‘Line of Duty’ screening and Q&A report

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BBC Two was resurgent last year, achieving its aim of redeveloping its own line of original drama, and then some.

Critical and fan favourites The Hour and The Shadow Line were the highlights, ably supported by period fare like The Crimson Petal and the White. BBC Two’s increased budget for drama was to be spread over a three year period, and after the first produced such success stories, the pressure is on for Ben Stephenson, Controller BBC Drama Commissioning, to keep the ball rolling this year.

All of which brings us to Line of Duty, a new five-part drama focussing on police corruption.

It’s inevitably tempting to slap an ‘it’s a British The Wire!’ tag on anything to do with the police these days, and while there are certainly elements of that here, on the whole this is a different affair. Speaking at a launch event for the show at London’s BFI earlier this month, writer Jed Mercurio explained: “The aim was to make this a real thriller, not just a comment on policing”.

Director David Caffrey was also keen to point out that, despite being about corruption, it’s not in an obvious way. There are no scenes of the lead stuffing great wads of cash down the front of his trousers. Line of Duty is a much more subtle affair.

The plot centres around Lennie James as police golden boy and awarding winning Detective Chief Inspector Tony Gates, along with the members of a (fictional) anti-corruption unit called AC-12 who are out to confirm their suspicions that Gates’ superior police work and outstanding crime figures are not all that they appear…

James is predictably excellent and thrives on having such a complex character to play, providing just enough ambiguity that by the end of the first episode, we’re left not entirely sure whether to boo and hiss or to cheer for him.

Alongside James, Mercurio has peppered the cast with an intriguing mix of hot new talent and a few reliable old hands. Martin Compton, eschewing his natural Scottish accent, is the young officer moved to AC-12 after a botched anti-terror operation (which makes for a suitably harrowing opening sequence), while Vicky McClure finds herself playing a very different role to This Is England’s Lol, the character which made her name.

McClure concedes that she found it somewhat intimidating, especially given the amount of police-talk her character must use. More familiar with roles utilising improvisation, McClure was so convinced by the script that she couldn’t turn it down, and took up the challenge of portraying Detective Constable Flemming as a real person, and a wholly believable character.

It’s not just McClure who strove to make things believable; Mercurio and his research team did plenty of investigating actual police forces to ensure the accuracy of their depiction – although they didn’t always get the help they were after.

In terms of set design, and getting the feel of a police station, the force was very helpful, and so the station you see in the show is probably as close to the real thing as you will find, but when it came to gathering opinions and input on the actual issue of anti-corruption, that was a no-go area.

As Mercurio put it, he feels that “all police are being caught up in the rules that are designed to catch just a few bad apples”, while the broken system only aims to heal the healthy, and only the easily solvable crimes are solved in order to help keep up the numbers. These are issues that permeate the first episode here, and will surely only continue to be explored in more depth going forward.

As for that script that so convinced McClure to take the role, it certainly has its shining moments, but it’s also at times a little obvious, with a few lines being a little too on the nose – perhaps understandable for an opening episode which has a lot of groundwork to lay, and a lot of pieces to put into position – but given Mercurio’s pedigree with the superlative Bodies, you could be forgiven for expecting it to be a little tighter.

There are no such issues with the smart direction, however, or with the brooding soundtrack. The impressive cast is rounded out by Gina McKee (Atonemement), and a wonderfully cast double-act of Craig Parkinson (Misfits’ surly probation worker) and – most bravely of all – Men Behaving Badly’s Neil Morrissey as a pair of DCI Gates’ sleazy, lad-like co-workers.

Interestingly, despite Gates’ status as a senior black officer becoming an integral part of the plot – with the investigation into him having to tread carefully around the race issue – the character wasn’t initially conceived of as being black. As Mercurio explains, “Lennie James was just the best. Then we had to assess how that would affect the script”.

The added complication certainly adds another angle to the plot, and increases the inevitable comparisons to The Wire. As inevitable as the comparisons are, the show doesn’t seem to try too hard to avoid them, and a cute paraphrasing of the legendary Omar’s line “You come at the king, you best not miss!” is surely a knowing homage.

Mercurio himself even invokes the name of that most hallowed of TV dramas when discussing the setting for his show. Line of Duty was filmed in Birmingham, although the script takes care never to specifically place the action in that city – or, indeed, in any other. Being reluctant to associate the show with any particular police force (presumably for both plot and legal reasons), the show is set nowhere, and hence takes place everywhere. “After all, nobody watches The Wire and thinks it’s only about Baltimore”.

Line of Duty looks to be a very promising new show for BBC Two and one that could presumably run for several series, if it chooses to follow the exploits of AC-12 on other cases.

For now, Lennie James’ powerhouse performance makes this worth tuning in for alone, but the intriguing set-up, along with a delicious twist in the closing moments, indicate that Line of Duty is definitely one to watch going forward.

> Order Series 1 on DVD on Amazon.

Watch the trailer…

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