Jed Mercurio, acclaimed for creating Line of Duty, headlines the RTS Midlands Careers Fair.
Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio decided he probably should learn to write – after he’d already penned a hit BBC drama series. “I did it backwards,” the former medic told the RTS Midlands Careers Fair 2020.
Mercurio had been a junior doctor working in Birmingham hospitals when he replied to an advert in the British Medical Journal. It had been placed by a production company looking for drama ideas.
This led to him writing Cardiac Arrest, the pioneering 1994 BBC One series. Unusually for a TV drama set in the world of medicine, the series depicted the staff as flawed, accident-prone cynics, rather than the idealised depiction of angels in white coats that had characterised hospital drama since the dawn of television.
Mercurio, of course, went on to become one of the UK’s most successful TV writers and showrunners. His much-acclaimed work includes Bodies, another dark medical saga, and Bodyguard, one of BBC TV’s most popular scripted shows of the past 20 years.
While Mercurio is most at home in hospitals and police stations, he has embraced other genres, ranging from comedy (The Grimleys, starring Noddy Holder and Amanda Holden) and period drama (Lady Chatterley’s Lover) to sci-fi, with Frankenstein and Invasion: Earth.
“I had no plans to work in TV,” he admitted during his Careers Fair conversation with William Gallagher, deputy chair of the Writers’ Guild. “When Cardiac Arrest was recommissioned, which kind of took me by surprise because I didn’t expect it would have a future, I thought maybe I ought to learn a bit more about writing.
“I read books and I did some weekend workshops on story structure. I think they can be useful to give you ideas, but I believe there is no overall perfect model for writing. A lot of those structure gurus claim there is and they are wrong.”
Mercurio was Cardiac Arrest’s on-set medical advisor on series 2. The experience allowed him to learn how programmes are made and to get involved in production and direction.
“I think it’s odd that some writers don’t want to be on set,” he told the RTS session, one of the highlights of four days of popular online events. “If you’ve written something, you have a vision about how it’s going to be realised and you can be of help to people who are taking that vision on.
“Even if it’s just being able to clarify what a line means or what an important point is in a scene, that’s so valuable to the production.
“I understand how something has to be filmed and that informs my approach to the writing. The fact is, you can imagine whatever you want, but if you want someone to perform and film it, it has to be physically possible within a time frame and budget.
“As you gain experience, you start thinking more about that. The more film-friendly your writing is, the more your scripts will appeal to people.”
"Yes, I do know how Line of Duty will end"
Mercurio was speaking on the set of series 6 of Line of Duty, the police corruption drama that has grown from a lowkey start on BBC Two to win a global fan base and seven RTS awards. It also came third in a Radio Times poll of the best British crime dramas of all time.
“There was an ambition from the very beginning with Line of Duty, but you just don’t know,” Mercurio said. “You cross your fingers that it’s going to be a success, then you can begin to plan.
“I’ve had ups and downs in my career, times where I’ve started to look ahead and then the broadcaster has decided not to recommission. What series should have continued? Pretty much all of them.
“None of the series I’ve worked on have come to an end because any of the creative people didn’t want to continue. It’s always been a decision that has come from the broadcaster and almost always because of a change of personnel.
“The head of drama or head of the channel has left and someone new has come in. They’re a new broom and they drop a lot of things from the schedule to make room for their own commissions.”
And he teased his fans: “Yes, I do know how Line of Duty will end. I have it planned out as an overview but not the detail yet.”
Last year, more than 900 people attended the RTS Midlands Careers Fair at Edgbaston Stadium, but this year’s event was even more ambitious, with up to four and a half hours of live-streamed sessions and workshops each day.
RTS Midlands Chair Caren Davies said: “We’re delighted with the positive reaction the Careers Fair received. Going online meant that we could involve even more top broadcasters from across the country and reach an even wider audience.”
The line-up of on- and off-screen talent included director of BBC Sport Barbara Slater, presenter Jacqui Oatley, BBC Three boss Fiona Campbell, Chris Stark from That Peter Crouch Podcast, Channel 4 continuity announcer Corie Brown and Martin Dougan from Newsround.
Sessions included help with CVs, an animation workshop and panels on digital effects, working on location, filming with your smartphone, TV news and post-production. The fair also paid a live visit to the Birmingham set of BBC One’s award-winning soap Doctors to see how it was made. Actor Dex Lee led a guided tour and questioned crew members, from the third assistant director to those involved in post-production.
One of the most inspiring sessions was The One Show’s Richie Anderson in conversation with BBC Three controller Fiona Campbell. She had a mine of useful tips on how to get into television and, specifically, to work on her channel.
Speaking from her Belfast attic, she said: “Firstly, watch TV! It’s amazing the number of people who don’t watch the content. You have to be able to talk about what we make.
“Have ideas and show me a wee bit of something to get me interested. You can film things on your phone and have your own Instagram or YouTube channel.
“If an idea can work on BBC One or Two or Channel 4, it’s not for us. We try to have content that is very separate from those channels, for the 25-and-under audience from all over the UK.
“If people ask if you can do something, say yes. Don’t go, ‘Well, I can have a go’. “Don’t be snooty about content. If you get offered a job making films about broken washing machines, which I did when I worked for Watchdog, that’s great, because it really matters to people.
“If you can work in social media for anything, even your local garage, just bloody do it. If you can demonstrate to me how you can get an audience to that garage, that interests me. Think about volunteering for anyone who you can help to grow their social media audience.
“Degrees where you learn how to shoot and edit are really good. A degree in a language is always good. But only do a degree because you’re passionate about what you want to study, don’t just do it for the sake of it.
“Send in your CV and ideas and follow up two weeks later. Don’t make it a blanket one you’ve sent to 10 people. If you’re chasing someone, email them every six to eight weeks. If they send you an abrupt email, you’re getting annoying. But eventually something will stick.
“Emails without ideas don’t get answered, so have endless ideas and a good title for your programme – that’s really important.
“It’s a test of tenacity and persistence. Remain positive, keep picking yourself up and keep going.”
Report by Roz Laws. The RTS Midlands Careers Fair 2020 was held 12-15 October.