fri 04/12/2020

theartsdesk Q&A: screenwriter Jed Mercurio | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: screenwriter Jed Mercurio

theartsdesk Q&A: screenwriter Jed Mercurio

The mastermind of 'Line of Duty' and 'Bodyguard' has created an online screenwriting course for the BBC

Jed Mercurio: 'It’s an advantage for a writer to have primary experience of different walks of life'

So you want to be a TV screenwriter?

So you want to be a TV screenwriter? You might do a lot worse than to sign up for Jed Mercurio's new online course at BBC Maestro, where over 28 lessons he explores the pitfalls and hurdles of a screenwriter's life, from the nuts and bolts of creating a workable script to ways of gaining access to the right people in the TV industry who can help bring your work to the screen.

The Lancashire-born Mercurio knows whereof he speaks, as fans of his hit series Line of Duty and Bodyguard are well aware. He made his breakthrough into TV in the mid-Nineties when, as a junior hospital doctor, he was taken on as a scriptwriter (under the pseudonym John MacUre) for the BBC One drama Cardiac Arrest, which gave him a vital grounding in writing technique and working in television. He would go on to create another medical drama for the BBC with Bodies (2004), and in 2015 his shockingly visceral hospital series Critical was aired on Sky 1. But his range extends far beyond traumas in the NHS. He wrote the sitcom The Grimleys for ITV, penned most of Sky 1's first series of the special forces romp Strike Back, and has written and directed TV adaptations of Lady Chatterley's Lover and Frankenstein. He's currently acting as executive producer on Stephen, a three-part miniseries about Stephen Lawrence.

For this conversation, he took time out from shooting the Covid-interrupted Series 6 of Line of Duty in Belfast (this time featuring Kelly Macdonald as the guest leading character, DCI Joanne Davidson), and was remarkably relaxed considering they were about to shoot one of the the show's trademark extended interview scenes (pictured below, Macdonald joins Line of Duty regulars Vicky McClure, Martin Compston and Adrian Dunbar).

ADAM SWEETING: It looks as though television will be the medium which emerges triumphantly from the pandemic?

JED MERCURIO: Some kinds of television, I suppose. There are still massive challenges to making drama and we have the advantage that people can sit at home and watch the content. The real issue is how difficult it’s going to be to generate that content. We don’t have some of the advantages that big-budget cinema has, they can spend more money to increase the level of quarantines and bubbles that keep the virus out, but the problem they face then is at the distribution end, which is to recoup their investment they need big cinema audiences, and that’s clearly problematic at the moment.

Tell me about the BBC Maestro project.

It’s great. I was approached about doing some online sessions which are intended to help people trying to get into the industry as writers, and people who are in the industry as writers and want to develop their writing further and develop their careers further. I’ve done these things off and on over the years at seminars and being invited as a guest speaker. I got invited to Perugia in Italy last summer to a screenwriting course run by the broadcaster RAI that was great fun, and I worked with screenwriting students for a week over there. But this is the first time I’ve done a formal course where I’ve actually prepared this depth of material, which covers a lot of ground in terms of formulating ideas, shaping those ideas, planning the architecture of a series and so on. The Maestro sessions are just me talking, it’s just online. Once it’s released people can then choose to access the material. It’s a kind of pay-per-view service.

You had a medical background before you got into writing?

Yeah, I was a junior hospital doctor for three and a half years.

Is it important that a writer has experience in a career or a different kind of life before getting into writing?

I definitely think it’s an advantage for a writer to have primary experience of different walks of life. I think if you can draw on a set of observations and experiences that inform your writing it’s helpful, in comparison to someone whose only influences would be other creative work (pictured above, Richard Armitage in Strike Back).

Where does inspiration come from for writing? It seems the critical issue – you need some germ of inspiration to get your project going.

That is something that I cover in the lessons. There is one lesson which is entitled “Inspiration” and it’s really about hard work. If you go into a writing career expecting that inspiration is going to land on you and an idea will just present itself, that’s probably not going to happen. You have to be actively seeking ideas, you have to be reading, you have to be viewing, you have to be looking not only at works of fiction but at works of fact, looking at the real world, looking all over the place really in order to see if there’s anything which suggests itself to you that might form the basis of a creative work. But that is just the very very beginning, as you said a germ. In order to nurture that germ into something that has the format that you’re seeking for it to be an original piece of television or an original film or a play or a novel, then there’s no easy way of doing that. You really have to just knuckle down and work through it.

What other topics do you address?

There are chapters that deal with conceiving a pilot script, developing a pilot script, looking at the structure of TV pilots, looking at the episodic nature of TV series, considering practical approaches to writing like the balance between outlining and drafting. And then there are also a number of lessons which deal with the specifics of drama writing, looking at areas like how you create a setup, how you write dialogue, how you avoid certain pitfalls in drama writing, how you play to the elements of drama writing that add strength to your narrative. There are also sections which are about career development how you make contacts, how you try and progress within the industry.

Is the ability to schmooze very important?

No. I honestly believe the industry is a meritocracy. A lot of people who give advice on screenwriting actually haven’t ever prospered within the film or television industry. So they’ve never actually even been involved in a production, so it’s not their fault, but it means that they can’t speak with any kind of authority about how you go about getting something made. There’s a lot of great value in what they say about the theory of screenwriting and in fact they’re probably far more knowledgeable than I am about the theory of screenwriting, whereas the Maestro course is very much intended to be a practical guide for people who are interested in writing or already working as writers, either part time or full time, and want to develop their careers further.

What are most obvious pitfalls writers need to avoid?

The three most obvious ones that we cover are creating confusion with your writing. Another one is questions of credibility and plausibility, and the third one is boredom, basically creating boring work because of story or character stagnation (pictured below, Andrew Lancel and Helen Baxendale in Cardiac Arrest).

How do you avoid being boring?

It’s about creating forward momentum. Something being boring is obviously subjective, but the thing you have to avoid as a writer is stagnation. So if new things aren’t happening, if characters aren’t developing, if new information isn’t being imparted and new actions arising out of that, then you get stagnation.

Is that the worst thing?

No, I think that stagnation is usually only temporary in a script and it’s quite easy to fix, but the trick is recognising where it occurs. Part of the teaching that I’m presenting is about being analytical of your own work, looking for where there may be issues with confusing the audience which is clearly problematic. I distinguish between confusion and mystery. Mystery is where you intentionally leave the audience not knowing the answer to something, but they should want to know, whereas confusion is where they just don’t know what questions they should be asking and what the answers might even be. If the story is stagnant or the story starts to be inconsistent or unbelievable, then the audience stops engaging with the material.

Sometimes when you’ve written your script and you think it’s OK, when you actually start shooting you must find certain things don’t work as you expected them to?

That’s right, and that’s quite a commonplace experience. Dealing with the fact that if your work is going to be made into television or into a film, then it will be a collaborative process and you need to be able to respond to some of the practical considerations that entails. It’s very common for writers to have to redraft based on problems with locations, problems with cast availability, problems with money or running out of daylight or any number of things.

Are you happy for your actors to chip in with ideas or adjustments ?

Yeah, absolutely. I’m in a very fortunate position which is I’m around a lot. I think where writers do complain, and I agree with them, is where unilateral decisions are taken to change the script without involving the writer in that discussion. I’m in this position where I am involved in that discussion and generally when people bring things up they’re normally making a valid point, but because I’m involved in it I can have an influence at how we arrive at a change of dialogue or even a change of action within a scene. Usually I’m very grateful when these things are pointed out, and always happy to take credit for them!

With Line of Duty, the actors are so steeped in the characters by now they must know at least as much about them as you do?

Oh absolutely, but also when you’re working with people who are as diligent and dedicated as our cast, they will spot things in the script and raise questions that don’t necessarily relate to their characters. It’ll be “I didn’t quite get this” or “what do you really mean here?” and so it’s like another set of editorial feedback. Because we’re all working together, we see each other every day, it’s all done in a very informal way, and that’s really important.

What does your job as showrunner entail?

As a showrunner it’s really important to be available. The showrunners who never go to the set run into the problems of people not telling them things, because it’s a higher threshold to get the showrunner’s attention, whereas if I’m always around … if we’re moving the cameras or re-lighting, or just having a cup of coffee or something, that’s quite a nice informal environment in which we can have a discussion about things. I think the term “showrunner” originates from the USA, where it was brought in to remove the ambiguity around who was actually the creative leader of the project. Previously everybody had the same title of executive producer, some of whom had left the series years ago and worked for the studio and never even watched the show, let alone had an influence on it. But in the UK we’ve taken great steps in restoring some of that ambiguity, because there a lot of writers who are called showrunners who don’t actually show-run. They’re lead writer, and they may take a producer or executive producer credit, but they don’t actually show-run in the sense that they’re the creative leader of the project across all aspects of the production. I enjoy it very much which is why I do it, and there are some writers who don’t want to do it or don’t have the skills or the interest or the experience, and that’s fine. But then they shouldn’t call themselves showrunners.

We often see with TV series, especially American ones, that series one is just a setup for series two and so on, so the viewer can be left feeling they never get a proper dramatic resolution.

I think it depends on the structure of the series. Nowadays we’re used to what you would call a hybrid structure, which is a mixture of the serial and episodic. If you got back to when I first started watching TV, and this is something I cover in the lessons, you had series which were endlessly episodic, so with something like Star Trek, every episode was a self-contained story. There was no serial story, so you could watch the episodes out of sequence, they never referred back to anything that happened in a previous episode, they were on a five-year mission but they never even told you where in the five-year mission they were, the middle, the beginning or towards the end. It was endless TV, and a lot of TV was created that way. Nowadays audiences are hungry for more serial stories so they want to see characters develop and have longer-running stories, either being the whole series or set against episodic stories that conclude within each episode. And as a result of that you then have a situation where you have to look at what the longevity is of that, and I agree with you, sometimes it’s a very difficult thing to gauge. If something’s being successful, then there’s obviously a desire from the broadcasters to keep a good thing going, but also for the creative people involved it’s a lovely position to be in. There are plenty of series out there that are very successful and long-running where they all hate each other, whereas on Line of Duty we’ve become firm friends as well as professional colleagues, and it’s something that you don’t want to end.

Are you surprised how long it’s lasted already?

I think we all are, because we started off as a small cop show that was on BBC Two. We were turned down for BBC One and it didn’t feel like necessarily there was a bright future for us, and we’ve been so delighted and flattered that fans of the series have caused it to grow and propelled us to the position we’re in now. We’re really grateful to the people who keep supporting the series.

Do you feel there’s a lot of writing talent out there with the potential to break through?

Absolutely. Just before lockdown over here in Northern Ireland we shot a series called Bloodlands, which will be on BBC in the next few months and stars James Nesbitt. I exec-produced the series with Chris Brandon, who wrote it, and he’s a brand new writer who’s never created his own series. And that’s really part of what I’m trying to get to a wider audience with the Maestro lessons, that there is a lot of talent out there, and a lot of the reasons that they don’t progress is because they’re not well enough informed about how the industry works.

Do you come across people who are working on a TV script, but you think this would be better as a novel or a feature film?

Yes. Again that’s part of the lessons in Maestro, to consider what the best form is for your idea. If something is closed-ended and you can tell the story over a shorter period of time, then it’s better suited to being a film or a novel or a play, whereas if it’s something that has kind of a longer run intrinsic to it or even returnability, where you could bring it back in another form or continue the story in future series, then that is something that is obviously suited to TV.

What other writers have influenced you or helped you in your career development?

I was very lucky in that when I started off writing it was actually on a series that was already in development [Cardiac Arrest]. I was a doctor and I responded to an advert in the British Medical Journal from a production company who were really just looking for advice. And then I ended up being taken on and given a crash course in writing for TV, which I’m still benefiting from, so the biggest influences on me were that group of people, two or three producers, Tony Garnett, Margaret Matheson, Paddy Higson and the first director David Hayman and the script editors who worked on it who taught me a lot about how you translate your ideas into a scripted form.

Do you see other writers like Steven Knight or Paul Abbott and bounce ideas around, or does it never happen like that?

I’ve met Paul a few times over the years, I haven’t seen him lately, and Steven I think I’ve only really met once, and they’re both really lovely guys. Really super-talented, but I don’t know them well enough to have that kind of exchange with them. Generally I tend to work on projects as a writer on my own, so I haven’t been in writers’ rooms with lots of writers. If a broadcaster hosts a reception or there’s some kind of industry event, those are the ones where I’ll be rubbing shoulders with Jack Thorne or Pete Bowker or Danny Brocklehurst, then we’ll be chewing the fat a bit. We tend to just share stories about the broadcasters, y’know, which commissioners are winding us up, who’s not read our script yet, just all the professional whining… I think a lot of people out there think that if you’re a successful TV writer that everybody reads your scripts straight away and everybody gets back to you if you phone them or email them, but we still all have the experience that certain commissioners or heads of department ignore us, so it’s kind of the same for us all really.

I suppose a bit of rejection is good for the soul in some peculiar way.

Ahhhh… it doesn’t help.

If you're expecting that inspiration is going to land on you and an idea will just present itself, that’s probably not going to happen

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters