On the 22nd of July 2005, the day after a series of failed terrorist bombing attempts in the UK capital and a fortnight after fifty-two people had been killed in the London Underground bombings, a Metropolitan Police surveillance team misidentified Brazilian electrician Jean-Charles de Menezes as a fugitive terrorist and fatally shot him as he entered Stockwell Tube Station.
The aftermath of de Menezes’ death, the circumstances of which were the subject of intense press speculation in the run up to a 2008 inquest that resulted in no criminal prosecution for the officers involved, caught the imagination of screenwriter Jed Mercurio.
Previously the creator of Cardiac Arrest and Bodies, a pair of TV dramas that exposed troubling aspects of the modern public health service, Mercurio would use a fictional version of the de Menezes shooting as the way in to a drama that would give UK police procedure the same treatment. When policing goes tragically wrong, where along the line of command does the blame lie? When resources are allocated according to success rates, when cutbacks are made, and when targets are prioritised over public service, what is the fallout?
Mercurio dramatised these questions in Line of Duty, 2012’s gripping BBC Two thriller, currently being repeated on BBC One to fill the schedules emptied by the effects of COVID-19. Filmed in Birmingham and set in a bureaucracy-heavy, target-driven urban crime unit, Line of Duty tells the story of DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James), the head of a criminal investigative team whose results have won him the title of Officer of the Year.
As you might expect, over the course of the five hour drama, a question mark is hung over Gates’ suitability for the accolade. Is he the squeaky clean officer his target record suggests? Is his team the model unit they appear to be on paper? Asking those questions is DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), a recent transfer to Anti-Corruption, and an unwelcome newcomer to the Midlands unit. Who watches the watchmen? AC do, not that anybody thanks them for it.
Though core characters continue to the second series, Line of Duty’s first run works as a standalone drama. It’s a five-hour episodic story pivoting on the fulcrum of Tony Gates’ character. Is he really a bent cop, or a victim of circumstance? Along with the audience, AC-12’s position on Tony rotates from corrupt to clean (well, cleanish), from ally to enemy and back again.
Moving us through Gates’ many facets is Lennie James (The Walking Dead, Save Me), a stage and screen actor and writer whose talent is responsible in no small part for series one’s success. Even in Line Of Duty’s more sensational cop thriller moments, James’ performance as Gates is varied, layered and credible. Gates is a family man and he’s an adulterer, he’s a careerist surrounded by cronies and – to borrow from The Wire – he’s good police. All of those aspects James plays with absolute conviction.
Joining James in the ranks of talented cast are Vicky McClure and Martin Compston as DS Fleming and DS Arnott. When series one aired in 2012, both young actors were better known for indie film and, in McClure’s case, improvised drama (she was heart-breaking as Lol in Shane Meadows’ This Is England series) and perhaps because of that, both bring that sense of naturalism to the often clichéd world of TV crime drama. Over the next four series, each one a steadily growing word-of-mouth hit for the BBC, McClure and Compston have become beloved by fans and are now indissociable from their AC-12 double-act. (The surrounding cast just continues to improve too, with guest stars in later series including Keeley Hawes, Daniel Mays, Thandie Newton and Stephen Graham.)
In Line of Duty, we meet young, optimistic police, and jaded, unsympathetic box-tickers. There are officers driven by a strong sense of duty, and those in it just for the pension and to repay personal debts. We see the police both hamstrung by, and choosing to, prioritise paperwork and statistics over justice. There are so many tiny derelictions of duty fringing the central corruption investigation that it’s no wonder active police weren’t happy to advise on the drama; it doesn’t flatter the profession.
There are, however, enough good-hearted, sound-thinking characters for the series not to be an attack on modern policing. It’s an empathetic precinct drama with things to say about loyalty and the difficulty of taking an ethical stand.
Gina McKee, Craig Parkinson, Adrian Dunbar, Paul Higgins and TV’s Neil Morrissey all slot in without a glitch around James, Compston and McClure’s central trio. That the cast has no weak links carries Line of Duty over scenes set in a one-dimensional ‘sink estate’ populated, it seems, solely by prostitute mums, feral kids and crack-dealing young black men in hoodies.
That said, if you were to tick off how many of the crime drama clichés lampooned by Charlie Brooker and Daniel Maier in their sharply observed 2012-14 A Touch of Cloth spoofs appear in Line of Duty, its score card would be sparse. Not empty, mind you, but it sits high above the watermark for the genre.
Yes, there are shock cliff-hangers, yes, every so often a character will thump his chest and declare himself a “proper copper” and yes, the title is spoken aloud in a crucial final scene, but those are rare moments of broadly drawn cop show stuff. It’s the drama’s quieter insights and stand-out performances that stay with you.
Line of Duty is so well-made a drama with such a sage perspective about modern policing that its few frustrations – the undeveloped junior officers, its tabloid vision of estate life, Gates’ wife’s lack of any kind of character – are perhaps felt more keenly than they would were it just any other crime thriller. It does so much so well that its brief dips seem all the more noticeable.
By having an agenda other than using violent crime to shock and titillate, Line of Duty stands almost alone as a UK police thriller. It examines the bureaucratic culture of modern policing alongside the slit throats, detached fingers and freezer-stuffed bodies. If you weren’t among the 4.1 million-strong UK audience for Line of Duty back in 2012, or the millions more who joined between then and the mega-hit fifth series in 2019, now is the perfect time to get on board.
Line of Duty series one is currently being repeated at 9pm on BBC One on Monday and Tuesday nights.