Jed Mercurio on Line Of Duty series 5: ‘Familiarity will be our undoing’

Line Of Duty's creator breaks down the ‘Is Ted H’ mystery and talks symbolism, critics, and what will eventually end the show. Spoilers

Warning: contains spoilers for the Line Of Duty series five finale.

Three years ago, still suffering from palpitations after Dot’s bid for freedom in the Line Of Duty series three finale, Den Of Geek asked series creator Jed Mercurio whether Superintendent Ted Hastings’ principled stance on uncovering police corruption could cause problems for him down the line.

“Hastings makes a rod for his own back,” Mercurio told us in 2016. “Because he refuses to waver in the face of political pressure, he’s made himself a target for more senior officers who find him a thorn in their side.”

The trial of Ted Hastings was being set in motion even then. A plotline was in the works that would besmirch the Hastings name and torment Ted’s devotees with the possibility that our man wasn’t as true blue as he seemed. The gaffer was about to be fitted up by a criminal conspiracy.

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In series five, it almost took him down. But for the proper coppering of Kate and Steve, Ted might be rotting in Blackthorn Prison along with the rest of Line Of Duty’s casualties. But he survived, AC-12 survived, and when the time comes, ‘Ted Hastings: a thorn in their side, fella’ should be inscribed on the Superintendent’s gravestone.

Following Ted’s exoneration, we chatted to Mercurio about the behind-the-scenes efforts that went into playing series five’s game, tracking audience reaction, the symbolism in the series’ battles, responding to critics, and, obviously, the intertextual relevance of Chicken Licken to the Line Of Duty universe…

You’ve been creating a kind of optical illusion this series – all those moments that could either be evidence of Ted being H or have a non-criminal explanation – Lisa’s ringing phone in episode one, the laptop messages, the brothel photograph – what went into creating those?

In each specific example, we take steps to make the eventual explanation plausible but it has to point towards contrasting possibilities at the time. With the phone call [which suggested the possibility that Ted Hastings was calling OCG leader Lisa McQueen] in episode one, that was purely juxtaposition. The actor definitely knew what was happening in that scene and we did actually have a shot of what was on the phone if we needed it, but we then decided that it was better to leave that completely open and explain it later. In the last episode, the enquiry into a burner phone that is allegedly attributed to Hastings then turns out to have been Gill’s phone, so that proves there was no call between Hastings and Lisa McQueen.

How about the end of episode two with Kate setting out those six police officer portraits. What pains were taken in the edit to make that suggestive of Ted’s guilt?

There were two things. There was the way it was shot – the six images that were laid out, KF 1-6, were ones that we’d established in the scene – and then we shot it in such a way that it would be possible in the edit to disguise who was pointed at, or if we decided that we did want to see, then we did have a shot that would allow that to be revealed but the overall editorial feeling was that it was best to leave that open and deal with it in the next episode.

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Ted Hastings was in there. There was an image that wasn’t taken from the evidence board, that was taken from a drawer in the meeting room which was labelled ‘Current AC-12 Staff’ so it left open the possibility that it was a current serving officer that had been identified.

That photograph we saw of Hargreaves leaving the brothel wearing a hat, was that of Tony Pitts [who plays Hargreaves] or Adrian Dunbar [Hastings]?

It was actually a visual effect composite of both actors. The initial photograph was of Adrian. We decided to manipulate an image of Adrian, then we also had an image of Tony and we looked at both and our visual effects team just created a composite image which then would pass through the Line Of Duty version of facial recognition software, which is basically, we all look at it! I did feel that the first pass was too recognisably Hastings so we then did further work with the VFX to make it more of an ambiguous image that favoured Hargreaves.

The intention was it was plausibly Hargreaves or it was plausibly Hastings, but you wouldn’t be able to identify from the image which it was. And obviously that correlates with the investigation that’s ongoing in the series because if it was clearly recognised as a serving officer then that would possibly have alerted the investigating team of the true identity of the person.

You must be able to rely on the fact that Line Of Duty fans, because the series engenders that level of obsession, are going to pick up on tiny details like say, the misspelling of ‘definately’?

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We assumed that there would be various possible responses to that. That there would be some viewers who don’t know how that word is spelled and wouldn’t notice. There would be some viewers who’d write it off as a mistake on the part of the programme makers and then some viewers who might interpret it as a possible clue. So it’s only really when the second misspelling happened that people began to connect it up and then it’s obvious in the finale that it was entirely intentional.

It’s rather like that Abraham Lincoln aphorism about being able to please some of the people some of the time. You can’t always guarantee the effect you’re going to have, but what you’re trying to do is reach enough of the audience that they’ll stay with the series. It’s very hard to predict. For a little detail like that, probably it doesn’t matter a huge amount how many people clue into it, as long as they get there in the end.

Have there ever been things that the audience has entirely failed to pick up? I’d imagine it’s the other way around and we’re losing our minds over things that weren’t even intended to create suspicion?

No, sometimes there are things that no-one’s spotted, and that’s fine. It’s one of those things that ultimately isn’t that important. It’s hard to know, say for example, the spelling of ‘definitely’, how many people picked up on that because social media is such an echo chamber that it does artificially distort the perception. We don’t really have any data on how many people picked that up and how many missed it, so it’s entirely possible that the vast majority of viewers missed it.

It really does change the work that you do then, the fact that people are so obsessive about the show and place details like that under such a level of scrutiny.

I think you have to approach making television programmes as if that level of scrutiny exists. It’s just that we’re in a very fortunate and privileged position in Line Of Duty that it does exist.

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You’ve said before that planning for future series relies on how the audience responds to this one and which storylines have resonated. By what metric do you measure that?

The most useful metrics are the ones that relate to the biggest sample size. It’s things like audience figures and audience research that’s done after the series has gone out. Those are the most useful metrics. The problem with individual opinion is that it doesn’t necessary correlate with what the mass audience is thinking. There are always people who have their own idiosyncratic views, so generally we try and take responsibility for those things ourselves, but then look at some very broad strokes in terms of how the current series has performed.

The most basic tool is the viewing figure, so you’ve got a breakdown of the viewing figures across each quarter hour of transmission, plus then the seven-day and the 28-day consolidated figures which also tells us about what the word of mouth was, what the viewer loyalty was across the series. Then you have the Appreciation Index, which is I think incredibly useful data, because it’s a randomised uncorrelated sample. It’s not someone who wants a platform for their opinion on Twitter or IMDb. As part of the data gathering for AI, there is a possibility of someone passing comment. So all those comments are recorded. For a six-hour series, you will have 6000 pieces of data in relation to this randomised sample.

So from a storytelling perspective, does that mean you might dangle potential starting points for future stories to test the water, as it were. For instance in this series, we’ve had Kate’s homelife come back, or Steve’s painkiller problem introduced. If people became fascinated by those things, might you then pursue them further down the line?

I think that’s probably too specific an example for me to be looking for in the data. It’s much more within my purview as a writer to make a decision like that. What I’m looking at is something more on the level of metadata. It’s much more about how the overall story was playing out. If you want to create an analogy, it’s like metadata on a phone – you know what call was made and you know how long it lasted but you don’t necessarily know the content.

How easy it is to control and orchestrate which details an audience will be obsessed by from one episode to the next?

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It’s not something that you can control. You would be insane to think you could. What you attempt to do is create a piece of work that has the potential to influence people’s relationship with the series so to hook them in on a character’s journey or on the stakes of the story or a whodunnit or howdunnit or whydunnit and you’re using those tools to try and create an ongoing forward dynamic relationship with the audience.

Is there a danger of passing a point where your audience could become too well-trained, too literate in what you might call the Line Of Duty playbook, so they become too difficult to surprise?

You’re right that familiarity potentially will be our undoing. My interpretation of that is that it’s probably as good as any explanation of why programmes have a shelf-life. I think that we can’t go on forever, but no programme ever has. What we will find I think, going forward, there’ll come a point of saturation where people kind of feel that this world and these characters have been explored enough and as a writer probably I’ll sense that as well. I’ll sense that there are diminishing options in terms of what we can still achieve with the series.

Tell me about DIR tone. In episode five, I counted and it ran for 22 seconds, which must be a record.

[Laughs]

15 seconds in episode one was long! Are you just seeing how long you can get away with?

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Yeah. It’s really about the rhythm. Sometimes we start the tone in the scene, sometimes we pre-lap the tone from the preceding scene and then it’s really ‘cut to picture’. So in the room, when we’re shooting we have an arbitrary length of time that we leave, which is always a bit too long because then in the edit we can always shrink it down but then if we want to extend it, it’s impossible if we don’t have the coverage. Then we make the final decision in the edit about the duration.

Thematically, what was being tested in series five? Was it the moral rectitude of Ted Hastings, or the ease in which the law could be used to frame an innocent person?

I’d say that the latter was explored more in series four, with the Michael Farmer character, who was a young man with learning difficulties who was framed – unfortunately, that’s happened before in our criminal justice system. In respect of series five, it was about testing Hastings’ integrity, or more accurately, testing the audience’s belief in his integrity. It’s one thing to assume a character has principles, it’s another thing to prove it by putting them under extreme stress.

I know you write social realist precinct drama, but when you pit a character like Gill Biggeloe and what she stands for – PR, glamour, greed – against a character like Ted Hastings – humility, honesty, doing what’s right – there is a kind of mythic, elemental battle going on.

I think that if you are trying to analyse the fundamentals of what’s going on in a drama, then it probably should revert to those elemental forces. If that’s not what’s going on in drama, then it probably requires a rethink.

In respect of Gill Biggeloe, I think that she actually fits most closely the model of corruption in our criminal justice system. Line Of Duty, for dramatic purposes, tends to create characters whose corruption is balanced on certain ethical conflicts, whereas the majority of corruption in the real world is simply based on greed.

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Would you agree there’s also poetic justice in your writing? Everybody receives fitting punishments in series five. Ted’s pride in AC-12 is punished, Gill’s greed ends up in that drab house and rubbish car, even Steve’s impotence relates to his previous weakness for, in Carmichael’s words “shagging witnesses and suspects”.

Yeah. It’s important that the character’s wound is in their most sensitive part [laughs] obviously I don’t mean that as a double entendre with respect to Steve! You have to tailor those challenges to what a character is vulnerable to.

You tailored Corbett’s language to echo Ted’s, didn’t you? Idiomatically, both invoke “God’s honest truth”, they almost repeat each other’s lines (“We’re not the mugs they think we are” says Corbett, then Ted says “This Corbett fella’s playing us for a bunch of mugs”.) Both call Steve “son”.  Was that just hinting towards their shared Belfast history or were you drawing a deeper connection between those two characters?

It was to create a symmetry around Steve, with him as the centre of gravity. The idea was that Steve is caught in the middle of these two characters who are fighting an ideological battle for Steve’s loyalty.

Ted and John even drink the same drink – neat whiskey – and wasn’t it the exact same shot of them drinking along at the nightclub, same seat, same angle?

That’s right, although it has to be said [laughs] that there were a limited number of seats in those scenes that were right for the composition of the shots and the lighting. I think that I am actually going to put that one down to the needs of the production and the fact that those seats were lit and ready to go for the next scene.

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Corbett’s obsession with bent coppers makes him Ted squared though, doesn’t it?

That obviously feeds into his past. He believes that it was a form of police corruption that led to his mother’s murder.

But isn’t he a character that takes the thing we admire about Ted Hastings – his probity – and pushes it to an extreme that makes him very dangerous, ideologically?

It’s actually much more that it makes his motivation plausible. He’s vulnerable to the manipulation that Gill presents to him. If he were a more measured character who didn’t have that backstory, it’s less plausible that he would have gone on the journey that he does.

Once you told me that too much reliance on backstory can kill forward momentum. Were you at all trepidatious about going back into the Belfast and RUC connections?

The reason that I felt it was worth doing was because it created an important story in the present. Rather than creating a situation where a key event in Hastings’ past – the kidnapping of Anne-Marie – was the pivotal event in his psychological breakdown, it was creating an event in the present, which is his complicity in Corbett’s death. The thing that, at the end of series five, that is most damaging psychologically to Hastings is the fact that Anne-Marie’s son was killed and he may have had a hand in it, whether inadvertently or not. And the audience has shared that experience with him, so it’s much more vivid to the audience.

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Because detail is so important to the show and fans pick over the lines, do you and your directors require word-perfect script performances or do you allow flexibility? I’m thinking about bringing in an actor with Stephen Graham’s background, whose work with Shane Meadows involved a lot of collaboration and improvisation.

There is flexibility. Stephen’s great because he brings so much. The way it worked during the shoot is that when Stephen was learning his lines, he would get in touch with me and talk through anything that he wanted to change, because he’s very diligent and was scrupulously aware that he didn’t want to change anything that might be important plot-wise. Those things were always discussed and once we’d reached a resolution on that, I’d pass that on to the directors. And often I’m on set, so if something is going off-piste slightly, I can get involved in that discussion. Or if I’m off-set, usually someone will give me a call and we can talk it through. It’s great that people do include me, because everyone’s committed to making sure that we don’t inadvertently make a mistake.

You had conversations like that with Polly Walker too? When Gill tells Ted “it’s complicated” in that finale scene, you and Polly have a backstory sketched out, in the same way that you did with Maya [Sondhi] and Maneet’s actions in series four, as to why and how she became corrupt?

That’s exactly right. I met with Polly before we started shooting, when we were just having talks about her returning for series five and we had a coffee and a quick chat and I filled her in on what the arc was and how it related to her past. She had that template already in her mind. Then when we were on set, if there were any specifics, we would talk about them and that was a very useful process.

So even if we the audience are never going to see Gill Biggeloe again, that backstory does exist?

It’s important that the actor doesn’t feel like they’re working in a vacuum. If the actor is told ‘oh, it’s a secret, just play it this way or that way’ it’s a bit patronising. I think you have to bring the actor into your thinking and explain things. I was very clear with Maya in series four that Maneet’s was a family connection and she was protecting an errant cousin, without going into too much detail at that time, but that allowed her to understand why the character has feelings of guilt and shame and is conflicted, and it was the same with Polly in this series. She understood what was going on between the scenes, so that she could make the right dramatic choices when she was on set.

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The really important issue, then: Chicken Licken. Was there a symbolic significance to Steph reading that to her and John’s kids while he was having his throat slit at the end of episode four?

I had to write my own version of that story so that it wasn’t a copyright version and it is specific, yes. It’s specific in the sense that the fairy tale is about a creature that believes that the sky is falling in and wants to tell the highest authority in the land and is killed before the message can be passed on. So that’s the symbolism there.

Are you able to enjoy this stage of things, as the episodes are going out. Does this bit feel like the reward?

I think all of us involved in the series are thrilled with the way it’s gone down, we’re incredibly grateful with the response that we get from the audience.

When criticism is levelled at Line Of Duty, does some bristle more than others?

I’m pretty philosophical about the commentary that goes on. As I say, the data and commentary I value is the big numbers that relate to how tens of thousands of people, up to millions of people have responded to the work. Isolated commentary is something that occasionally comes across my vision and the only things that make me bristle are factual errors.

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If someone says ‘I don’t like the way they’re doing this, I don’t like the series’ or any other view that is a matter of opinion then that person’s opinion doesn’t concern me. However, if they distort facts or misrepresent facts or even invent facts in order to make a platform for their views then that is something that does concern me because I’m worried that sometimes those things can gain currency. For example there was a review of the series where a reviewer put forward an example of what, in his view, was preposterous plotting, but he’d invented something that had never happened in series four. That was something that I did take umbrage at and I put out a Tweet stating that this was a distortion.

I think I remember that. It was about [Roz Huntley’s] hand amputation happening mid-struggle with Tim Ifield, wasn’t it. People do get things wrong about the show.

People get things wrong about all kinds of things, but what they don’t do is then use their privileged platform without the due diligence of checking their facts, that’s what I object to.

If a journalist calls Line Of Duty too complex, you’d call that them scoring an own goal in admitting to not understanding it then?

No, that specific example was the person then doing the thing that they rarely do. When a critic or journalist writes ‘it’s too complex’ or ‘it’s full of plot holes’ they very rarely take the step of identifying what they mean. The reason they do that is to protect themselves, because they don’t want to reveal that they may have misunderstood or missed something. That particular reviewer decided to list all the thing he didn’t get and didn’t understand, and became a laughing stock because he clearly was incapable of watching even the most basic television show and picking up the plot points. That’s a person who shouldn’t be watching and writing about television and I’m surprised he wasn’t sacked.

Earlier in your career, you spent time out in America working on various pilot scripts for US cable networks and networks, including US remakes of Line Of Duty and Bodies. After the success of Bodyguard, are those channels now coming knocking?

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None of those things went forward into production, so at the time it was considered that for whatever reason by the commissioning networks that they didn’t want to add them to their production slate. In terms of how the situation is now, I’m very grateful that my profile in the US has been raised, principally by the success of Bodyguard on Netflix over there.

Are there things from your desk drawer that are able to come out now because of the success of Bodyguard?

It’s unlikely. Certainly that’s the advice I give to writers. I think that you can do yourself a disservice by going back into old work and trying to repackage it rather than doing something that you start with completely afresh which is more in tune with the point you’ve reached in your development as a writer and what’s going on in terms of your contemporary influences in the world around you. I’m not someone who tends to go back.

Line of Duty Series 5 and Complete 1 – 5 Box Set are out today on DVD. Get it on Amazon for £29.99