‘I like being invisible,’ says Jed Mercurio, a man who knows how to mess with our minds. The creator of Bodyguard and Line Of Duty, two of the best-loved dramas of recent times, is famous for plot twists and swerves that leave viewers baffled, thrilled and arguing. Would the Home Secretary played by Keeley Hawes in Bodyguard really sleep with a protection officer, even one as hunky as Richard Madden? Is she really dead? And could lovely old Ted Hastings, the world-weary scourge of bent coppers in Line Of Duty, really be a villain himself?
Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes in Bodyguard. Would the Home Secretary really sleep with a protection officer?
The interview tape is running, as Hastings might say, and I’m going to press for answers from Mercurio, who is easy to imagine as some kind of evil genius sitting alone in his lair, cackling at the thought of fooling millions of viewers again. ‘I’d certainly accept evil. I’m not going to accept genius,’ he says with a laugh, although he is often labelled as such.
Mercurio lives quietly in Teddington, South West London, with his wife, the producer Elaine Cameron, and their two children. Nobody has done more to thrill the people of Britain over the past year or so but he is very glad not to be recognised in the street. ‘I like that people don’t form a view of my work based on my personality, because I don’t have a public personality,’ he says. ‘The faces of the shows are the cast, not the writer. To be honest, that suits me.’
This modest man of mystery refuses to even describe himself as he would in a script. ‘The only thing about my appearance that’s significant is sometimes I have a beard and sometimes I don’t.’
Could the villain still turn out to be Hastings? Yes, it could
Let’s play at being DS Steve Arnott and DC Kate Fleming then (played by Martin Compston and Vicky McClure in Line Of Duty). The evidence shows this 52-year-old is of medium build and often dresses in muted colours. His greying hair is closely cropped but a bit messy on top. Gerald (aka Jed) Mercurio has quizzical eyebrows and a mischievous glint in his eyes. What a lot of his fans won’t know is that he served both as an officer in the RAF and a doctor in the NHS. The clues are there in three brilliant novels he wrote in the Noughties.
‘There’s much greater bandwidth in a novel,’ he says. ‘You’re able to take subjects that are difficult to portray on screen and tackle them with greater depth.’
Mercurio was born to working-class Italian parents in Lancashire, the son of a miner and a machinist. He spent most of his childhood in Cannock in the Midlands, then went to the University of Birmingham Medical School.
He had always felt drawn to the Armed Services and towards the end of his medical degree he got involved with the RAF through the Institute of Aviation Medicine in Farnborough. ‘There were guys there who worked for Nasa, who’d been involved in the medical aspects of flying some of the most high-performance aircraft ever built. It was incredibly exciting.’
He studied aviation medicine – including the medical and physical demands that flying makes on pilots – for a further three years.
‘I was a pilot officer in the RAF and I did my flying with the University Air Squadron. Then during the holidays I’d do my other flying within the Air Force proper. The first Gulf War happened towards the end of my time in the RAF, but none of us had completed our training.’
Alongside the RAF work, he was also deployed on the front line of the NHS in Birmingham as a hospital doctor.
Mercurio had no thought of becoming a writer and was intent on continuing as a doctor in both the RAF and the NHS until he answered an ad in the British Medical Journal for advisers to a new drama called Cardiac Arrest in 1994. ‘Back then it was groundbreaking. The medicine was real, more importantly it portrayed some of the cynicism that existed within the peer group of junior hospital doctors, from the pressures on them.’
This is also the world of Bodies, his first novel, published in 2002. It’s the tale of a junior doctor overwhelmed by work and exhausted by long hours, making mistakes that lead to people losing their lives.
Ascent, his second, was published in 2007 and is the fictional biography of an orphaned boy who becomes a Soviet fighter ace, then cosmonaut. ‘The only careers talk I had at 14. I said I wanted to be an astronaut.’
Vicky McClure, Adrian Dunbar and Martin Compston in Line Of Duty, a jargon-soaked procedural about the internal police investigations unit AC-12
Next, Mercurio turned a doctor’s eye on John F Kennedy. American Adulterer, from 2009, describes in forensic detail the President’s many ailments, the cocktail of drugs that kept him going and his astonishing sexual appetite. ‘I wanted to write about a character with the kind of problems that Kennedy had and every time I started, I just kept coming back to the man himself.’
Politics was also at the heart of Bodyguard, the high-profile BBC drama that drew nearly 11 million viewers in 2018. Some people thought it was impossible that a Home Secretary would sleep with the person protecting them. Mercurio insists not. ‘Both parties would understand it as unprofessional. But we’re dealing with people who have the same appetites and insecurities as the rest of the world.’
Madden’s performance propelled him straight into the running to be the next James Bond, so will the Bodyguard be returning? ‘There’s no update from the last statements, which were about ongoing talks and considering the logistics,’ says Mercurio. ‘That’s still the situation.’
Crikey. OK. But we can at least say that he wants to do another series and is talking to the BBC about how and when to do it.
Let’s move on to Line Of Duty, a jargon-soaked procedural about the internal police investigations unit AC-12. This was the year it went stratospheric, as everyone wondered who the villainous H could be. Once again, we fell for a ‘Jed herring’. The big clue to H’s identity was a dying declaration from a bent copper, tapping out four beats with his fingers after being shot. This was taken as a reference to the Morse code for H. Suspicion even fell on Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), the leader of AC-12, to the horror of his many fans. But at the last minute, clever DS Arnott worked out somehow that four beats meant four people.
So there was no H. The villain is still out there, as we await the next series. When will that be?
‘We don’t know yet, but we’ve got to do it in the next couple of years. We don’t want to leave it too long for Line Of Duty fans.’
Some felt let down by the recent ending, after being worked into a frenzy throughout. Could this next series be the last? ‘Every series is potentially the last, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.’
OK, but what fans really want to know is this: could the villain of the piece still turn out to be our hero, the beloved Ted Hastings?
Jed Mercurio laughs, happy to mess with our minds yet again. ‘Yes, it could still be Hastings.’
Jed Mercurio’s novels ‘Bodies’, ‘Ascent’ and ‘American Adulterer’ are out now in paperback (Vintage £8.99)