The creator of Line of Duty, Jed Mercurio, has launched a passionate defence of the BBC before the return of his acclaimed police corruption drama to BBC2 this month.
“I think we all know there’s an anti-BBC agenda in certain areas of the press,” says Mercurio. “Sometimes it’s just boring in its inevitability and then every now and then it really crosses a line. I think comments about The Great British Bake Off– the chocolate mosque comments – really crossed a line and I think thatcomments about London Spy have crossed a line.
“There was a comment in the Telegraph about my adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in which someone said I’d replaced the story with BBC agitprop – but that just made me think it was written by someone who doesn’t know what agitprop means and who probably had an expensive education, but low intelligence.”
Mercurio, 49, also remains irritated by criticism of the downbeat conclusion to the second series of Line of Duty, which revealed that Keeley Hawes’s enigmatic detective inspector Lindsay Denton was guilty of the crimes of which she had been accused, albeit for understandable reasons.
“I’m not alone as a programme maker in getting fed up with certain newspapers ripping unfavourable commentary off Twitter and trying to make a story out of that,” he says. “Twitter has such a spectrum of opinion that you can find people on the site who hate the most brilliant thing and people who love the worst.
“People are obviously entitled to put their opinion on social media, but the fact that certain newspapers then collect it all up and use it to say a programme has done badly … it’s like the bully’s sidekick in the school playground, like that weak kid who latches on to the bully and watches while they beat someone up, and I think it’s got to stop.”
He adds that the obsession with social media could have a detrimental effect on younger writers.
“It doesn’t affect people who are as experienced as I am, but I do talk about this to other show runners and we are all of the same opinion – that we all despise this new feature of television journalism, where Twitter is seen as a way of judging the success or otherwise of a show,” he says.
“I think it’s potentially damaging to less experienced writers. I certainly know that when I did [the 90s medical drama] Cardiac Arrest, which was a pretty controversial piece, there was a lot of negative coverage in the Daily Mail and theDaily Express. The rightwing press really slagged it off and that was a political decision, nothing to do with the artistic quality of the programme. Fortunately the show was successful enough that it didn’t affect me, but God knows how I would have reacted if there’d been the amount of commentary back then that’s around today.”
Why does he think it failed to find fans? “The goriness was a big factor,” he admits. “I’m not at all squeamish, but others are. It was a big part of the series that it would have an unblinking gaze, but I think it probably was too unflinching for a mainstream audience.”
The third series of Line of Duty will follow the fictional AC-12 anti-corruption unit after it is called in to investigate the fallout after an armed response unit call-out goes wrong. Mercurio admits that cases such as the 2005 shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and the death of Mark Duggan in 2011 were at the back of his mind while he was writing, but “neither case bears any relationship” to the show’s fictional story.
“It seemed to me to be an important issue that we hadn’t yet touched on in the show,” he says. “There have been a number of cases in recent years where firearms have been deployed and people have lost their lives, and that felt like an interesting thing to explore.
“I wanted to reflect not only the controlled use of guns and firearms within the force, but also the fact that there’s an enormous amount of legal backing for police officers using firearms to kill people – our lead character, Danny Waldron [Daniel Mays], can quote chapter and verse of the regulations for the use of those firearms.”
While the show is celebrated for its unflinching take on internal cover-ups and institutional corruption, Mercurio admits his plots cannot compete with real life. “If you actually showed these institutions to be as corrupt and incompetent as they occasionally have been, then the audience would never believe it,” he said.
“When I wrote [the critically acclaimed medical drama] Bodies we focused on an individual who was negligent. If we’d done something that was more likeMorecambe Bay obstetrics unit [where an investigation into neonatal deaths found a longstanding culture of incompetence and collusion] people would have said, ‘That’s crazy, that would never happen’.”
But Line of Duty does not ignore the idea of widespread corruption. “Police corruption stories are easier to tell if they’re about individual officers, but behind that is a deeper issue,” he says. “Every series of this show looks at the fact that those officers have been enabled by their institutions, and that the people at the top of those institutions are either turning a blind eye or failing in their due diligence in stopping individual officers from committing those crimes.”
Line of Duty starts on BBC2 at 9pm on 24 March