Mercurio Rising: From Bodies to Line of Duty, the climb of the UK TV showrunner
Ian Winterton | On 12, May 2019Reading time: 8 mins
With Line of Duty Season 5 having reached its conclusion, fans of the show will be feeling withdrawal symptoms. Happily, various UK streaming services are chock-a-block with writer-creator Jed Mercurio’s back catalogue of hard-hitting dramas. We look back at the climb of the UK’s answer to American-style showrunners.
Born in Nelson, Lancashire in 1966, Mercurio attended medical school and, while still a student, also became a commissioned pilot officer in Royal Air Force Medical Branch. It was expected – by everyone including himself – that he would specialise in aviation medicine. But the God of Writers had other plans for him.
“I was a fan [of TV],” he explains in a BBC Writersroom interview, “but I never expected it to translate into being part of the industry.”
The Mercurio Formula
However, his interest in TV drama led to him responding to an innocuous advert in the British Medical Journal calling for medical professionals to help create a new TV drama. This led to hospital drama Cardiac Arrest that first gave the world the mix of flawed characters, gripping plotlines and uncompromisingly gritty tone that have become Mercurio hallmarks. As well as featuring dedicated professionals working, often within the confines of maddening bureaucracy, Mercurio’s shows always display a refreshing gender parity – for every guy there is an equally competent, hardworking and (often) messed-up woman. No intentional equality campaigner, Mercurio puts this down to the reality of his own working life.
“I think of my characters as gender neutral,” he says. “I’ve worked in institutions where there was… no real difference between the jobs men and women did and so, because my characters tend to be in a professional setting, it always feels completely open to me whether a character would be male or female.”
The Thin Blue Line
After a sojourn into sitcom (The Grimleys) and sci-fi (Invasion Earth), Mercurio returned to medical drama with the superb Bodies, and then moved his gaze onto the other TV staple: the cop show.
“I loved shows like The Shield and Hill Street Blues,” he says, “and some of the British shows like Between The Lines, and Cops, and I’d always been attracted to the idea of something that was a little more action-packed and more of a thriller than other series I’d written.”
The result was Line of Duty, revolving around AC-12, a fictional anti-corrption police unit, with Mercurio feeling that “cops investigating cops” would give the series a “unique texture”. It immediately garnered great ratings for BBC Two, as well as critical plaudits, awards and – most importantly – a dedicated fanbase. Another four seasons followed with the opening episode of Season 5 racking up a colossal 13.2 million viewers. (Read our reviews of Season 5 here.)
Prior to that, of course, there came The Bodyguard – a high-octane thriller that gripped the nation and brought the name Jed Mercurio well and truly into the mainstream…
We look back at Mercurio’s back catalogue – and where you can watch it online.
Bodies: Season 1 and 2 (2004-2006)
This Life meets Holby City, Bodies is quite possibly the best British TV medical drama ever. That’s not saying much, admittedly, but this hard-hitting drama set in a gynaecological ward is darkly funny (“I’m not taking the blame if this baby comes out looking like a muppet”) and – if all the child birth doesn’t put you off – sexy. The initial plot centres on newcomer Rob (Beesley) struggling with his conscience in the face of his negligent surgeon boss (Baladi). It’s gripping stuff, brilliantly acted. Best of all, though, is Allen’s womanising, apathetic chief surgeon who, when not fudging figures to please the administration, sighs wearily that “it’s just vag after vag…” Criminally cancelled after two seasons – just as rivalry between Rob and his useless boss reached a life-threatening peak — Bodies is Mercurio at his very best. (Read our review here.)
Bodies: Seasons 1 and 2 are available on BBC iPlayer until March 2020.
Critical: Season 1 (2015)
Mercurio returned to hospital for this Sky Original based in a trauma unit. Each episode constructed around the ‘golden hour’ – those 60 minutes when severely injured patients would either die or stand a good chance of surviving. It shows Mercurio in full command of his storytelling powers, as he deftly weaves story-of-the-week accidents together with ongoing drama, intrigue and even romance within his trauma team. The cast, headed up by Lennie ‘The Walking Dead’ James and Claire ‘Outnumbered’ Skinner is superb, but the real stars of the show are the special effects – never on British TV has medical gore been depicted in all its bloody, stomach-churning glory. Perhaps, though, the viscera was too much for audiences; ratings weren’t great and those squeamish wimps at Sky chose not to renew the show. A real shame. (Read our full review.)
Critical: Season 1 is available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can watch it online with NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with a 7-day free trial for new customers.
Mercurio’s biggest hit is, inevitably, his silliest. The near-hysterical mix of suicide bombers, political intrigue and steamy sex did not go down well with more discerning viewers but they – along with the rest of the UK – continued to tune in each week just to see where the ludicrous plot would go next. (Read our full review.)
Bodyguard is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Strike Back: Season 1 (2010)
A Sky/Cinemax drama, as Mercurio and a writing team turn ex-SAS novelist Chris Ryan’s page-turners into their televisual equivalent. Depicting the missions of fictional UK special-ops unit Section 20, it centres on hero Richard Armitage, who basically plays the same chiselled and troubled hero as he did in Spooks. It’s bombastic and gung-ho, yes, but Mercurio’s gritty realism and three-dimensional characters, ensure its OTT scenarios remain compelling. Made in 2010 for a million quid, the show’s slick and fast-moving, and Season 1 also boasts a first-rate supporting cast that includes Andrew Lincoln just before The Walking Dead came a-calling. It has since continued for six more seasons.
Strike Back is available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can watch it online with NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with a 7-day free trial for new customers.
Line of Duty: Season 1 (2012)
The superb first series that brought Arnott, Fleming and their gruff boss Hastings (“like the battle”) to our screens. Following him accidentally offing an innocent man, Arnott is transferred from anti-terrorism to anti-corruption unit AC-12 and he and his colleagues are soon mired in the case of bent copper DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James). It’s a rattling good story, with first-rate characterisation and – with its end of season reveal that the corruption goes right to the top – sure to get viewers clicking immediately onto Season 2. (Read our full review.)
Line of Duty: Season 2 (2014)
By far the best iteration of Line of Duty, as Mercurio builds on the brilliance of Season 1 by putting AC-12 up against morally compromised (and maybe full-on bent) detective Lindsay Denton. Keeley Hawes is at her absolute best – which is saying something – and the twisty-turny plot and characterisation is the highpoint of Mercurio’s astonishing career. (Read our full review.)
Line of Duty: Season 3 (2016)
Almost as good as Season 2, this sees the gang getting tantalisingly close to the high-up corruption, as the organised crime group – including scary Balaclava Man – start to pile on the pressure. Knife-edge tension, and some high-profile surprise deaths, make this the season when viewers were most likely to shout, “Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooo waaaaaay!” at their TVs. (Read our full review.)
Line of Duty: Season 4 (2017)
Making the switch from BBC Two to BBC One marked the point when, for many, Line of Duty became a pastiche of itself. There’s still a gripping thriller here, but this tale of morally compromised DCI Huntley (Thandie Newton) and her gammy arm often edges into camp. Of course, the general public loved it. (Read our full review.)
Line of Duty is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription, or until 31st May 2019 on BBC iPlayer.
Not currently available to stream, the following shows further demonstrate that Mercurio isn’t all cops, crims and docs on drugs – he does sci-fi and literary period pieces too.
Cardiac Arrest (1994–96)
The hospital drama that made Mercurio’s name, it remains a gripping character-led story full of professional people under immense strain and some brilliantly grisly gore.
Invasion: Earth (1998)
Mercurio always cites Star Trek as the show that nurtured his love of TV drama, and his 1998 contribution to sci-fi is good. Sadly, it sank without trace on broadcast and, pre-streaming, didn’t find a second home. Starring British acting stalwarts Anton ‘Qyburn’ Lesser, Vincent Regan (300, Clash of the Titans) and Maggie O’Neill (Shameless, East Enders), perhaps now is the time.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover (2015)
Richard Madden pops up all gruff and northern as the titular lover in 1920s England. It’s as far from Line of duty as you can get but is an excellent adaptation of DH Lawrence’s proto-porn novel.