I recall a Controller of BBC1, when hearing I was working on a science-fiction series, advise: “Don’t bother with that. You want to do a cop show or a medical drama.” He probably had something fairly conventional in mind. In a recent post on the Guardian website, Mark Lawson wrote that viewers are entitled to fear there can be nothing new to say or show about the police.

A few years ago, having been hooked on The Shield, I became taken with the idea there was a way to do the cop show that broke the mould in the way my medical dramas had, most recently Bodies. My first, Cardiac Arrest, had been produced by World Productions. Long after that series ended, they kept inviting me back to their Christmas parties. Over a number of these parties, two maybe three, I discussed the idea of a cop show with World’s Creative Director and fellow Brummie, Simon Heath. World have an admirable track record in this area – The Cops and Between the Lines to name but two. We agreed that, like the medical drama, the cop show was a crowded genre. But, paradoxically, that would make it feel a safe choice for commissioners. The trick would be to get them interested in a series that dealt with the dark underbelly of policing. Ostensibly, this seemed possible, given there have been successful series in the past (as opposed to medicine, where it’s hard to come up with any). This all happened about three years ago. 

Recent controversies inspired my thought process, the most vivid being the death of Jean Charles de Menezes. Amid the noise of pro- and anti-police propaganda, I saw a precinct drama. It took guts for those firearms officers to enter the tube train. They genuinely believed de Menezes was a suicide bomber. They got within a few feet of him fearing he could blow them to bits, but they did it anyway, to protect the public. But at the inquest the police didn’t trust the public to judge them fairly. The coroner even referred to the lies of two police witnesses. It took guts for those officers to board that train, guts most of us don’t have, and they deserve our respect and admiration; but the lies dishonoured the service. This dichotomy made me realise it’s possible to have contrary opinions about the police even in the context of a single event. And this is the way to create a precinct drama that plays with the audience’s empathies. They can root for the hero and they can root for the villain, because ultimately the difference between the two can boil down to a couple of bad decisions.

I didn’t want to do a police bashing series. As in my medical dramas, I wanted to explore how decent people, who generally enter public service for idealistic reasons, could somehow slip off track and commit misconduct, even commit crimes. In the past, corrupt officers were on the take. Now that’s relatively rare. Corruption as it exists today leans more towards so-called process corruption. And in many cases it results from a miasma of cynicism circulating round the processes of law enforcement. 

Our research revealed that modern policing is a far cry from the familiar world of most police dramas. Police procedures have been transformed by a target culture that dictates which crimes get investigated – and which don’t. Forces across the country routinely drop one in three reported crimes to concentrate on cases that can be solved within a workable timeframe by workable manpower. Temporary initiatives prioritise certain offences; once targets are met, these offences are downgraded so resources can be directed towards meeting the next initiative. Meanwhile whole departments are dedicated to monitoring these fluctuating crime figures. These revelations provided the perfect setting for a thriller, the less familiar precinct wherein the police police themselves.

In 2009, we took the idea to Patrick Spence at BBC Northern Ireland. Patrick liked the idea and commissioned a pilot script. Work on the pilot script took about six months. There were a good number of drafts and polishes, but only one major change during the development process. It was felt the piece would be more original if it dealt less with conventional organised crime and more with white-collar crime. (This led to the creation of the character of Jackie Laverty, played by Gina McKee, the mistress of the cop under investigation, played by Lennie James.) Ben Stephenson, Controller of Drama Commissioning, approved the pilot script in early 2010 and in December we got the green light for production of five hours for BBC2.

The remaining scripts were written in the first half of 2011. By then, Stephen Wright had succeeded Patrick Spence at BBC NI. Stephen and Simon were the executive producers and Kirstie Macdonald was the script editor. We also involved various police officers, mostly retired, as technical advisors.

Jed Mercurio with Line of Duty's Director of Photography, Ruairi O'Brien.

I would deliver outlines to the production team and receive their notes before moving on to the first draft of each script. The outlines were usually about 5 pages long and would list each major event/scene of the episode. I took the approach that the series should be written in a way that closely modelled how the audience would watch the series. Therefore, when I was working on, say, Episode 3, I wouldn’t reveal to the team what happens in Episode 4. Episode 3 would have to work in its own right. It couldn’t be slack or slow with the excuse that things pick up in the next instalment. Once the scripts were in good shape, we sought further technical advice and legal advice.

In real constabularies, the relevant department that is the subject of Line of Duty is called Professional Standards. However, Line of Duty is set in a fictional anticorruption department, AC-12, in order to prevent any unintentional resemblance to actual units, cases or individuals. Furthermore, although the series was shot in Birmingham, it’s set in an unspecified British city; nor is the constabulary ever named. One of the most pleasing aspects of the production was to shoot in locations familiar from my med school days. It was a strange feeling, filming a night scene in Selly Oak High Street with a television crew and famous actors in tow, when twenty years ago at that time of night I would’ve been stumbling around in search of a kebab.

AC-12 is headed by the zealous Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), who recruits Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), veteran of an ill-fated counterterrorism operation (the de Menezes connection). Arnott took an ethical stand against colleagues who wanted to conspire in a cover-up. Ostracised as a result, Arnott is seen by Hastings as the perfect candidate for anticorruption work. AC-12’s target is the gifted, charismatic Detective Chief Inspector Tony Gates (Lennie James), whose unit returns the best crime figures on the force. Gates appears to be an exemplary police officer, but Hastings is convinced Gates’ results are too good to be true (the process corruption connection). Over five hour-long episodes, Arnott and Gates become embroiled in a cat-and-mouse thriller. Every time Gates seems cornered, he finds a way to turn the tables. But all the time he’s digging a bigger hole for himself, plunging irrevocably into a moral abyss.

Police counter-terrorism officers have been involved in a surveillance operation on a suspected terrorist cell.

Line Of Duty is first and foremost a thriller. But I hope it will also be seen as a revisionist commentary on 21st century policing. I have a lot of respect for our police forces. They are generally honest and effective. However, I also think that, as an institution that’s undergone such radical changes in its practices over the last decade, the police shouldn’t be above being examined in a serious drama.

Although it’s written in serialized form, Line of Duty is conceived as a returning series. The format would be that the story of the police officer under investigation resolves by the end of the series, but that the anticorruption team return in a second run to pursue another high-profile antagonist.

Jed Mercurio is the writer and creator of Line of Duty - a brand new 5 episode thriller airing on BBC Two on Tuesdays at 9pm.  Watch Episode 1 back on BBC iPlayer.

You can now download the script for Episode 1 of Line of Duty from our BBC Script Library.

Comments made by writers on the BBC writersroom blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


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  • Comment number 12. Posted by zaarah

    on 10 Jan 2013 19:06

    Hi Jed
    I am a big fan of your work I particularly enjoyed your series Cardiac Arrest. I am a Nurse practitioner working alongside GP's in an Out of Hours Service. I along with other members of our team have had cause to raise concerns regarding our middle managements failures which have seriously affected patient care and staff. I believe middle management within the NHS are a major cause of serious problems and as a subject matter they have not been recognised as such. I desperately want their inadequacies to be revealed and the serious damage they are doing to the NHS. This could be a major story. I hope you will contact me so that I can give you more information

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  • Comment number 11. Posted by Ayesha

    on 31 Aug 2012 15:45

    I loved Line of Duty - some of my favourite actors, great, well-driven story. Thanks Jed.

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  • Comment number 10. Posted by ubepop2012

    on 4 Aug 2012 01:59

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  • Comment number 9. Posted by freewheeling

    on 25 Jul 2012 19:00

    Well all I can say is well done to the script writers and everyone one of the well selected cast. Every main character was superbly believable although the DC Arnott character was perhaps a little young and fresh looking but after watching the whole series I almost believed him.

    On reflection the pace and length of the show kind of reminded me of a grown up ITV's "the bill". Now that might reflect badly and confirm some negative comments but I just think millions of people loved the bill and frankly Line of Duty kept me hooked week after week.

    If they turned Line of Duty into a long running Series then I am sure it will become a favourite.
    The pace and length of the show l

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  • Comment number 8. Posted by jstimpy

    on 19 Jul 2012 20:58

    Line of Duty
    In my humble opinion this is one of the best cop dramas to have out of the BBC for a long time. Lennie James is the Don. The pace of the storylines kept up, and however, some of the acting by the supporting staff is a little hammy but the main characters show depth, and for once you see emotional conflict of being a copper ... loved it. Well done Jed. The writing truly on par with the best of the American cop shows. yes I loved the shield also.

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by Eurokanga

    on 4 Jul 2012 23:24

    After only two episodes the plot is already falling apart.
    Do you want us to believe that a woman with the available resources like Jacky has to access to and with locked gates security .... does not have at least high level CCTV monitoring to control the front the door and that an experienced police officer just lets Jacky open the door without knowing who might be wanting to enter? You've got to be kidding!
    It's like The Bridge that after a formidable development actually fell apart into implausibility in the last two episodes.

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by Monumental

    on 4 Jul 2012 09:53

    Line of Duty is no better or worse than any of the other cop shows on TV. That's the problem.

    We are overdosing on cop show and murder porn at the moment. David Tennant is going to be in a cop show next week apparently. Enough already!

    I think we've reached a tipping point on the genre. Less is more.

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by mpwapwaman

    on 3 Jul 2012 21:18

    Line of Duty
    Story line reasonable. That's all. Sub-BBC with some very unconvincing actors. Direction poor with the usual ITV-type stares and prolonged facial shots. So bad that I walked away from it. Won't mention the weirdos in the main squad ... and as for the receptionist! Sorry, but 'junk' status and the BBC should never have taken it on: about the only thing going for it is the lack of adverts!

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by notStoppard

    on 2 Jul 2012 08:34

    I was looking forward to a drama serial that surprised me, either with its form or writing. Yet even the presence of Lennie James couldn't save it from being another festival of racist/sexist/ corruption stories with characters stuck in another decade. Its subjects, themes and dialogue are well-worn. Copper taking on dodgy officer comes up against closed ranks...Who does he trust? etc. The opening scene wasn't shocking, it was simply cynical and tacky (dead Muslim holding screaming baby). I mean, really.

    How much braver it would be if the BBC had a moratorium on cop shows. Find writers with untold stories that can enlighten and entertain via distinctive voices. This kind of drama makes me annoyed at the waste of talent and money. It seems there needs to be a team of more insightful programme commissioners.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by adira366

    on 1 Jul 2012 07:47

    This comment was removed because it broke the house rules. Explain

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