforgotten and Bancroft recently delving into unsolved murders, cold-case dramas have proved popular fare on the small screen of late. But what makes Bloodlands so distinctive, says Mercurio, is its Northern Irish setting and how the story plays into the country’s 30-year conflict known as The Troubles.
The cold case at the heart of the story takes Tom back to the run-up to the signing of 1998’s Good Friday Agreement, which led to the end of The Troubles. When a number of controversial figures from both sides of the struggle seemingly vanished into thin air, their cases were swept under the carpet and forgotten at a time when no one wanted to rock the peace process.
With a personal interest in the case – he believes his wife was a victim of Goliath – Tom sets off to uncover the truth about Goliath and find out what really happened.
“It’s a highly contemporary thriller, but it has got one foot in the past of Northern Ireland,” Mercurio says. “As people the world over know, there was political unrest in Northern Ireland until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which has transformed Northern Ireland now into a very prosperous and peaceful part of the world.
“The drama is looking at a case that potentially could disturb that fragile peace, and our protagonist, DCI Tom Brannick, has some knowledge of a particular set of mysterious disappearances that occurred in the lead-up to the Good Friday Agreement.
“It’s entirely set in the present. It’s very contemporary. And it addresses some very significant and thought-provoking issues entirely through how the police and the population in Northern Ireland have to wrestle with conflicts and unsolved crimes from before 1998.”
Mercurio continues: “One of the jobs of a police officer is to keep the peace, and the other job of the police officer is to investigate crime and seek justice. It’s a real tribute to Chris’s genius that he’s come up with something that encapsulates both of them in a nutshell. Basically, James Nesbitt’s character comes across a case, some of which is pre-1998 and some of which is post-1998, so he has to tread a fine line in seeking justice while keeping the peace.
“Some things are for the greater good of keeping the peace and allowing society to return to normal, but that also leaves some people behind. People who lost loved ones, people who feel they’ve experienced events they’ll never be able to get justice for are left in an emotionally very difficult position.
“One of the things we were very careful about was not to make it so detailed about local Northern Irish politics. It was critical that we concentrated on the universal theme – that in any country or any region that enters a process of truth and reconciliation, there is that balance that has to be found between justice and keeping the peace.”
Filming took place in Belfast and Strangford Lough over 10 weeks between January and March this year, with the weather providing the cast and crew with their biggest challenge. “Northern Ireland is a beautiful part of the world but the weather is very changeable,” says Mercurio. “Weather systems blow in front of the Atlantic, so you can get four seasons in one day. That’s a real challenge for filming because if you start shooting a scene and it’s driving rain and then, halfway through, it is bright sunlight and dry as a bone, it certainly doesn’t work for continuity.
“There were times when we couldn’t shoot things we wanted to because it was too windy or too wet. It just wasn’t feasible to get through the shooting day, so then we would relocate and shoot interiors. There was one day when it snowed, which really left us scratching our heads. We just had to stop for half a day until the snow melted.”
As “a proper thriller,” Bloodlands sits comfortably alongside the other series on which Mercurio has worked, complete with action sequences, jeopardy and mysteries that aren’t resolved until the very end. He first read the script a couple of years ago and says Brandon’s talent jumped off the page.
“I was really struck by Chris’s writing voice and his ability to weave characters and story together so well,” he says. Mercurio and Brandon then developed the series together until they reached a point where Cold Feet star Nesbitt, who comes from Northern Ireland, came aboard. They then secured the backing of the BBC for what would become HTM Television’s first production. The show is distributed by Hat Trick International.
“We’ve got a broad slate, but I always say we’ve got a focus on thrillers,” Mercurio says of his company. “It’s a genre I love and a genre I think the audience loves. But we are developing other things as well, and I’m confident that, over the next couple of years, we’ll see real diversity on our slate.”
Launching the company gives Mercurio the chance to work with upcoming writers while also stepping back from the showrunner role he takes up on Line of Duty and Bodyguard, allowing producers and directors, as well as the scriptwriter, to take on creative decisions he would otherwise make himself.
“That was certainly the case with Bloodlands,” he says. “Chris Hall [The Durrells] is producing it, who I’ve worked with before [on medical drama Critical]. He’s a fantastic producer. Pete Travis [Omagh] is directing it – he’s a very experienced and very talented director.
“When I was around, what I was focusing on a good deal of the time was developing Chris Brandon’s producing skills. When we were both on set or on location, he was observing things and we were talking about them and I was encouraging him to get involved and talk to the director, the cast and the heads of department, so he developed the skill and experience that has allowed me to become a showrunner.”
HTM is also producing Trigger Point, which is written by Daniel Brierley and reunites Mercurio with Line of Duty star Vicky McClure, who plays a bomb-disposal operative pushed to breaking point during a terrorist campaign.
Filming on the sixth season of Line of Duty was suspended in March when the risk to the health and safety of cast and crew became too great. Mercurio says he has spent some of the downtime finishing the final scripts, but admits he will have to take stock of the real-world situation when production eventually resumes.
“Line of Duty is one of those series that attempts to be set in the real world, and often we refer to events in the past and dates in the past,” he adds. “Clearly anything that relates to the period of the pandemic may have an effect on what events could really have happened and how police may have gone about their work in this current climate. I think we may have to look at that.”
As people around the world self-isolate and heed orders to stay at home amid the devastating coronavirus pandemic, DQ offers a selection of series from around the world to enjoy.
Babylon Berlin From: Germany Original broadcaster: Sky Starring: Volker Bruch, Liv Lisa Fries, Peter Kurth, Matthias Brandt, Leonie Benesch, Severija Janušauskaitė, Ivan Shvedoff Seasons: Three
This German noir has become a breakout hit for the country, immersing viewers in a visually intoxicating 1920s Berlin. Based on the crime novels by Volker Kitscher, it follows police inspector Gereon Rath, who is on a secret mission to expose an extortion ring, and Charlotte Ritter, a police clerk who aspires to be an inspector but at night is a flapper and occasional prostitute at the Mika Efti cabaret. The series is also lifted by the dramatic soundtrack, which features standout song Zu Asche, Zu Staub (To Ashes, To Dust), performed on the nightclub stage.
Badehotellet (Seaside Hotel) From: Denmark Original broadcaster: TV2 Starring: Amalie Dollerup, Lars Ranthe, Anne Louise Hassing, Merete Mærkedahl, Ulla Vejby, Jens Jacob Tychsen, Anette Støvelbæk, Birthe Neumann Seasons: Seven
Downton Abbey by the seaside, this long-running Danish drama is one of the country’s most popular series, drawing audiences every year since 2013 to the trials and tribulations of the staff working a lavish hotel and the guests who visit them each summer from Copenhagen. Combining beautiful scenery with comedy drama and the clash of class and cultures that comes naturally from the upstairs/downstairs setting, it’s the perfect example of blue-sky Nordic drama.
Das Boot From: Germany Original broadcaster: Sky Starring: Vicky Krieps, Tom Wlaschiha, August Wittgenstein, Lizzy Caplan, Rick Okon, Vincent Kartheiser Seasons: Season two launches in Germany on April 24
Following a classic novel and iconic film is no easy feat, and critics were rightly sceptical that the ambition of this series could match what had come before. But from the first glimpse of a U-boat rising out of the Atlantic Ocean, this wartime drama serves up a compelling and technically stunning show. Set nine months after the Wolfgang Petersen film, the action opens in 1942, simultaneously following the crew of the claustrophobic U-612 and the Resistance in La Rochelle, France.
Delhi Crime From: India Original broadcaster: Netflix Starring: Shefali Shah, Rasika Dugal, Aakash Dahiya, Adil Hussain, Rajesh Tailang Seasons: One
While true crime dramas continue to dominate the broadcast and streaming schedules, buoyed by a similar wave of documentary series in the genre, this is one of the best. Based on the tragic true story of a 2012 gang rape in Delhi, the series follows the aftermath and the police investigation to find those responsible. Shah plays Vartika Chaturvedi, the deputy commissioner of police who drives the series forward and guides viewers through the sights and sounds of the city.
Fauda From: Israel Original broadcaster: Yes Starring: Lior Raz, Itzik Cohen, Neta Garay, Rona-Lee Shim’on, Boaz Konforty, Doron Ben-David Seasons: Three
Israel has become known as the home of some of the most original drama series in the world, leading to US remakes such as Homeland, Hostages, In Treatment and the upcoming Your Honor. Fauda might be the best of the bunch, drawing on the military experiences of creators Lior Raz (who also stars) and Avi Issacharoff. Set against the backdrop of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it follows the leader of an elite unit as they pursue a Hamas terrorist. Season three switches the action-packed story to the Gaza Strip.
Freud From: Austria Original broadcasters: ORF, Netflix Starring: Robert Finster, Ella Rumpf, Georg Friedrich, Christoph F Krutzler Seasons: One
Having recently launched in Austria, this dark, gothic period drama from director Marvin Kren (4 Blocks) is set in 1890s Vienna, famous for its decadence and the dark underbelly of high society. Mysterious murders and political intrigue clash as young psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (Finster), who finds strong opposition against his theories, becomes embroiled in a murderous conspiracy alongside a policeman and a notorious medium.
Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm) From: Denmark Original broadcaster: DR Starring: Lars Mikkelsen, Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, Simon Sears, Morten Hee Andersen Seasons: Two
From the creator of hit Danish political drama Borgen comes this drama about a family of priests and the characters within it, as each follows their own path to a meaningful life. On the face of it, they are the epitome of respectability, but events that leave the family in crisis soon unfold.
La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) From: Spain Original broadcasters: Antenna 3, Netflix Starring: Alvaro Morte, Itziar Ituño, Alba Flores, Esther Acebo, Pedro Alonso Seasons: Three, with a fourth released on Netflix on April 3
If any series characterises Spain’s assent to global drama powerhouse, it is this thrilling and action-packed story of a mysterious man known only as El Profesor (The Professor), who brings together a band of criminals to carry out the biggest heist ever imagined: taking over the The Royal Mint of Spain and taking home 2.4 billion euros. In season three, they are forced to reunite to execute a more ambitious plan, this time targeting the Bank of Spain.
Line of Duty From: UK Original broadcaster: BBC Starring: Martin Compston, Vicky McClure, Adrian Dunbar Seasons: Five
With filming on season six interrupted as productions around the world shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, now is the chance to catch up creator Jed Mercurio’s nail-bitingly tense police thriller (also pictured top), which introduces the members of Anti-Corruption Unit 12, tasked with uncovering police wrongdoing. Each season features a host of guest stars, while a long-running conspiracy plays across the series. By the end, you’ll be asking, ‘Who is H?’
Mr Robot From: US Original broadcaster: USA Network Starring: Rami Malek, Carl Chaikin, Portia Doubleday, Martin Wallström, Christian Slater Seasons: Four
Turn off social media and be sure to pay attention to Mr Robot, a critically acclaimed psychological thriller that follows Elliot Anderson (Malek), a young man living in New York who works for cyber-security company Allsafe and whose struggles with social anxiety and depression mean he struggles with paranoia and delusion. Elliot’s hacking skills lead him to anarchist Mr Robot, who is planning to attack one of the biggest corporations in the world – and Allsafe’s biggest client.
Professor T From: Belgium Original broadcaster: Één Starring: Koen De Bouw, Tanja Oostvogels, Goeie Derick, Carry Goossens, Herwig Ilegems Seasons: Three
Belgium is certainly among the most ambitiously creative countries in the world when it comes to television drama, thanks in part to a financial system that demands fresh and original ideas. Set in Antwerp, this crime drama introduces the eponymous eccentric professor, who works alongside the police to solve crimes. What makes it stand out is the mixture of genres the series covers, from musical and comedy to tragedy and melodrama. The show has already been remade in France and Germany, and a UK version starring Ben Miller is now in the works for ITV.
Queen Sono From: South Africa Original broadcaster: Netflix Starring: Pearl Thusi, Vuyo Dabula, Lois Maginga Seasons: One
Recently launched on Netflix, this series marks the streamer’s first foray into original African scripted programming. Mixing thills, actions and character drama, it follows the titular character, a member of the Special Operations Group and daughter of an anti-apartheid leader, who tackles criminal operations while dealing with crises in her personal life.
Sex Education From: UK Original broadcaster: Netflix Starring: Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson, Ncuti Gatwa, Emma Mackey, Connor Swindells, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Aimee Lou Wood, Tanya Reynolds, Patricia Allison Seasons: Two
Ostensibly the story of a teenager who follows in his sex therapist mother’s footsteps by providing advice to his hormone-driven classmates, Sex Education matches an eclectic cast of characters with a visually vibrant take on the traditionally dour British school drama by blending the look of a US high school with a distinctly 80s vibe, all while mixing laugh-out-loud humour with discussions of serious subjects such as sexual assault, sexuality and sexually transmitted infections.
The Expanse From: US Original broadcaster: Syfy (now Amazon Prime Video) Starring: Steven Strait, Cas Anvar, Dominique Tipper, Wes Chatham, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Frankie Adams Seasons: Four, with a fifth already ordered
For a sci-fi drama that’s out of this world, look no further than The Expanse. Based on the books by James SA Corey, the show’s future was in doubt when it was cancelled by Syfy after three seasons, before Amazon stepped in to save the series and order two further seasons. It opens hundreds of years in the future in a colonised Solar System, when the case of a missing girl brings together a hardened police detective, an Earth-based politician and a rogue ship captain, leading them to expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.
The Mandalorian From: US Original broadcaster: Disney+ Starring: Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano, Carl Weathers, Werner Herzog, Nick Nolte, Emily Swallow, Taika Waititi, Giancarlo Esposito, Omid Abtahi Seasons: One
Those lucky enough to be in the US, Canada or the Netherlands may have already check out this Star Wars series, the flagship original drama on the new Disney+ streaming platform. But as the service reaches most of Europe tomorrow, millions of subscribers will no doubt be eagerly awaiting the opportunity to see this acclaimed show, which is set after the fall of the Empire and before the emergence of the First Order, as seen in the most recent trilogy of Star Wars films. It’s here we meet a lone gunfighter in the outer reaches of the galaxy, far from the authority of the New Republic.
The Marvellous Mrs Maisel From: US Original broadcaster: Amazon Prime Video Starring: Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein, Michael Zegen, Marin Hinkle, Tony Shalhoub Seasons: Three, with a fourth on the way
A comedy-drama that has plenty of both, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel sees Rachel Brosnahah turn in an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning performance as the titular character, a housewife in 1950s New York who discovers a knack for stand-up after an impromptu set at a comedy club.
This Is Us From: US Original broadcaster: NBC Starring: Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Sterling K Brown, Chrissy Metz, Justin Hartley Seasons: Four
For heartwarming comedy and emotional family drama, this smash hit US drama ticks all the boxes. It follows the members of the Pearson family – mum Rebecca, dad Jack and siblings Kevin, Kate and Randall – mostly in the present day but flashing back to the past and into the future, focusing on their individual relationships and how their lives and experiences have been experienced by their childhood. Last year, following its third season, the show received the rare honour of being renewed for an additional three seasons.
Top Boy From: UK Original broadcasters: Channel 4, Netflix Starring: Ashley Walters, Kane Robinson, Shane Romulus, Malcolm Kamulete, Sharon Duncan Brewster Seasons: Three
British crime drama Top Boy first aired in 2011, with a second season running in 2013 on Channel 4. But thanks to the support of rapper Drake, Netflix revived the series this year. Set in East London, it introduces a group of friends and gang members fighting for survival on fictional crime-riddled estate Summerhouse. The series has been praised for its tough characters and its realistic portray of the world the story is set in.
Watchmen From: US Original broadcaster: HBO Starring: Regina King, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Tim Mison, Sara Vickers, Jeremy Irons, Andrew Howard, Louis Gossett Jr Seasons: One
This might be described as a superhero drama, but it can’t be compared to anything produced by Marvel (The Avengers) or DC (Batman) in recent years. From Lost creator Damon Lindelof and described as a “remix” of the iconic graphic novel created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, this alternate-history series takes place 34 years after the original story and follows a detective (Regina King) as she investigates a murder, in a world where police officers are forced to conceal their identities in an ongoing battle against a white-supremacist group. King’s standout performance and stunning filmmaking ally with topical themes and a powerful soundtrack created by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from Nine Inch Nails.
Westworld From: US Original broadcaster: HBO Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Tessa Thompson, Aaron Paul, Vincent Cassel, Lena Waithe Seasons: Season three is now airing
As visually striking and imaginative as ever, this science-fiction series continues to be one of the most ambitious and complex stories on television. Based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film, it introduces the eponymous Wild West-themed resort where guests can entertain their wildest – and often most villainous – fantasies alongside the android ‘hosts’ that populate the park. Naturally, things don’t go as expected when some hosts begin to gain sentience and search for a way to leave the park and join the real world.
Serial showrunners Greg Berlanti and Jed Mercurio talk about the creative processes behind some of their biggest hit series, including You and Bodyguard.
Greg Berlanti is the undisputed king of television producers. With 18 series on air or commissioned in the US in 2019, he is dominating the schedules – and streaming platforms – with shows such as DC Comics adaptations The Flash, Supergirl and Doom Patrol, crime drama Blindspot, stalker hit You (pictured above) and Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Berlanti recently spoke at Israeli television festival INTV, where he shared the stage with British showrunner Jed Mercurio, whose credits include BBC thrillers Bodyguard and Line of Duty, which concluded its fifth season last month.
Here, DQ recaps some of their conversation, which covers topics such as making a hit series, where projects come from, production challenges and surviving in the era of ‘Peak TV.’
You can never tell if a show is going to be a hit Jed Mercurio: In the first instance when you’re working on a show, all you can do is work on the show. You can’t think about how it’s going to perform because there are so many variables. The best thing you can do is not guess how it’s going to perform. I was obviously thrilled by how the show [Bodyguard] performed, but there are so many variables – what night it goes out, how well it’s been promoted, whether the premise captures the audience’s imagination, and we were incredibly fortunate that a lot of stuff aligned for us. After that, as the show got bigger week on week, it became surreal.
I’m used to that situation sometimes when the ratings come out and the phone doesn’t ring because the ratings are bad and no-one wants to tell me, so when they are good, people want to tell me, so my phone was ringing earlier and earlier in the morning.
Known for his superhero dramas, You marked a different direction for Berlanti Greg Berlanti: I read the book You three or four years ago and sent it to [showrunner] Sara Gimble. I’d never done a thriller before, but given that this was a romantic story with the point of view of a stalker, I want to do it responsibly, with a female perspective. I couldn’t believe that I was so in this person’s head that I was actually kind of rooting for this relationship, the book was kind of a Rorschach test for our society and how invested we are in the relationships.
We sold the show to Showtime, of all places. They wanted to make something that was slightly different from the book, and once they read the book they were really cool about saying you can take it somewhere else. Lifetime loved the book and the script and then we shot it and because of their launch cycle it sat in the can for a while, so it was two-and-a-half years old when they finally started to release it and it didn’t do very well. Very often in this business, the best thing you can be is an advocate, I just kept saying I really think people will enjoy the story as much as we enjoyed the book.
We were getting some [hype] but not as much as you would hope. You’ve got to be realistic and pragmatic, but at the same time it had been bought by Netflix for international distribution. By the time it had premiered in full on Lifetime, they knew they weren’t going to take it to season two, and Netflix swooped in and assured us they would do a second season. And then I started getting a flood of emails from people who knew the show had been on, and then I felt like people were really discovering the show.
I loved making the show, I love the team we put together. You want all your things to succeed. So many things I’ve done didn’t work, and it was nice that this one made the cut and survived long enough to get another chance at life; it makes me happy. Mostly you want to feel validated because you’ve been saying for so long that you really think this story should connect.
Bodyguard came from Mercurio’s desire to write a political series Mercurio: Originally the idea was to do something within the political arena. The first conversations I had with the BBC was the fact they hadn’t had a political thriller for a good deal of time. I started to think about a way into that. And because of how much I like dynamic storytelling – I like real jeopardy – I didn’t want to do something about politicians rivalling for power. Once I’d worked on it a little more, I went back with the way into the story, which involved a protection officer. In the UK it’s a division of the Metropolitan Police in London who protect high-ranking politicians and diplomats, so I felt like it was a variant on a cop show, and beyond that it was about constructing the relationships, creating the tension between the bodyguard and the person he’s meant to protect and giving him a back story that potentially makes him unstable enough and vengeful enough to possibly be a threat to her.
But at the start of production, things weren’t quite going to plan Mercurio: A couple of things happened to us that were actually quite damaging. We were all set to shoot the opening train sequence but at the end of business on the day before the shoot, they revoked the licence. [It was initially intended to be shot on a train leaving London’s Waterloo Station but permission was withrawn, leading the sequence to be shot on the Mid Norfolk Railway.] We ended up having a couple of days shutting down production. We had nothing to shoot, we had to reconceive that sequence. During shooting of the rest of the show I worked with the director on various concepts for how we would approach that when we got a suitable location. The only way we thought we could do it was not using a moving train so the whole sequence had to be rewritten, but the advantage was that we shot it at the end of the shoot. Richard Madden [who plays lead character Richard Budd] had spent months in character and felt great in character, so he wasn’t shooting it cold. We, as a unit, knew the series well, we could make decisions that were confident and well informed, which is essential when you’re up against the clock, and we were very fortunate that that particular bit of misfortune went in our favour.
Their motivation to work in multiple genres comes from the people they work with and the nature of what they want to watch on television themselves Mercurio: For me, it’s making something that I would want to watch on TV. It’s that simple. If there’s an idea that I think, ‘I wouldn’t watch that show,’ I wouldn’t do it. Whatever it is that somehow sparks my interest is essential for two reasons. I need to be really excited by the idea, in order to spend the amount of time that I have to on it, and each season is up to two years of my life so you’ve really got to be very committed to the work. The other thing is making the assumption that if you like something, there have got to be people out there who will like it as well, and beyond that it’s trying to get an idea that has critical mass. When you start thinking about what happens at the beginning of the story is there enough of a chain reaction to take in all kinds of directions?
For the audience to connect with the premise in that first episode, they’ve got to sense that mass building, they’ve got to sense that can explode and carry them in any direction. They have to sense that something big is coming.
Berlanti: What’s allowed me to work in different genres is the people I’ve worked with. Most are experienced in different areas, but at the end of the day most of it comes down to character. What are you trying to say about that character? It can be an emotional fight two characters are having, or an action sequence. If that sequence isn’t revealing of character, it’s the first thing you can cut.
Despite the amount of competition television shows now face, if it’s good enough, people will see it Berlanti: Having seen so much change since I started in the business in terms of what people think might be popular or sell, it might be naïve of me to think this, but I really believe it is just more and more about execution and how well that story is told. You want to make sure as much as possible that it’s as good as it can be, so that it can survive as the climate gets more competitive.
Mercurio: One of the things that has changed that maybe isn’t talked about so much is the relationship between viewers and the shows. As a nerdy kid who watched every episode of his favourite shows, and knew all the characters and all the actors, that was rare back then. Today, people can re-watch old seasons and it’s now justifying more intensive detail in writing, more layers in writing plots and, more importantly, it’s convinced executives [to be more ambitious]. In the past, they said it would be very episodic and simple, that people have one chance to grab it and if you don’t make it very clear to them you have a problem. Now there are opportunities where people are encouraging you to be ambitious and complex and respect the devotion of the audience.
Line of Duty showrunner Jed Mercurio and actor Adrian Dunbar discuss making the hit BBC crime drama, which is set to return to screens for a fifth season in 2019.
Just like an ambitious cop has to work their way up the ranks of police hierarchy, British crime drama Line of Duty has earned its stripes in the world of television across four seasons.
The show, produced by ITV-backed World Productions and distributed by Kew Media, began on BBC2 in 2012 but moved to flagship channel BBC1 after proving popular among viewers. It was renewed for seasons five and six earlier this year and will return in 2019, with filming set to resume in Northern Ireland next month.
With its focus on corruption, Line of Duty stands apart from most police series, and writer Jed Mercurio says he has learnt a lot since initially sitting down to pen the first episode. Noting that he and World had been discussing a police series for some time before the idea of incorporating corruption came up, Mercurio says: “I would describe it as being a process; there wasn’t a point where it was something that just arrived. There was a big idea of it being serialised, an idea of having a guest lead, having the investigators return – all those things and more were part of the process.”
The show has come a long way since its inception and fans are eagerly awaiting the return of AC-12 – the anti-corruption unit at the drama’s centre – next year. With characters including Superintendent Ted Hastings, played by Adrian Dunbar, DS Kate Fleming (Vicky McLure) and DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), the drama has engrossed viewers while often throwing up complex moral dilemmas.
Broadly speaking, each season sees AC-12 investigating a police officer, usually played by a guest star, across six episodes. The series is also notable for Mercurio’s skill at building incredible tension through police interview scenes.
“The idea that the first so-called antagonist would be the first allegedly corrupt officer, DCI Tony Gates [Lennie James], meant that he was someone who had good and bad about him,” explains the writer. “He was in a moral grey area and then the same applied to the investigators, they weren’t holier-than-thou either.”
In addition to the presence of advisors on set, Mercurio’s research into the way police work has helped make the show as authentic as possible – and the writer admits he has made some eye-opening discoveries in the process: “What tends to surprise is the slackness. In season four we had a sequence where a police officer tampered with evidence. I had assumed the evidence room had security cameras so coppers can’t fiddle with anything but, seriously, there are none because they are entitled to privacy.”
Dunbar’s Hastings, a fiery Northern Irishman with something of a cult following among the Line of Duty faithful, is one man who doesn’t get much privacy in the show, with endless heated scenes shot unfolding in the superintendent’s office. The actor clearly relishes playing his part: “It’s been a great trip because he is that character in the middle of it all, that person a lot of people are bouncing their understanding of what’s happening off of and it’s great to play that, it’s exciting.”
But after four seasons of wearing Hastings’ uniform, does Dunbar think his character has changed? “I think he’s become more of what he is,” he responds. “You get to a point where you realise that what audiences are interested in essentially is performance and also to see someone going through something because they’re going through something.”
And while many characters have met their end since the show’s launch, Dunbar isn’t worried about his own position in the next two seasons – suggesting there’s plenty more of Hastings for fans to enjoy for now.
Outside of the UK, Line of Duty has been sold to streamer Hulu but hasn’t quite taken off in the US as yet. The American way of making television has certainly helped its success in the UK, however, with Mercurio’s hands-on role keeping his interest high.
“I only direct a little bit, I’m more of a showrunner,” he says of his presence on set. “I’m an executive producer who is in creative charge of the production during the production, so I’m working with the directors, the cast and with the edit department and we’re having ongoing dialogue, which sometimes then feeds back to the production company and the broadcaster. That’s my customary role.”
With the show returning next year to the BBC, AC-12 will soon be hit with a host of new trials and tribulations. So as he goes back to a fresh page in hope of bringing more quality drama to the screen, has being involved with the show changed Mercurio’s view of the police in real life?
“No. Fundamentally, the evidence is exactly what we all know, which is that the vast majority of police officers are dedicated public servants who are in it for the right reasons,” he replies. “They want to protect the public and see justice but there is a very small proportion who are corrupt in different ways.”
As for whether Line of Duty will return beyond seasons five and six, Mercurio says he is grateful for the success thus far and that concentrating on the work will mean AC-12 can continue its investigations for many seasons to come.
For one night a year, the cream of the behind-the-scenes talent working in the British television industry is recognised at a star-studded celebration. DQ hears from the winners at the Bafta Television Craft Awards 2018.
The courtyard of central London’s The Brewery is abuzz with guests donned in black ties and ballgowns. Episodes and Green Wing star Stephen Mangan stands at the entrance, greeting new arrivals as guests pose for photos beside a giant golden mask.
The mask, of course, is the instantly recognisable symbol of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts – better known as Bafta – and Mangan, soon to appear in BBC1 drama The Split, is working the door in his role as the host of the 2018 Television Craft Awards, where 20 golden mask trophies will be given out to those who work behind the scenes on scripted and factual productions.
Prizes are handed out for costume design, directing, editing, make-up and hair design, sound, writing, photography and music, with nominees in the fiction categories coming from series such as Peaky Blinders, The Crown, Taboo, Game of Thrones, Three Girls (pictured above), Line of Duty, The Miniaturist, Black Mirror and more.
After a champagne reception, the nominees, award presenters and other guests file into the ceremony room to take their seats at the dozens of tables set out in front of the grand stage.
Then, as the awards get underway – after a VT introduction introducing Mangan in Handmaid’s Tale cloak and bonnet – DQ speaks to the winners in the scripted categories about their work and the shows that earned them a prized Bafta award.
Breakthrough Talent: Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper, writers, This Country (BBC Studios, BBC3) Charlie Cooper: It’s been six years since we first started writing something and it’s been a long journey with a lot of ups and downs. We did a pilot a few years ago for ITV, which went disastrously wrong. Shane [Allen, BBC controller of comedy commissioning] had seen our stuff a few years ago and just commissioned a series straightaway, which is unbelievable. Daisy May Cooper: I ended up emailing Shane and said, ‘I didn’t know who to go to. I will literally stand outside your office dressed as the Karate Kid, because you’re my Mr Miyagi, until you come down and talk to me.’ He said don’t do that, just come in for a meeting. We went in and he just said everything was going to be alright. He is absolutely the most amazing man to young fresh talent. He’s like God to us. When you’ve got people like Shane backing you, you just feel so looked-after. The BBC, I have to say, have been absolutely amazing and there are so many amazing comedies coming through the BBC and they’re discovering fresh young writers. The BBC is the place to be and they’re the ones to watch when it comes to breakthrough talent.
Editing: Fiction: Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
I was actually very lucky because I have historically done feature documentaries and Phillipa [Lowthorpe, director] wanted to shoot this show in that type of manner with the roving camera, not using the normal establishing shots. So I embraced it and she shot it so beautifully that it was a joy to edit. We had challenges in trying to keep the veracity and integrity of the girls’ story [with the show being based on a true case of widespread sexual abuse in the UK town of Rochdale] and we couldn’t manipulate the truth, but that was a good challenge because it makes sure you do the right thing. These people live and exist in the world today and they were going to watch it and make sure they were happy with it, so it was a good challenge.
Whenever they were shooting the series, I was editing and assembling from home so I didn’t see anyone during that period, which is a grace period for editors because then we can get to know the material and try things out. Once the final cut began, I was with Philippa in Film@59 in Bristol and after about three weeks, Nicole [Taylor, writer] started to come in, so it was very collaborative. All of us wanted to tell this story in the best way we could for an audience at home to understand on-street grooming and how those girls found themselves in that situation. That was our guide. The real people came to meet us, so that also helped us keep our finger on the pulse of the truth.
Titles & Graphic Identity: William Bartlett, SS-GB (Sid Gentle Films, BBC1)
I’d read the book before and then I read the scripts, and I liked the idea of the main character, Archer, not knowing who was on his side and the shadowy nature of it. The visual aesthetic, I’d had ages ago. I’ve got a number of ideas for title sequences in the back of my mind, and I thought I had a seed of a visual idea that was right for this. So I did a few tests and it fit with the narrative of the book and the ideas within the programme. It evolved out of the story.
I love title sequences for a couple of reasons. From a creative point of view, it’s an area that has really limitless possibility. You can come up with something that’s unique and interesting and you’ve got real scope to do what you want. I think of them like an overture from an opera where you’re trying to set the scene and plant little ideas and visual references of what’s going to come later. Because of that, it’s interesting how it’s constrained by the narrative, the story and the drama, but it’s really free as well. It’s unique in terms of what you have to do visually. Title sequences, generally, are going through a real heyday at the moment. There are tonnes of really great title sequences being done all over the world. With more TV being done, title sequences have come into their own as well. People are prepared to invest in them a little bit.
Special Visual & Graphic Effects: DNEG TV, Jean-Clement Soret, Russell McLean, Joel Collins for Black Mirror episode Metalhead (House of Tomorrow, Netflix) Michael Bell, visual effects supervisor: Filming the episode in black and white was the idea of David Slade, the director. It was strange for us because you don’t see much VFX in black and white. Ultimately, it made it unique, made it really stand out and we’re really proud of the finished thing.
It took months and months just for the modelling of the creature itself [a relentless robotic killing machine], the inner workings and all the details. There were basically two characters in this episode – Maxine Peake’s character and this creature – so you had to see how it was thinking; it had to be believable and it was quite a difficult challenge. Sometimes it could be comical but it had to be scary and I think we pulled it off.
Costume Design: Michelle Clapton, Game of Thrones (HBO, Bighead, Littlehead, Television 360, Startling Television, Sky Atlantic)
My ideas are always informed by the story. We get the outlines two months before we get the scripts, and they usually give me two weeks to think and draw. I speak to David and Dan [Benioff and Weiss, showrunners] so it’s all story-led, which is why it’s so exciting. I work quite closely with them and I’ll develop something to a stage where I think they’ll understand it. Sometimes they don’t like it and say, ‘What we’re trying to say about this character is this…’ So then we’ll have a discussion. Most of the time it’s fine but it’s interesting when it’s not, because you learn something.
It was nice to step out of Game of Thrones and do something like The Crown [in 2016] because in some ways it gave me a break from the show and I could return and feel enthused again about it. Period shows are really interesting but you have a period you’re looking at, so you design within that period but there’s still references. On something like Game of Thrones, you have no references, which is what I find so exciting. It’s been one of a kind and I doubt we’ll see a show like that again to such an extent. It’s been such a huge show and I’ve grown with it.
Photography & Lighting: Fiction: Adriano Goldman, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix)
I was invited to come on board the first season by [lead director] Stephen Daldry, but the first two episodes we shot, three and five, were not directed by Stephen. So I had a very practical challenge just to get to know this director who I was just being introduced to, Philip Martin. Of course, we got along really well but you have to build the whole thing from scratch with a director who is not a person you can read right away. Prepping was super intense and long. [We spent a lot of time] just reading scripts and going back to locations and trying to envision something that especially the British audience knows so well, the story of the Queen, and wondering what could be fresh about our approach.
The main discussion was the ‘less is more’ philosophy. The classic but also fresh approach was a challenge in itself. How do we deliver a story that everybody more or less knows but with a fresh visual style or rhythm?
Writer: Comedy: Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, Inside No 9 (BBC Studios Comedy, BBC2) Reece Shearsmith: Comedy’s such a funny thing because it’s all about taste – what you find funny, I might not and vice versa. But comedy drama is a difficult one because there is comedy in the most bleak situations. I’ve had a career mining very dark themes and I think the release of something that’s quite dark is cathartic. With the No 9s, we enjoy telling stories. They’re little black jokes and it’s been lovely to resurrect the anthology series because that’s a great lost genre that you don’t really do anymore. People like the longform, big, strong boxsets but these are one-off little hits that you can watch in any order. There’s appeal for that these days.
Steve and I have a little office and we write there. We talk a lot before we even begin thinking about the writing of a story. We try to get the mechanics of where it’s going. Sometimes we’ll have an idea of where it will go and, during our conversation, we’ll think it’s too obvious and we need to change the ending if we’re thinking of a twist where we want to surprise people. Then we try to tell the story in the most judicious number of scenes possible. Sometimes the story itself never even leaves a room, so it’s even harder to tell the story without ever leaving and time passing. We think about taking the very mundane and taking it to an extraordinary conclusion. It gets harder and harder for us because we’ve done so many different stories and different worlds, and each week you start again. It’s like a pilot each week. That’s the challenge, but that’s the fun thing because you can do extremes, because they’re disposable. Next week you have a completely clean slate. You can kill them all off. You can reach heights you might not be able to if you had to go back to a default position if it was a sitcom. They’re thrilling to write and, as long as we can keep coming up with the ideas, we’ll go on forever.
Writer: Drama: Nicole Taylor, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
Factual drama is always what I’ve loved watching, and Britain has an amazing tradition of that type of social-realist drama going back to Cathy Come Home and The Spongers. If people are watching it now, it must be because of the fractured moment we’re in, Brexit… we’re strangers to each other. No wonder we’re trying to watch things about ourselves to understand the state we’re in.
Three Girls was brought to me by Sue Hogg, the executive producer who I worked with on The C Word. I was initially very afraid to take it on and I said no a fair few times. I just think I didn’t have the bottle. Like everyone else, this was a story I didn’t want to be true and it’s a story that everyone wants to look away from. I came up with my own reasons why I was going to turn it down and then I discussed it with my partner, who’s a journalist, who called me out on it and said I was doing what everyone did, turning away. I thought, ‘That’s right. Let’s go.’ It took me years and years to dissolve into it because it was so complex Once I got started, it felt like something was going that spoke to the state we’re in more broadly, and [I wanted] to do the best job I could of getting people who want to turn away to be glued to the story.
Philippa [Lowthorpe, director] did a lot more than just direct this magnificently. First off, she has a documentary background so she did a lot of the research with me. She gave me so much confidence in how you go into people’s homes and have them feel comfortable with you. She’s brilliant on scripts, she’s amazing with writers so I feel so stretched just in pure nerdy craft terms. She was just a joy, such a collaborator and, uniquely, she wanted me on set whenever I wanted to go. I was in rehearsals. That collaboration was so tight and I can’t wait to work with her again. She’s a phenomenal talent and such an inspiration for me as a woman working in this industry.
Sounds: Fiction: Sound Team, The Crown (Left Bank Pictures, Netflix) Chris Ashworth, production sound mixer: My biggest challenge is managing the scale of the show. It’s an enormous shoot. It goes on for 30 weeks, so it’s a huge management thing from my point of view on the floor, managing three crews and making sure everyone’s working together. Then on the huge set pieces we do, we have to keep a variety of directors happy. Lee Walpole, supervising sound editor: In post production, we’re trying to take Chris’s clean recordings on location and add a complexity, scale and richness, bringing it to life and pinning it to the period it comes from. Sound recording is only becoming more complex, and that brings its own challenges. We have five days to final-mix an episode and you’re expected to produce a film soundtrack in that time. Andy Kennedy, sound designer: The line between cinema and television is very blurred. We’re not dealing with stereo, we’re dealing with multi-channel formats and it also has a different presentation because The Crown is shown as a streaming piece, so sound is evolving and it’s very close to what a cinema produces, but it’s slightly smaller scale.
Make Up & Hair Design: Jan Archibald, Erika Ökvist and Audrey Doyle, Taboo (Scott Free London, Hardy Son & Baker, BBC1) Audrey Doyle: Tom Hardy and his dad, Chips, developed the whole storyline seven years ago, he said, in his kitchen. They approached Steven Knight to write the scripts and it developed from there. We all did research of the period and the looks and started there. Tom is covered in his own tattoos so we had to develop a whole new tribal make-up for him. We had ‘Naked Mondays’ – every Monday, for some reason, we always seemed to film his tribal scenes, so we had to do his full tattoo cover, full tribal make-up and scars and everything. But he did wear a loin cloth. It took two-and-a-half hours each time.
Production Design: Deborah Riley and Rob Cameron, Game of Thrones (HBO, Bighead, Littlehead, Television 360, Startling Television, Sky Atlantic) Deborah Riley: My process begins right at the start in LA with the writers when they issue an outline, which tells us exactly what is going to be in every episode of the whole season. The scripts don’t come until a bit later. Then we’ll start the approval process. We have concept artists that draw everything for us, and everything gets approved before it gets made. It’s an amazing team of people. We’ve got great producers. David and Dan know exactly what they want, they’re very clear with their vision. Time is the challenge, because there’s just too much to do in too short an amount of time, as we’re trying to produce film finishes on a television schedule. We just really work hard, and David and Dan’s biggest talent is they collected a whole lot of workaholic perfectionists in one place.
Visual effects are always led through production design. We create the worlds and then we need visual effects to help us when we can’t build it all or see it all, but it’s very much a collaboration; we don’t work in isolation. The whole show is very cohesive in its vision and what it’s trying to achieve. It’s a very special thing. I’m most proud of just surviving.
Original Music: Jocelyn Pook, King Charles III (Drama Republic, BBC2)
In a lot of films, less is more. Music is so overdone quite often and it’s nice when people use it more carefully and more thoughtfully. On this particular project, it was really inspiring because of all the settings. It had been a theatre play, but hardly any of the music I had written for the theatre worked for film so I had to do a whole new score.
Because of the history of the monarchy, there’s a sense of the ancient and modern combined, and definitely elements of the contemporary because it’s set in the present day. That was lovely, musically, to mine, particularly English choral music that I’m naturally inspired by. There’s also an Englishness, whatever that is.
Director: Fiction: Philippa Lowthorpe, Three Girls (BBC Studios Drama, Studio Lambert, BBC1)
I was really lucky because I was involved in the research right from the beginning of Three Girls and that, to me as a director, is very valuable. I got to meet all the real people very early on and, with our wonderful writer Nicole Taylor, I was able to be part of the research along with our producer Simon Hughes. That really informed how I saw it and how to direct the actors, because I’d met the real people. I don’t think I could have done it without having met them and spending a a lot of time with them.
I went for a real feel, but it wasn’t pure documentary either. I used lots of very long takes because I wanted the actors to feel absolutely free to move where they wanted to move. Sometimes in drama you put the light somewhere and they have to hit a mark. I banned marks and we did very long takes where we would capture a bit of the scene and then do back and do it again. It was a challenge for some of the younger actors at first because they’d never done it like that before, but it was brilliant and it gave the actors so much freedom to absolutely inhabit their parts.
We had a lot of rehearsal and a lot of discussion with the actors, and that was so valuable. Maxine Peake and Lesley Sharp were the leaders of the cast. The British Pakistani actors who were so brave to play the perpetrators in the piece were also very involved in the rehearsal, so their voices became part of the fabric of the rehearsal and we learned a lot from them.
The most important thing in the filming was to capture the truthfulness of the story and help the actors achieve that real authenticity in their performances, which they did. I’m very proud of the young people who played the girls. All three of them – Molly Windsor, Ria Zmitrowicz and Liv Hill – are amazing.
There have been some amazing factual dramas recently and that’s hats off to Charlotte Moore at the BBC, who has really given a platform to real stories.
Special Award: Game of Thrones John Bradley, who plays Samwell Tarly: When I did my first day’s work on Game of Thrones, I knew nothing of how TV production worked. I remember getting my first call sheet the day before I shot my very first scene and not knowing what I was looking at. I read the scene, which was two pages long, and I thought, ‘Well, how long can that possibly take?’ I was always under the impression they just had the set and 20 or 30 hidden cameras in little nooks and crannies around the set, they kicked the actors into the set, we did it a couple of times and then we went home. In fact, what I thought when I first saw that it was going to be two pages long was, ‘What on Earth am I going to do with my afternoon?’ After all these years, I look back on that first day and I’m struck by how lucky I am that I was given such an incredible learning experience – the best learning experience in the world, working alongside some of the very best craftspeople at work anywhere. We as actors will forever owe a huge debt of gratitude for inspiring us every single time we walk onto the set and every single time we see the finished product on the screen, every day learning something new from them and learning new things to admire them for. Hannah Murray, who plays Gilly: When you see so many phenomenally talented people in so many departments working at the very top of their game and getting breathtaking results time after time, it really forces you to bring your very best efforts to the table, if only to make sure you don’t look inadequate by comparison. Every year, they’re given scripts that on paper seem totally unfilmable, and every time they put it on the screen to mind-blowing effect. We as actors are so lucky to get to step into the world they create and we are as in awe of their work as the fans of the show all over the world. The show is a global phenomenon and what makes us proudest is that the work of so many British and Irish talents are being recognised on such a grand scale. We know our showrunners David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] are grateful to be working with this incredible team of people.
From Line of Duty and Home Fires to Apple Tree Yard and Unforgotten, actor Mark Bonnar is never far from television screens. He discusses his career, new projects including Porridge and working on Catastrophe.
Under the skills section of his CV, Scottish actor Mark Bonnar lists an unusual talent. “I can juggle,” the 48-year-old says while making coffee and checking the baby monitor to see if his son is settling down for his nap. Bonnar is married to fellow actor Lucy Gaskell (Cutting It, Casualty) and the couple have two children.
Multi-tasking is clearly not a problem for Bonnar. He’s been quite busy lately, appearing in Channel 4’s Bafta-winning sitcom Catastrophe, psychological thriller Apple Tree Yard (pictured top) and cop show New Blood on BBC1, and ITV crime drama Unforgotten. He’s also starred in Line of Duty and Psychoville (both BBC2), plus Grantchester and Home Fires (ITV).
Bonnar also began shooting the new season of Shetland last month and has just spent seven weeks on a new six-part season of Porridge for BBC1, written by the show’s original creators Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. The actor reprises the role of Officer Meekie from the pilot, which was screened last year, alongside Kevin Bishop as Nigel ‘Fletch’ Fletcher, grandson of Ronnie Barker’s iconic character Norman Stanley Fletcher.
“It’s a lot like the old rep routine where you make it up as you go along,” says Bonnar of filming Porridge. “Tuesday night and Wednesday we’d be rehearsing through, then doing tech for the cameras because it’s multi-camera, like the old live studio audience thing. Then we’d pre-record all the bits you can’t do in front of the audience, and then Thursday there’d usually be another light run.”
The Porridge pilot was a “terrifying experience,” he admits. “I haven’t been on stage for five years. The Old Vic was the last time. This was completely new to me and I wasn’t sure how to pitch it but I watched Kevin [Bishop] very closely and he’s a past master at this sort of thing. He started mucking around quite early on in front of the audience and they loved that.”
Coronation Street and Phoenix Nights star Ted Robbins was the warm up.
“He really takes the audience through the story, because there are big gaps between the setups so they’ve got a lot to remember,” says Bonnar. “Ted’s got a gazillion jokes but also, before we start on the next scene, he’ll say, ‘Now, remember what’s just happened in the scene before?’ so they’re with us, and that’s invaluable.”
Porridge is up there with Dad’s Army as one of British TV’s national treasures and, in portraying Officer Meekie, Bonnar follows in the footsteps of the great Fulton Mackay.
The actor says the script and certain mannerisms of his character are done in tribute to Mackay. “It would be churlish to try to completely reinvent the character. The physical aspect of Meekie is the thing that probably informs the character. It’s not great naturalism. It’s heightened comedy.
“The first thing I did when I was in Fletcher’s cell was move like a flamingo or a bird of prey. The physicality informs me a lot. You kind of rely on that and work from the outside in. I haven’t gone away and thought about where he’s from or what his favourite colour is; that would be pointless. When you’re doing your lines, you stand up tall, because he is a tall character, and you move your head – it’s quite birdlike.”
When it comes to learning lines for TV drama, Bonnar has a distinctive approach. “I record the scene with gaps for my bits, that’s how I’ve always done it. If I haven’t got the time to record, I will learn the lines, but I like hearing everybody else’s words and my cues. It’s like having a rehearsal in your head every time.”
He recalls making his first ‘live’ recording at the age of 10. “My granddad had an old tape recorder and I went off to a room somewhere and recorded a radio show. It’s me doing all the ‘Hey, this is Mark Bonnar and welcome to my show’ rubbish, but I sang all the songs as well. There’s me singing Blondie and Ian Dury, and I thought, ‘Yes, I even had cool music taste back then.’”
Bonnar won a school prize for drama aged 12 in a show called Hooray for Hollywood. “It was a kind of a mishmash of songs and sketches. I remember donning a massive moustache for a scene from Murder in the Red Barn.”
He left school at 17 and worked for the library service and in the planning department at Edinburgh City Council, where colleagues persuaded him to pursue a career in drama. He completed a year’s National Certificate in drama at Telford College, followed by three years at Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. In his final year, he won the Carlton Hobbs BBC Radio Award, which gave him a six-month stint with BBC Radio in London.
“I did 50 plays – everything from playing the orangutan killer in Murders in the Rue Morgue to the mouse in Alice in Wonderland.
“I love radio. As a listener it’s the most imaginative form because it’s all in your head. As an actor you can just really concentrate on delivering the story right into someone’s ear.”
Bonnar has a long list of credits including everything from Rebus, Silent Witness and Taggart to Casualty, Midsomer Murders and The Bill. He says he rarely turned down a job in the first 10 years of his career.
“You do whatever comes really. I occasionally turned stuff down because I wanted to feel like I was progressing in each job. The only power you have as an actor is to say no and yes. I think I said no a lot less in the early days because I was hungry for work; now I’m still hungry for work but there has to be something that really makes me want to do it.
“I’ve played quite a few psychotics, people who are deranged or twisted, and I enjoyed that –they were the most fun to play. But if something comes my way, there has to be a new take or slant or something about the character that appeals, that hasn’t been done before or is shown in a new way or the story is amazing.
“Apple Tree Yard was another brilliant step in a new direction because I hadn’t played somebody like him before. [Protagonist Emily’s husband] Gary is a slow-build character. He’s undemonstrative, he’s kind of in here,” Bonnar says, pointing to his chest. “There’s no ‘tits and teeth.’ People usually give me tits-and-teeth parts but it was great to play someone I haven’t done before who isn’t vindictive, who hasn’t a nasty streak. He’s just a flawed human being, as we all are.”
Catastrophe stars and writers Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan deal a lot with flawed humanity in their hit comedy, which recently aired its third series with a fourth planned.
Bonnar, who plays Chris, says it’s always “a joyous experience,” working on the show. “What [Horgan and Delaney] do is push everything to the degree where you go, ‘Oh Christ, I remember feeling like that.’ It’s so beautifully crafted, structurally but also dramatically. They’ve got an amazing talent and ability to make you cry and snort wine back into your glass at exactly the same time. The comedy and the familiarity of it, it’s perfectly human.
“There’s an atmosphere with Catastrophe of generous concentration because it’s a serious business getting it right. Rob and Sharon have said this and on set they’re quite prescriptive about what they write because what they write is brilliant and so they very rarely allow any improvisation. Now and again you can slip something in but you wouldn’t want to, it’s like gilding a lily.”
DQ hears from stars Thandie Newton and Vicky McClure and creator Jed Mercurio as Line of Duty returns for a fourth season.
Guest stars have a habit of getting a raw deal on BBC crime drama Line of Duty. Lennie James, Keeley Hawes and Daniel Mays have all suffered at the hands of creator and showrunner Jed Mercurio, whose series follows police officers under investigation by fictitious anti-corruption team AC-12.
That didn’t put off new cast member Thandie Newton (Westworld), however, who takes centre stage in the fourth season of the nail-biting series.
Newton (pictured above) plays DCI Roz Huntley, whose capture of a serial killer comes under AC-12 scrutiny when forensic co-ordinator Tim Ifield (Jason Watkins) believes there may have been a miscarriage of justice. A married mother-of-two, Huntley will do anything to stop her life unravelling.
Vicky McClure, Martin Compston and Adrian Dunbar return to play the trio at the heart of AC-12. Line of Duty is produced by Cait Collins and executive produced by Mercurio and Simon Heath for World Productions and Stephen Wright for BBC Northern Ireland. Content Media sells the show worldwide.
Newton admits she hadn’t seen Line of Duty before her agent suggested that if she wanted work in British television, “this is the best thing you could ever do.” And after binge-watching season three, she signed on with just a few hints from Mercurio about what might be in store for her character.
“I wanted to be a part of this,” she says. “I’d seen the third season and I had a sense from Jed of what it was going to be about. And also, I must say, I’d never seen Vicky McClure before and I thought she was completely spellbinding. Martin Compston is fantastic and Adrian Dunbar’s a national treasure. Jed just told me the facts, very simply, and that it would be great. I said, ‘Yes, OK, let’s go’ – and I’m so glad I did.”
More specifically, Newton points to the tight balance between real life and fiction that drew her into Mercurio’s world.
“What happens in life, you just can’t believe some of the shit that goes down, some of the crap that people get up to, and you couldn’t put that on television as fiction,” she continues. “You just couldn’t. It would be ridiculous. But Jed just manages to push it further than fiction, to a place where it really feels possible and that ‘possible’ is just nuts. But it’s still in the context of fiction.”
Newton recalls offering Mercurio some advice on how her character might have a low-key dress style with “tracksuit bottoms with high-tops – she’s a working mum. Jed was like, ‘No, that’s not what you’re going to look like. You’re going to wear suits and bad shoes.’ And I just got it. I realised we were going to try to do something terribly, horribly, diabolically real. The truth is Line of Duty just takes you into a place of realism.”
For his part, Mercurio describes hiring Newton as “one of the best casting processes we’ve ever had.” He continues: “We had an initial conversation with the casting director, Kate Rhodes-James, and her name came up. Immediately, it was, ‘Really? Do you think she’d be interested? Do you think she’d do it?’ And she was. Then we had a meeting, Thandie was lovely and so enthusiastic and really obviously not nuts, so great! It was honestly as simple as that.”
Episode one, which airs on BBC1 this Sunday, opens with DCI Huntley about to crack a long-running case as she edges closer to capturing a serial killer. But viewers soon discover that after coming back to work after a period raising her family, she’s under huge pressure to close the investigation, leading to a decision that could make or break her career.
“Every woman recognises the frustrations here that in every role, every job, every line of work, you have to be twice as good [as men] – and then if you’re black, you have to be twice as good on top of that. So this woman is under a hell of a lot of pressure,” Newton says. “And the audience sees the pressure she’s under, so it allows the viewer to be judge and jury, which I think is fantastic because it’s forcing them to have an opinion about this. There’s sexism, of course there is, but one of the things that’s wonderful about these characters – both Vicky’s and mine – is that we manage to ride those waves and still do a brilliant job.”
McClure, who plays detective sergeant Kate Fleming, says of her role: “Playing undercover every time, I always get found out – so I’ve started to get the idea I’m not very good at it! It makes for great drama, though, so that’s good. People ask whether my character has ever tried to use her womanly ways to stay undercover, but it’s never been that kind of show. There’s definitely moments with the promotion [at the end of season three] and how that may play out, and there’s that competition with Martin [who plays DS Steve Arnott], but also the characters really care about each other, they’re hugely supportive.
“It’s just real life. They both want to get on, they’re both fiercely ambitious. Kate does have a family, she’s not put it to one side, but she’s so passionate about her job and the good it brings to the people and the police that she’s not the main carer for her child. I’ve spoken to Jed a lot about that over the series because it’s a big part in my head for my character. It’s not seen very much, but it means a lot to me to play it.”
Line of Duty has built a reputation for the layers of police process and procedure contained in each episode that other dramas would prefer to rush past. So it’s fitting that season four’s focus falls on the role of forensics in criminal investigations, in terms of both the show’s fondness for minute details and also what Mercurio perceives as changing interpretations of truth and facts in a post-Brexit and Donald Trump world.
“The scripts were written a couple of years ago and the phenomenon we’re seeing now is probably an extension of things that I think had been creeping in for a long time,” Mercurio says. “There is sometimes a lack of respect for facts and objective reality. A lot of what we’re saying in this is where is objective reality and how do you test it? And the criminal justice system is obviously a very good way of exploring that.
“One of the higher aims of this season is to look at this theme of what is truth, what is objective reality? I feel very fortunate that something that was important to me is becoming important to other people. Over the years I’ve been getting more and more exasperated at the lack of respect for facts, proper research and accuracy in people arriving at an opinion, and being unable to tell the difference between opinion and fact. So that’s just something that, unfortunately for the world, has become a bigger issue now than it was.”
On the subject of the amount of police procedure in Line of Duty, Mercurio says he has to find a balance between authenticity and pace, particularly during the trademark interrogation scenes, which can account for up to 20 minutes of an hour-long episode.
“We’re so accustomed to watching police series that don’t delve into that, and it gives Line of Duty its identity,” the showrunner says. “If you want a firearm, you have to go through a whole process to sign one out. If you want to present a piece of evidence, it has to be logged, identified and presented in the right way. You can’t just bang the table and say, ‘You did it! Confess!’ I kind of got more and more into that. Obviously I’m very grateful to our police advisors for that as well.”
McClure jokes that she calls the show “Lines of Duty” due to the amount of dialogue the actors must remember during those tense interview scenes.
Newton picks up: “I have a 14-page scene with big chunks of dialogue on every page. Then I’d have a 25-page scene. I felt very old, I thought my memory was failing! It’s so frustrating because you want to be so good. There’s some characters sitting around the table and they’re so fantastically natural and I just want to be as good as them. Then you fluff [your lines] and fuck it all up! Then you come back in like a prizefighter and you do it and get through it and you just feel like the dopest actor in the world! It’s the most challenging but the most rewarding, it really is.
“That one 14-page scene is half an hour, and you’re nervous. It’s anxiety-making but it just adds to the drama and the tension. Apparently Lennie James [who played DCI Gates in season one] was the one who wanted to do them all in one take. Bastard! I’ll call him about that!”
The silences are just as important as the dialogue, however, with pauses specifically scripted to allow the actors the chance to speak with their body language instead of their words.
Mercurio says: “In a drama like Line of Duty, that moment when a character pauses after saying something creates a gap for the audience to think, ‘Did they mean that, or did they mean something else?’ That’s something we work on and a lot of it is in the script. If I put in a gap where someone thinks about something before or after, that’s something I learned a few years ago about how you show a character lying. You give an indication to the actor and you allow them to perform the lie in the most truthful way possible.”
Filming in Belfast since season two, Line of Duty will undergo another move this season when it switches from BBC2 to BBC1, having become the former channel’s best performing drama series ever. With several serial storylines wrapped up at the end of season three, now is also the perfect time for new viewers to join the series.
A fifth season is already confirmed for 2018, and the only question is whether Newton will be back as well. With he actor remaining tight-lipped on potential spoilers, viewers will have to watch to discover her character’s fate.
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.
In honour of ITV’s Brit noir series Marcella, DQ looks at some of the women detectives who have helped reinvigorate a genre that used to be the preserve of cantankerous middle-aged men.
When ITV launched the excellent Prime Suspect in 1991, female coppers were still a novelty on UK television. But these days it seems as though the entire police system is in the hands of no-nonsense women taking on a world of desensitised or deranged male bastards.
When they aren’t dealing with criminals, they generally have to contend with the fact that their husbands and colleagues are also a) psychotic, b) philanderers or c) perversely obstructive.
For the most part, the female cop formula seems to be working, with little indication as yet that the UK audience is getting bored by it.
Despite its various structural flaws, ITV’s Marcella, starring Anna Friel, has just finished its eight-part run with a solid audience of around five million and looks like a decent bet for a season two renewal.
Other female cops who have secured a strong fanbase include DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) in Broadchurch, Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley, DI Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes) in Line of Duty and Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) in The Fall, which returns for a third season this year.
And it doesn’t end there. Other female crimefighters include the cast of Channel 4’s No Offence and Detectives Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey in ITV’s Scott & Bailey. The latter, which starred Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones, finished this April.
Without exception, all of these shows have achieved good to great ratings. Sometimes this is down to the writing, but more often than not it feels as though the real secret of their success is the quality of the female leads. All of the above shows have been graced with exceptional acting performances that make you stay loyal even if the wider production starts to lose its direction.
Based on IMDb scores, Marcella doesn’t actually fare that well, scoring 7.1. This is probably a reflection of the gaps in the plot, which caused a lot of angst on social media platforms like Twitter. Much stronger are shows like Happy Valley, Broadchurch, The Fall and Line of Duty, which achieved scores in the 8.3 to 8.5 range.
With the general success of female cops, it’s no surprise that ITV is going back to its Prime Suspect franchise with Tennison. This show, from Lynda La Plante, imagines the central character, Jane Tennison, as a young woman starting out on her career. Set in Hackney in the 1970s, it recreates a world where women police constables are treated with suspicion by their male colleagues.
The female cop theme is not, of course, restricted to the UK. It has played a big part in the emergence of Nordic noir as a global force. Writer Hans Rosenfeldt, who gaves us Marcella, previously introduced us to Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) in his acclaimed Danish/Swedish copro The Bridge. And this then gave rise to UK/France copro The Tunnel, where viewers have been beguiled by feisty French cop Elise Wassermann (Clemence Poesy).
Equally important has been Danish broadcaster DR’s The Killing, which saw Sofie Grabol playing DI Sarah Lund. This was adapted for the US, where Grabol’s role was played by Mireille Enos as Sarah Linden.
In France, meanwhile, audiences on public broadcaster France Télévisions have recently been introduced to Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) in Witnesses (Les Temoins). More mainstream is Candice Renoir, about a French police commandant, played by Cecile Bois, who solves crimes in the South of France. The show has also secured a number of sales around Europe.
The US, of course, has never been afraid to place female cops on the frontline – think back to Cagney & Lacey or Angie Dickinson as Sergeant ‘Pepper’ Anderson in Police Woman. More recently the mantle of number one tough female cop has been taken up by Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) in NBC’s long-running procedural Law & Order: SVU. The character of Benson has appeared in 385 episodes of the show and risen to become commanding officer of the SVU division.
Angie Harmon, as Jane Rizzoli in TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles, is another who deserves to be given a medal for services to the TV industry. Among the new female cops is Harlee Santos, a single-mother NYPD detective played by Jennifer Lopez in Shades of Blue.
Countries where female cops are not so prominent include Germany and Italy, where the chaps still get to solve most crimes. But even here there are a few exceptions.
One is Charlotte Lindholm, a detective in the Hanover-set production of ARD’s long-running crime franchise Tatort. She has been played by Maria Furtwangler since 2002, making her something of a German TV icon. Italy, meanwhile, gave us Donna Detective, in which Detective Lisa Milani (played by Lucrezia Lante Della Rovere) requests a desk job in a small town outside of Rome in order to spend more time with her family. As luck would have it, she gets called back to assist with a major case and is placed in charge of an entire investigative squad in the capital.
The clear message from all of the above is that female cops have reinvigorated the detective genre, creating a new kind of character-based complexity around ideas like work-family balance, competing in what is perceived to be a man’s world, tackling problems from a female perspective and demonstrating skill sets that run counter to traditional assumptions.
What’s missing, perhaps, is a black or Asian female lead. There have been fleeting sightings (in US shows like Southland, The Wire, Rogue and Deception). But as yet there is nothing comparable to the breakthrough made by Idris Elba in BBC hit series Luther.
Given the recent strength of British broadcasters in the female cop genre, this is an area where they should really bite the bullet.
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.”