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Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio speaks at Oxford Union

Jed Mercurio talked to the Oxford Union on 4th June. The highly acclaimed TV writer of Cardiac Arrest, Line of Duty and Bodyguard spoke about his career path to success. He trained as a doctor before writing medical and police dramas for the small screen. 

The six-time BAFTA nominated screenwriter told the Oxford Union that his directing style was influenced by American dramas, including Hill Street Blues and Star Trek which brought together action and sci-fi, leading Mercurio to add a sense of dynamism to his work. In spite of Mercurio’s partiality to television dramas, he said he showed little creativity at school and trained as a doctor. The writer said his change from medical to artistic professions was partially catalysed by a lack of realistic depictions of the NHS frontline in contemporary television.

Jed Mercurio depicted the NHS frontline in Cardiac Arrest, which he said received a polarised and “marmite” reception among the medical community. Mercurio said it represented the burden of work upon junior doctors, a group who were receptive to the programme. Mercurio did not argue that Cardiac Arrest represented the realities of medical life and stressed the differentiation between drama and reality. Instead, he believes “drama is much more usefully about point of view”, rather than seeking accurate depictions of reality. 

When questioned further about depicting point of view in television dramas, Mercurio argued that the setting of The Grimleys in the Black Country and Line of Duty in the west-midlands gave a unique point of view of an underrepresented region on screen and showed the region’s talent. 

As well as representing a specific region, Mercurio’s dramas also tend to depict specific and familiar institutions – the NHS and the police. When asked by Cherwell what catalysed the change from writing medical to police dramas, Mercurio said “when I was doing medical dramas I tried to create the idea that bad things could happen to the doctors through making mistakes and getting blamed for it… with the police it is a hazardous job: you’re interacting with dangerous people so, as a writer it is a little bit easier to create scenes which are tenser”. 

He told the audience that he spoke to retired police officers and used the internet to pinpoint a “target culture” within policing which Mercurio represents in Line of Duty. Mercurio said he used this information to create a “drama of reassurance with honest coppers getting bad guys” whilst simultaneously depicting corruption within the police. Mercurio added that his dramatic intention in Line of Duty’s exposition of corruption was to expose its complexity and close relationship to incompetence. When Cherwell asked the screenwriter who Mercurio’s favorite corrupt member of the police force was, he commented that most of the ‘bent’ coppers were not truly ‘bent’, just misunderstood or incompentent.

Mercurio spoke of the complexities of depicting police corruption. Cherwell asked the screenwriter whether on-screen representations of anti-corruption officers overly-glamorizes the police. Mercurio argued “the main characters believe in doing the job right and they believe in catching the bad guys who do just happen to be police officers, so, in that sense, they’re showing the ideals of policing rather than all the vices of policing.”

Mercurio told the Oxford Union that he tried to draw comparisons between real life policing and on-screen policing. He spoke of parallels between the deaths of Stephen Lawrence and Christopher Alder in racially-motivated attacks and the plot and name of Christopher Lawrence in Line of Duty’s season six. Mercurio desires his audience to recognise and research these parallels to real life attacks, wanting them to consider the United Kingdom’s public institutions carefully. 
As well as negotiating Line of Duty’s plot, Mercurio spoke of negotiating Covid-19 when filming season six. Filming the sixth and latest season of Line of Duty was disrupted in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Mercurio believed that, though it did not alter any trajectories for characters it did create limitations in filming intimate moments on screen. He discussed the multiplicity of challenges faced by screenwriters and told the Oxford Union that failures should be recognised and considered inevitable in any writing process. He advised budding TV writers and directors to write, shoot and edit short films cheaply with friends. 

Image: The Oxford Union

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