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Interview: In the Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio

From the Archive: In 2007 Teddy Jamieson talked to Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio about writing for TV and his previous life as a doctor

In the Line of Duty
In the Line of Duty

Jed Mercurio is discussing the nature of psychopathy. It's a Tuesday afternoon in London and the writer behind at least one commercially successful television series (Cardiac Arrest, the programme that made a star of Helen Baxendale), one critically acclaimed television series (Bodies, the not-long-finished medical series that should have made Max Beesley much better known) and the odd commercial and creative disaster (Invasion Earth - you may have forgotten this one, and if you have Mercurio won't be too worried) is taking issue with my description of the central character of his new novel Ascent.

Psychopathic? Monomaniacal? Neither of us is a trained psychologist so maybe we're not the right people to come to for definitions in Yefgeni's case, although Mercurio is a qualified doctor (and also once trained as a pilot), so perhaps he can talk with slightly more authority than me (I have read Silence of the Lambs, though). What we both can agree on, though, is that his fictional pilot-turned-cosmonaut can be said to be driven. To say the least. And, cue crunching gear-shift, you could say the same about Mercurio. The evidence? There's those high-powered, high- adrenalin jobs for a start. He's done his time in the medical front line and, like his latest creation, knows what it's like to fly in jet fighters closer to the ground than is surely sensible. (As far as I know, he has never blinded anyone with his thumb. Then again, I didn't specifically ask him . . . )

Mercurio has worked, and writes about men (and it's usually men) who work. "There are some writers who don't write about people who do jobs, " he says. "I'm not going to name them but you watch one of their films or you read one of their books and you think, 'What job do they do?' They seem to have a nice house and a nice income. How have they got it? Whereas I write precinct dramas where it's not about what goes on in the home so much as what goes on in some kind of institution. So I would be very surprised if I ever wrote something where the protagonist or protagonists weren't very work-orientated people. Because I am. Most of the most challenging aspects of my life involved work. The part of my life where my character was defined was at work because of the decisions I make and the things I do, and I guess that's what I feel qualifies me and attracts me to write the characters I do."

Those who did catch the dark and desolate Bodies on BBC3 will have an all-too-clear sense of what one character describes as "shitty hospital politics" (albeit exaggerated for dramatic effect). Patients' lives come a distant second to the weightier issue of professional jealousies. They are sometimes even used as pawns in said rivalries. At the start of the second series Keith Allen's character, a consultant, dumps a patient with a low platelet count on his much-loathed rival, played by Patrick Baladi, in the explicit hope the woman dies at his hands on the operating table. Mercurio once wrote of his former profession: "In my own experience, the job breeds cynicism and gallows humour. Some staff become traumatised. Some become dysfunctional. A small number of doctors and nurses are incompetent and get away with it for years, while their colleagues turn a blind eye."

Jed Mercurio is discussing the nature of psychopathy. It's a Tuesday afternoon in London and the writer behind at least one commercially successful television series (Cardiac Arrest, the programme that made a star of Helen Baxendale), one critically acclaimed television series (Bodies, the not-long-finished medical series that should have made Max Beesley much better known) and the odd commercial and creative disaster (Invasion Earth - you may have forgotten this one, and if you have Mercurio won't be too worried) is taking issue with my description of the central character of his new novel Ascent.

Given we first encounter Yefgeni Yeremin as a boy in Stalingrad in 1946 bursting the eyeball of the orphanage bully with his thumb, then follow him to Korea where he ruthlessly shoots down more American jets than any of his Soviet colleagues in a war that the Russians are officially not involved in (though he runs too low on fuel and so has to forego a chance to bag a Sabre flown by a certain future astronaut Buzz Aldrin) - all the while struggling to feel anything the rest of us might call a normal emotion - it seems to me he qualifies for the description psychopath.

Mercurio isn't so sure. "I don't think he's psychopathic, " he says with all the emphatic oomph a West Midlands accent allows. "I wanted someone who was incredibly monomaniacal and would attempt to succeed at all costs, mainly to himself rather than to others. And I'm just attracted to that kind of character. People being prepared to risk or sacrifice in order to achieve what they want."

Psychopathic? Monomaniacal? Neither of us is a trained psychologist so maybe we're not the right people to come to for definitions in Yefgeni's case, although Mercurio is a qualified doctor (and also once trained as a pilot), so perhaps he can talk with slightly more authority than me (I have read Silence of the Lambs, though). What we both can agree on, though, is that his fictional pilot-turned-cosmonaut can be said to be driven. To say the least. And, cue crunching gear-shift, you could say the same about Mercurio. The evidence? There's those high-powered, high- adrenalin jobs for a start. He's done his time in the medical front line and, like his latest creation, knows what it's like to fly in jet fighters closer to the ground than is surely sensible. (As far as I know, he has never blinded anyone with his thumb. Then again, I didn't specifically ask him . . . )

Mercurio has worked, and writes about men (and it's usually men) who work. "There are some writers who don't write about people who do jobs, " he says. "I'm not going to name them but you watch one of their films or you read one of their books and you think, 'What job do they do?' They seem to have a nice house and a nice income. How have they got it? Whereas I write precinct dramas where it's not about what goes on in the home so much as what goes on in some kind of institution. So I would be very surprised if I ever wrote something where the protagonist or protagonists weren't very work-orientated people. Because I am. Most of the most challenging aspects of my life involved work. The part of my life where my character was defined was at work because of the decisions I make and the things I do, and I guess that's what I feel qualifies me and attracts me to write the characters I do."

As you might guess, Mercurio lives to work rather than works to live. He is a family man (he has two children. Are they girls or boys? "I don't want to get into all that. I want to be one of those serious, moody writers") but it sounds as if work comes first. "I'm always thinking about my work, always thinking about where it's taking me."

Ask him about his ambitions and he'll not talk about being a better father but rather he'll mention his desire to direct a movie, or write a great novel. He's not sure Ascent is it. Me neither. But it is good, if very much a bloke's book. It's about men and machines, coolly violent yet invested with a strain of boyish idealism in its vision of the space race, a vision of frail men and frail machines lost in the vastness of space.

Spend any time with Mercurio, as I do today in the offices of independent TV company Hat Trick Productions somewhere in the vastness of Soho, and he comes across as something of a bloke himself (if we define blokeishness as technically minded, football loving and good humoured, though prepared to answer questions with a simple and brusque yes or no, or at one point a "don't know, don't care"). He looks the part, that's certain. His physiognomy (that proud nose) and surname are Italian, courtesy of his parents, his fashion sense fashion casual (a Kenzo Homme T-shirt and jeans). He sounds it too, his accent still mostly redolent of his childhood in Cannock just outside Wolverhampton ("Not one of the most appealing environments in the world, " he admits. "I'm stopping short of saying it's a s-hole, but I think lots of us have those kinds of thoughts about our home towns and can't wait to get away. And I couldn't wait to get away." He lives in London now).

But scratch any bloke and there's usually a boy somewhere near the surface. Ascent is, for all its darkness and danger, some kind of proof of that, because it taps into Mercurio's childhood fascination with space exploration. Born in 1966, he was too young to be aware of the moon landing, but, he recalls, as well as watching Star Trek, "I used to write to Nasa and they would send me batches of photographs and mission reports from their Apollo, Gemini and Mercury missions. I also read widely on the subject of manned space travel. The only practical thing I did was observe the moon through binoculars, charting its features against maps of the seas, mountains and craters."

And when he was old enough, and already studying to be a doctor, he spent three years flying with the university air squadron at RAF Cosford in Shropshire. "I think I did about 150 hours of flying and about 15 to 20 of those were on Hawks which were the jet trainers the Red Arrows use." What was the appeal, I ask. Was it some throwback to those childhood dreams of escaping the earth? "Yeah, partly that, but that quickly disappears when you get into the business of flying. I just enjoyed the technical challenge of it."

Then a couple of moments later he admits, "It's a classic boy's thing of being in an aeroplane with a big engine under you and a stick that you waggle. You can't disguise the fact that that's fun."

He won't tell me how fast he went, won't tell me if he ever buzzed cars or cattle while flying low-level exercises over north Wales, but he will say the experience was intense. The end of the Cold War rather scuppered the notion, but he did seriously consider a career in aviation medicine for a while. "If things had gone well and I had become a medical officer pilot in the RAF I certainly wouldn't be writing now, " he says.

For anyone who remembers Cardiac Arrest, which aired in the early 1990s, or was able to watch (probably through half-covered eyes) the climax of his bloody yet brilliant medical drama Bodies just before Christmas ("probably the most powerful 90 minutes of drama on any channel all year" one notable critic raved) that would have been a disaster for British television drama. That's something Mikhail Gorbachev doesn't get enough credit for if you ask me.

Although he would later create two television dramas that played up the murkier, messier side of hospitals, Mercurio admits he was drawn to a career in medicine because of the idealised vision he imbibed from the small screen. "I probably exaggerate it a bit now for effect, " he says, but admits, "I would say it's certainly a factor. I certainly fell for that romanticised, idealised image of medicine that was portrayed in medical drama, and to be honest I didn't have any other clues about what medicine would be like. No- one in my family was medical at that time. I had very little contact with hospitals and GPs - I was healthy - so there wasn't any of that."

He remembers watching the 1980s US medical drama St Elsewhere religiously, and before that the Doctor in the House films and TV series. "They were a very vivid evocation of what you might consider to be an idealised view of British hospital life." So he had a rather rose-tinted vision of his chosen profession then? "Yeah." How long did it last? "It lasted all through medical school, which might seem surprising but that does seem to be the situation with medical students. They do retain their idealism right to the end despite the fact they're on the wards and they're exposed to cynicism and a little bit of the darker side of hospital life. It doesn't seem to have much impact on medical students."

It wore off, though, in "just a matter of days" once he became a houseman. "You are exposed to the interprofessional relationships within the hospital that as a medical student you were completely sheltered from, " he says. "You are just patronised by everybody as a medical student and that's that. You assume that's your lot. But when you become a doctor you find relationships are much more complex between doctors and other doctors, and doctors and other professionals. And on top of that you have a much more complex relationship with patients. As a medical student you always have a get-out: 'I'm just a medical student.' As a doctor you don't have that get-out. It's your job, it's your responsibility, so all these factors begin to weigh incredibly heavily on your life."

Those who did catch the dark and desolate Bodies on BBC3 will have an all-too-clear sense of what one character describes as "shitty hospital politics" (albeit exaggerated for dramatic effect). Patients' lives come a distant second to the weightier issue of professional jealousies. They are sometimes even used as pawns in said rivalries. At the start of the second series Keith Allen's character, a consultant, dumps a patient with a low platelet count on his much-loathed rival, played by Patrick Baladi, in the explicit hope the woman dies at his hands on the operating table. Mercurio once wrote of his former profession: "In my own experience, the job breeds cynicism and gallows humour. Some staff become traumatised. Some become dysfunctional. A small number of doctors and nurses are incompetent and get away with it for years, while their colleagues turn a blind eye."

Traumatised, dysfunctional, incompetent, complicit. These are hefty charges. How many would have applied to him in his days on the ward? "If I used those words I would certainly qualify them with 'that only applies to some people', " he says. Duly qualified. Even so, he adds, "I think there were times in my career where I would fit into all of them. You quickly realise that mistakes are part of the package. As a doctor I never found I was even remotely surprised to be honest with you."

Such flaws are not particular to the NHS, he reckons. "I think it's something that's universal to institutions. I think if you look at any large organisation - a multinational company or a television broadcaster or a military operation - you can see the same things that I write about when I write about the dysfunctionalism of the NHS." Indeed, one of the commonest reactions to Bodies from people in the TV industry, he says, is that it's his commentary on life at the BBC.

He rather lucked into writing Cardiac Arrest after responding to an advert in the British Medical Journal. He had gone to a meeting to discuss medical humour - because of his "very amateurish" background in writing for medical revues - and ended up talking about the failings of medical drama. That ultimately resulted in Cardiac Arrest, which ran for three series, suggested the saintly doctors and nurses who work in the health service might have tarnished halos and so prompted the then health secretary Virginia Bottomley to attack the programme in the News of the World.

By the third series Mercurio had decided to opt out of medicine (and by then any notion of a military career) for a career in writing. The hours are easier for a start. He once said, "If you have the brains to be a doctor you should have the intelligence to realise you should be doing something else." Still, given that on a purely utilitarian basis writing possibly isn't as useful to society as being a doctor, you wonder if there was any guilt involved in that career change. "No, not at all. It's a question I'm often asked. Sometimes I'm asked to apologise. But I just honestly felt it was my decision. It wasn't like I was sitting around doing nothing. I was contributing to the economy and things like that so I felt fine about it."

He didn't feel fine about his next steps in television. He created the 1970s-set sitcom The Grimleys for ITV, though the relationship with the broadcaster wasn't what he'd call productive, and then there was his Scotland-based Invasion Earth. Not, it's safe to say, his finest hour. He gives a plaintive sigh when I bring it up. What went wrong? "How long have you got? I would divide what went wrong into stuff that I did wrong and what the other bastards did wrong. And in a sense of fairness I should probably divide it equally. But as time goes by I really think it's more their fault."

The problem, he says, was an industry problem. In the course of its development the BBC went through three controllers and each one kept moving the goalposts. What started out as an out-and-out science-fiction series became a thriller with sci-fi elements and a dark, postwatershed vision before being rebooted as family-friendly prime-time fodder. "It was a kind of creative football and I don't really think I had the knowledge base and the skills to manage those opinions. I would stand a better chance now of protecting the project."

There are no shortage of projects on the cards for Mercurio, including a modern-day version of Frankenstein that ITV is currently considering (think stem cell technology). Most are at too early a stage for him to say anything about, though. He likes working in television, he says, because he likes being part of a team. And it gets him out of the house. Plus his income is more predictable. All of which is entertainingly anti-idealistic and not the kind of thing writers tend to say.

That said, if you really press him it's the idea of writing a great novel that really animates Mercurio. "Very little television lasts, but the novel is the thing that, if it's a success, stays around for years and years. I suppose that is probably what attracts me to the novel, the idea of doing something that stays around and is read in the future. I know I can do good work but what's left is to do something that makes a massive impact.

"If you were a footballer you wouldn't want to play for Stirling Albion. You'd want to play for a decent team. You'd want to win the World Cup. And I think it's the same for writers. You want to score the equivalent of a World Cup winning goal."

That is a very blokey answer, isn't it? But you can also see the boy in him peeking out.

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