Jed Mercurio: It’s much harder to write for television
Jed Mercurio, writer and showrunner of two of BBC’s biggest recent hits – Bodyguard and Line of Duty, was one of the speakers at this year’s INTV conference organized by Keshet Media Group in Jerusalem. In this exclusive interview with Stanislav Kimchev, Mercurio talks about some of the aspects his work as writer for television and reveals how he started his career in TV.
Jed, you are a former hospital doctor and Royal Air Force officer. What made you take a drastic turn with your career to become one of UK television’s leading writers?
That’s a very good question. I was very fortunate and I had an unexpected opportunity. I was very involved in my chosen career which was to do aviation medicine and I saw an advert in The British Medical Journal: a production company wanted to recruit doctors to be advisers for a show they had in development, and I had watched a lot of TV medical drama. At that point I kind of thought that TV medical drama wasn’t representing what life was really like in British hospitals, so I ended up doing an interview with the production company. They were interested in my view and then it was a dialogue that started which ended up with me being involved in some story-lining and then they gave me an opportunity to be involved in writing the script.

What are your favorite TV and novel characters and have some of them inspired characters from your works?
I wouldn’t say I’m influenced by other characters particularly. It’s having the right character in the right dramatic situation that is more important. It may be that in my writing I sometimes think about particular scenes or particular moments that work very well in a book or a TV show or a feature film, where I thought that it was just very well executed, or it was surprising but it worked - things like that are an influence on me. But I wouldn’t say that I try and model characters on existing characters.

You are both a novelist and a scriptwriter. What is the main difference when writing for television?
Television has a narrower bandwidth which is that you can really only tell stories about what a character sees and hears. It’s much harder to get into the characters in a world. It’s possible and there are techniques for doing it. But you rely on the performance of the actor and the knowledge of the audience. Whereas in writing a novel, you can write about any aspect of thought or sensation. You can write about events that aren’t anything that are happening to the character. You can write about world events or a whole society, so this scale and scope and versatility is much greater in a novel.

You have written for comedy, medical drama, crime drama, action thriller series - what is your favorite genre?
At the moment I really enjoy writing thrillers, so that would be my favorite.

Both Line of Duty and Bodyguard reached record results for the BBC. What is your recipe for success?
I don’t have one. I try and do the best job I can with the show that I’m working on, and I’m in a very fortunate position - as well as being involved in the script, I’m involved in the production. So, a lot is about having effective collaborations with the people I’m working with, having the support of the broadcaster is very important, so ensuring I’ve got a good relationship with them. And beyond that there is no real recipe apart from working hard and if the script needs more work, doing that work. If you need another take when you’re shooting; if sometimes you need to reshoot things or shoot additional material, always being involved in trying to make it the highest quality piece of work.

There have been reports about the second season of The Bodyguard. Will David Budd be returning as UK’s most famous bodyguard?
We are in talks. It would be great if we can do a second season. There is a lot of people who want to see it and we’d love to be able to give the fans more of David Budd, we are just talking about the practicalities and logistics of that.

What are you currently working on? How many new projects can viewers expect from Jed Mercurio?
I am currently working on the fifth season of Line of Duty, we are in post-production at the moment and it’s something that is going to air on the BBC very soon. We don’t have a date yet, but we think it is going to be within the next couple of months that the first episode will transmit. And then once that is on the air that will be the point where I will start thinking about what I’m doing next.

Your wife Elaine is a producer and a script editor. Do you discuss work at home and is she helping you with your projects in any way?
We talk about what’s going on in the industry and we talk about our own projects and we support each other but we don’t get involved in each other’s work.

Do you watch TV and if you do what exactly?
I do watch TV, yes. The most hours I spend is probably watching sport. I watch a lot of football. I like rugby and tennis and golf and occasionally cricket. I watch a lot of sport on TV because I can get excited about it but it’s not my industry, so I don’t have any thoughts about how it affects my work or how it affects other people’s work. And I just think it’s also important in doing the job I do to keep current on what dramas are on TV. So, I watch a lot of dramas. In the UK, I try and watch at least the first episode of every new drama. But I just really enjoy watching comedies. Things that aren’t the kinds of shows I make, I think I would prefer to watch.
Jed Mercurio is one of the few UK writers to work as an American-style showrunner. His most recent hits include Bodyguard and Line of Duty. Mercurio is a four-time nominee as Best Drama Writer for both the Royal Television Society and Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. At the 2018 Broadcasting Press Guild Awards, Mercurio won Best Writer for Line of Duty. He is a former hospital physician and Royal Air Force officer, having originally planned to specialize in aviation medicine.
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