Meet the mentors

Meet the mentors

June 18, 2024

The Writers Room

As six emerging writers join Jed Mercurio’s mentorship programme, the Line of Duty creator joins Wilderness screenwriter Marnie Dickens to share some of the advice they are passing on to aspiring writers.

The creator of hit series such as Line of Duty, Bodyguard and Critical, Jed Mercurio has brought a certain brand of dramatic, thrilling storytelling to television. Now he’s working with other established writers to share their expertise with the next generation of TV talent through his own mentorship programme.

Launched together with Amazon MGM Studios UK, the scheme has been established to give greater opportunities to those who live outside London and who are underrepresented within the UK TV industry, which is largely based in the capital.

Marnie Dickens

The scheme, which began last year, received 948 applicants, with Bafta-winning, disabled-led arts and media company Triple C consulting on the process to ensure it was accessible for deaf, disabled and/or neurodivergent talent. Six mentees were then chosen and paired with mentors including Marnie Dickens (Wilderness), Emma Frost (Jamaica Inn), Steven Moffatt (Sherlock), Vinay Patel (Murdered By My Father), Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials) and Mercurio.

The six successful writers are:

· Azuka Oforka from Penarth, South Wales, who will be mentored by Frost
· High Wycombe-based Hannah Kennedy, who will be mentored by Moffat
· Glasgow-based writer and comedian Kate Hammer, who will be mentored by Patel
· Writer/director Courteney Tan from Kent, who will be mentored by Mercurio
· Former teacher Soulla Tantouri Eriksen from Liverpool, who will be mentored by Dickens
· Leeds-based writer and comedian Harry May-Bedell, who will be mentored by Thorne

As the mentoring period comes to an end, with mentees preparing to pitch their projects, Mercurio and Dickens tell DQ about their own beginnings as TV writers and pass on some of the lessons they’ve learned across their careers.

Jed Mercurio on the set of drama series Critical

How did you get your start in television?
Mercurio: I responded to an advert in the British Medical Journal. I was working as a junior hospital doctor and a production company was seeking advisors for an original medical drama they had in development. I ended become involved in writing the series.

Dickens: I was fortunate enough to get work experience as a stand-in on a Kudos show, The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, written by Sally Wainwright. It was a great way to experience how a set works and how a script interacts with reality.

Was there one series in particular that inspired you to write for the small screen?
Dickens: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Mercurio: Hill Street Blues was my favourite TV show in the formative years of my late teenage years/early 20s. However, at that time I was in medical school and had no idea that one day I would use it as inspiration for my own TV writing.

Dickens says classic supernatural drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer inspired her to write for TV

What’s the best piece of advice you received as an aspiring television writer?
Mercurio: The best advice I ever got was in the RAF: “Take-offs are optional. Landings are mandatory.”

Dickens: Only ever take on projects and write on shows that you would want to watch yourself. Easy advice to give, but harder to follow when you need to earn a living. But still, gut instinct is a very powerful tool.

Which show gave you your ‘big break’?
Mercurio: I was extremely fortunate that the first television project I got involved in, as an advisor turned writer, became a successful BBC One drama series – Cardiac Arrest.

Dickens: Hollyoaks. They gave me my first credit, introduced me to my first writers room and taught me the importance of collaboration. Without the soaps in this country, which in recent years have faced swingeing cuts, there would be far fewer opportunities for writers to learn their craft.

Wilderness, Dickens’ recent drama series for Prime Video

How have you seen the television industry – and a writer’s role within it – evolve across your career?
Mercurio: Personally, I’ve always lobbied for writers to win fuller access to production decisions. I was extremely fortunate to be a medical advisor on my first TV show, which meant I was on set a lot, and this served as a backdoor apprenticeship for the skills and experience I employ as a showrunner.

Dickens: It’s been boom and bust (and hopefully boom again one day). Writers have always been central to the process as far as I can tell, but maybe I’ve just been lucky with the great producers I’ve worked with.

How would you describe your own writing process?
Dickens: It really varies. When I’m in actual writing mode, I can be very strict with myself and the hours in front of me, but the process of coming up with ideas is much more freewheeling and harder to be so didactic with. Needless to say, I much prefer the actual writing part.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a writer in the industry today?
Mercurio: Times are tough. All the networks are cutting budgets and this inevitably means they are commissioning less content and spending less on developing new talent. I genuinely hope the situation doesn’t deter writers from sticking at it.

Dickens: The general shrinkage here and across the pond [in the US] is naturally restricting the number of commissions up for grabs.

Mercurio’s best-known work includes police corruption drama Line of Duty

What advice would you now pass on to others hoping to follow your path?
Dickens: Find as many other writers to talk to as possible. It can be a very lonesome career and it is invaluable to have people you can sense-check things with or ask advice. Plus it stops you becoming a hermit.

Mercurio: My specific professional path has been to become a true showrunner. I’m involved in all aspects of production of my work. The only way to gain the necessary skills and experience is by being in casting and on set and in the cutting room and in all the other places important decisions get made.

What’s the secret to getting a greenlight or writing a hit series?
Dickens: If only there were a magic secret – a lot of the time it’s pure luck. You’ll pitch something and then, after the fact, learn that the commissioners were looking for that very thing. All you can do is try to make the characters as compelling as possible and write the version of the script that most entertains and surprises you, in the hope it will do the same to an audience, given the chance.

Mercurio: Someone saying ‘yes’ to the idea, whatever that idea may be. I’ve been doing this job for 30 years and I’ve had plenty of rejections. People still say no to me more often than yes.

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