With fortuitous timing, later on the same evening that BBC1 scored the largest television audience this year when 9.1 million tuned into the Series 5 “Line Of Duty” finale, Sky Arts opened its new series of “The South Bank Show” with a profile of writer Jed Mercurio in conversation with Melvyn Bragg.
I haven’t watched “The South Bank Show” for years, certainly not since it was revitalised on the Sky Arts Channel seven years ago. Most of us will remember it from its original run from 1978 until it was axed by ITV in 2010. I tuned in because I wanted to know more about this man who has had us on the edge of our seats with “Line Of Duty” and “Bodyguard“. I was both heartened and a little depressed that the opening music taken from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Variations” was still intact, even if in a slightly different version from the one I remember and depressed because it brought me back to Sunday nights of my teenage years when it signified bed-time and the end of the weekend and back to school on Monday.
Even though I have been avidly glued to every episode of “Line Of Duty” and to “Bodyguard” I realised I did not know much about the man who has put pen to paper and given us these examples of very high standard writing for television. I do have an unread copy of one of his novels “American Adultery” (2009), which I recently obtained, sat on my shelves but that was really about it.
Melvyn Bragg and Jed Mercurio
We began with a montage of clips from the shows that have elevated him up to the highest category of TV writing and was told by Melvyn Bragg that Mercurio’s work is known for exploring the “dark side of institutions and the morally questionable characters that hold them up.” This certainly holds true for his two most famous productions as well as two hospital dramas, his debut work for television “Cardiac Arrest” which I don’t remember and “Bodies” which began in 2004, which I do. What Mercurio wishes to challenge is the “drama of reassurance” which is what most TV police drama has traditionally been. Cleverly, with “Line Of Duty” he has achieved this by focusing on the arm of the organisation which is exploring the corruption, if he had shown just the corruption he feels so strongly about there would have been outcry from the police and politicians. By having AC-12 as the investigating body he certainly does not have to water down any message he wishes to get over about the state of our institutions.
The hospital dramas which came first were written from an insider’s point of view. Mercurio was brought up in the West Midlands, the youngest son of Italian immigrants and went into medicine after being inspired by a contestant on TV’s “Blockbusters”(!) He went to medical school in Birmingham as well as joining the RAF and training as a pilot. He experienced the difficulties of life in an NHS hospital, which all of us who have read Adam Kay’s “This Is Going To Hurt” will certainly know about and responded to an advert in the British Medical Journal from a TV production company looking for a different story from the one we were used to in hospital soaps (which is largely that “drama of reassurance” again). The success and recommissioning of “Cardiac Arrest” led him to drop medicine and to come out of the Air Force to be a full time writer.
We were told this was not an easy move “The Grimleys” was a 1970’s West Midlands set comedy which lasted a couple of series and using the name John MacUre he penned the six part BBC science fiction series “Invasion Earth”. He hit big again by returning to the hospital wards in an examination of negligent practises, “Cardiac Arrest”, which was a success and from what I remember a pretty difficult watch. “Line Of Duty”, the series which has certainly kept his name to the forefront and generated so many column inches and workplace discussions began its run in 2012 and between this and “Bodyguard” there has been a TV hospital drama for Sky “Critical” which was a little too much for me and a TV adaptation of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.
There were interviews with cast members (was I the only person not to know that Martin Compston who plays Steve Arnott speaks naturally in a Scottish accent? It took me completely by surprise as it did by how young he looked in the first series) who spoke highly of Mercurios’ total involvement in bringing his dramas to the screen, which he himself acknowledges many writers do not get the same opportunity for this level of on-set participation. It fell into place for him when he became Medical Advisor for “Cardiac Arrest” thus giving him a hands-on role which most writers who don’t know what has been done to their work until the production is finished can only dream of.
This was a very interesting hour in the company of Jed Mercurio and Melvyn Bragg shows why he has been at the top of his own personal game for decades by asking the questions that viewers want answered. I certainly wouldn’t add “The South Bank Show” as a Series Record on the Sky Planner but I am very pleased that it is still going strong and if the subject matter appeals as much as this one did I will certainly watch.
The South Bank Show: Jed Mercurio was first shown on Sky Arts on Sunday 5th May. It is available to watch on Sky Catch-up services.