Is Line of Duty in danger of becoming a pastiche of itself?

How Jed Mercurio turns acronyms into utterly natural TV dialogue, and makes lanyards so damned sexy, are two of the great mysteries of our age.

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I do wonder about The Trip to Spain (Thursdays, 10pm/10.10pm), in which Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan get to eat garlicky clams and lightly steamed sea bass while showing off to each other and the camera. Why do people like it so much? The first time around, when it was on BBC2, I had a sense of its charm, which was, I guess, as fresh then as the buffalo milk cheese I’ve just seen them eat in Asador Etxebarri, one of the ten best restaurants in the world.

In 2010, after all, we hadn’t yet seen Brydon’s impression of a man shut in a tiny box a dozen times (well, that’s what it feels like by now), and Coogan’s exaggerated impersonation of himself seemed, in its knowingness, rather winning. But still, I could take it or leave it. Listening to men go on and on . . . one has enough of that in real life.

Now, though, the aforementioned charm has, for me, worn as thin as a slice of jamón ibérico. For this, the third series, in which they travel around northern Spain, the pair have signed a presumably big-money transfer with Sky Atlantic. But nothing else has changed. Michael Winterbottom still directs; they still do impressions of Sean Connery and Roger Moore at the drop of a hat; and the running joke – in spite of Brydon’s current ubiquity – is still that Coogan, supposedly the more successful of the two, patronises the hell out of his mate and refuses to laugh at his jokes unless they are, as he puts it, “good” (which is hardly ever).

I’ve seen (critic’s privilege) two ­episodes of this series and, so far, it wants – it positively aches – for incident. Coogan, ­flustered that his latest Hollywood script has not yet been green-lit, finds himself unexpectedly in the hands of a new US agent (played by Kyle Soller), which is making him babyishly unhappy. He also has bad dreams in which he thinks he’s won an Oscar only to discover that he’s misheard the announcer. But that’s it for action. The rest of the time, we are required to enjoy an endless parade of chorizo, and to try and feel vaguely touched by their discussions of middle age.

I suppose it is vaguely touching – or is this just the Schadenfreude talking? – that even as they perform their latest TV series, these two have a sense of their power draining away like rare wine.

“I am in my prime,” insists Coogan, who is 51. And then, seeking a riff: “I am Miss Jean Brodie.” And then, as a light bulb flashes: “I could play Miss Jean Brodie. There’s a lot of gender-swapping going on in roles at the moment.” Actually, having seen his androgynous Mick Jagger – “It’s a peacock thing,” he drawled, with a camp flip of his hand – maybe this isn’t a wholly outlandish idea. Kyle, or Jonathan, or whatever you’re called: make those calls.

Is Line of Duty, which is newly promoted to the cherished Sunday-night slot on BBC1 (9pm), in danger of becoming a pastiche of itself? There is, I think, a distinct possibility that it might be. Screenwriters feel the ­pressure to up the ante just as much as ­politicians and journalists do. But then again, this is the great Jed Mercurio we’re talking about.

The ending of the first episode may have felt a bit schlocky – you will recall that we saw Tim Ifield, the snitch forensics expert (Jason Watkins, on fantastic form), leaning over the unconscious body of the possibly bent copper Roz Huntley (Thandie Newton) with a hacksaw in his hands, at which point . . . SHE OPENED HER EYES. But the second episode was as well built as any in the last series. This was mostly because it featured – I won’t give anything away in case you’ve yet to catch it – an interview scene that runs for more than ten minutes, and one as punctuated with police jargon as any that went before it.

How Mercurio turns acronyms into utterly natural TV dialogue, and makes lanyards so damned sexy, are two of the great mysteries of our age. Meanwhile, the actors playing the members of the anti-police-corruption squad, AC-12 – Adrian Dunbar as Superintendent Ted Hastings, Vicky McClure as DS Kate Fleming and Martin Compston as DS Steve Arnott – wear their roles like old bespoke suits: well fitted, but ever dazzling. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue