LINE OF DUTY – Series 4
‘It is the fault of the Constitution,’ says Donald Trump. I am not really an idiot, it is those pesky regulations, thinks Donald. Meanwhile the equally sinister Theresa May wants an election because she hopes that she somehow has a chance of uniting an island nation before the crash landing of its economy. The Scottish Parliament is blitzed with nationalists, and in the rest of Britain the Brexit vote has divided social classes, generations and families. Social Democrats in England are horrified by a Labour party agenda that suggests society can be improved. And meanwhile neoliberals everywhere want to get rid of those pesky regulations.
For six weeks Line Of Duty did, though, unite a fractious British nation. Millions of people who consider themselves sensible waited for the next episode and to be insulted by even more plot absurdities. But, before indulging in the British tradition of sneering at success, first some praise. Jed Mercurio wrote and created Line of Duty. He has been lionised and deserves to be. Line Of Duty is a brilliant concept loaded with ambition and audacity. At its best it captures the tension and drama that exist within any large organisation, the conflict between the bureaucrats and the mavericks. Before he invented crime stories Mercurio studied medicine, worked as a physician and then used his experience to write hospital dramas. This is important because his background in medicine has given Mercurio a respect for rules and the kind of regulations that Trump and May sneer at and promise to abandon.
Watch an episode of Line Of Duty and it is difficult to recall a time when TV was dominated by right wing rule breaking policemen who sneered at the Rule of Law. Writers and moviemakers think of themselves as creative. They admire the creative temperament, which is why they romanticise lone heroes and rebels. Writers tend to be on the side of the mavericks. Line Of Duty may or may not be a metaphor for the National Health Service, the friction between medics driven by duty and the others who want to use their skills to become rich but either way his experience in healthcare has informed the imagination of Jed Mercurio. The heroes in Line Of Duty are the team members of AC12, the organisation that investigates corruption amongst their colleagues. They are opposed to the policemen and policewomen who ignore the rules. The mavericks hate AC12, dismiss them as boring and creeps. Some of the mavericks just want to ignore rules that prevent them from arresting people they think are guilty. They think they have daring and integrity. The other mavericks have come to the nihilistic conclusion that fighting crime is a waste of time so the sensible thing to do is take the graft. When said like that, the mavericks sound unattractive. But most TV shows and movies glorify rule breakers. Often they make the criminals the heroes.
Jed Mercurio is not like that. In his time in surgery he must have seen too many botched operations. He values procedure and compliance. His heroes are company men and women. There is not a drop of creative temperament amongst any of them. This, of course, is what makes them so memorable. The people in AC12 have ambition but they trust that effort and loyalty will secure reward. The ambitions of Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott and Detective Sergeant Kate Fleming are confined to worrying about the next promotion. These two earnest people are not the kind who taste destiny. They relax with a take away curry.
Mercurio remembers his education. Capricious health and its ramifications feature in Line Of Duty. DCI Roz Huntley spends most of series 4 nursing a mysterious injury. Occupied with manipulating both evidence and the expectations of the audience Huntley has no time for treatment. The inevitable happens, and she needs to have her hand amputated. Showing the same contempt for the NHS as Theresa May and the Tory party, Huntley discharges herself from hospital. After that Mercurio loses all sympathy for the woman. Huntley really does get her comeuppance.
TV series are defined by longevity. The best begin with a bold concept. To persist in the ratings battle they need to develop until they become either epic or soap opera. Breaking Bad is important because it became an epic tale and it avoided the soap . Many viewers, though, are happy to settle for addictive suds. Often what is important to these viewers is not the quality of the programme but the impact of the addiction. There has been as much discussion about how people were anticipating the last episode of Line Of Duty as there has the actual content of the programme. The tone deaf Game Of Thrones appeals because it is soap opera masquerading as an epic. Football is the biggest soap opera of all. Football fans think they are a significant element in the spectacle and seek glory through addiction.
Line Of Duty was unusual in that it grasped the epic in its first series. A complex plot and widespread corruption pitched the authentic and modest bureaucrats of AC12 into an impossible Homeric struggle against powerful enemies. As Hercules soon discovered, the demands on the warriors, or just the professional, are unfair and endless. Series 4 has benefited from the presence of the talented Thandie Newton. DCI Roz Huntley may not have the time management skills to ensure she attends hospital appointments but she is a fabulous and contradictory character. Huntley is superior, self-adoring, competent, cold, condescending, detached, paranoid, insecure, caring and vindictive. Newton switches moods and never fails to convince as a character. There are a couple of daft moments in the plot that would expose any actress but she grits her thespian teeth and stays professional. One of those instances occurs near the end of the show and is shared by the equally marvellous Adrian Dunbar. When the plot becomes really daft, he raises an eyebrow, and we are not sure if he is advancing the story or letting us know that he is too long in the tooth not to know narrative silliness.
The solid acting supports Line Of Duty and carries the breathless plot. The actors are entitled to the praise they receive but the editing flatters the performances. Much has been written by cineastes about how skilful editors and directors can use the cutting room to create impressive visual montages. Editing, though, can also benefit a performance. Hitchcock had contempt for actors because he was convinced his style and shots would define the impact of actors on the audience as much as individual performances. Hitchcock was at least half right. A momentary shot of a raised eyebrow or an open mouth can reveal added mystery, and there are plenty in Line Of Duty.
It appears that Series 5 was being planned before Series 4 was shown. BBC TV knows when it has a hit. Jed Mercurio has become not just successful but powerful. The last episode of Series 4 promised that the investigation would return to the original suspicions of corruption. This is to be welcomed. Despite the presence of Thandie Newton series 4 has been the weakest. The rot began at the end of Series 3. The epic struggle had been marvellous and it crystallised in a fabulous 23 minute interrogation of Detective Steve Arnott. But the final escape and capture of detestable Dot Cottan, though welcome, was ludicrous. We have to fear that adulation has turned the head of Mercurio. Perhaps now he is too willing to entertain. The early series served as a warning about human nature and the illusions we have about British institutions. That sense was lost in Series 4. Huntley put in motion complicated events but there was no epic battle. In previous series the Detectives Arnott and Fleming had to negotiate their way through an impossibly treacherous world. They explained because they had to convince others. This time, though, it felt like the detectives were using each other to reveal the plot to the audience. After Detective Sergeant Arnott was beaten up with a baseball bat and he had to adjust to life in a wheelchair the epic sank into soap opera. Not one of the interrogation scenes in the last episode was convincing. The link to further corruption and even more violent men in balaclavas was belated and clumsy.
If we are lucky, the weaknesses will be short lived. Arnott will leave his wheelchair and avoid romance with Fleming. And the epic battle against an almost completely corrupt police force will begin again. Line Of Duty has never lacked ambition. It has not just entertained viewers with constant surprises but educated them in police procedure and behaviour. Because each series is presented to a more knowing and calculating audience, the stakes are now high for Mercurio. The writer has said that he does not like final endings. He prefers the never-ending saga. We may miss Thandie Newton but the good news is that Roz Huntley is locked up in prison where she can think about what went wrong with her career, marriage and family. There is hope that in the next series the epic will triumph over soap opera. Next time Mercurio will not only need to become a creative Hercules, he needs his characters to imitate the classical heroes. Brexit and an increasingly strange Theresa May already exist as threats. The British may need epic battlers more than they realise.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.