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3 April 2019

The forensic detail of Line of Duty

By Rachel Cooke

A country lane, a lorry loaded with drugs, a police escort: as the minutes ticked metronomically by, we knew this wouldn’t end well. Jed Mercurio is about as likely to open a new series of Line of Duty (31 March, 9pm) with a mission safely accomplished as he is to invite a load of TV critics over for a glass of Grüner Veltliner and a takeaway. Still, it’s amazing how these adrenalised set pieces of his get the heart racing.

In the moment when it became clear that a woman whose crashed car had stopped the convoy was not all that she seemed – her vehicle was on fire, her baby supposedly inside it – I noticed just how violently my chest was thumping, as if all this wasn’t utterly predictable.

And then… Ugh! On the back seat was an obscenely pink doll: a weirdly retro touch that somehow took me back (in a good way) to earlier, creakier cop shows. I loathe dolls. Their blank faces. Their glassy eyes. To pinch from Rilke, they exist solely so we may treat them as we like.

Five series in, and writing about Line of Duty, at least in terms of its plot, is all but impossible. It’s not only the need to avoid spoilers. The writing now makes no sense at all unless you, the viewer, have inhaled every word of every series. Its singular lexicon – the Caddy, Balaclava Man, the mysterious H – is practically TV folklore by now, these names as evocative as ancient myths, even if you have half-forgotten their significance in the long months since the last series ended.

Of course, this is all part of Mercurio’s clever flattery: his refusal to spoon-feed his audience, to slow down his dialogue even for a minute, or to rely just a tiny bit less on acronyms, gives us the feeling of having joined some secret society. This isn’t just any cop show. This is a PhD in police procedure; a veritable All Soul’s fellowship in doggedness, determination and how to make best use of an iPad in a tense interview situation.

This series would appear to have a dastardly new baddie in the form of John Corbett (Stephen Graham), the leader of an organised gang. But is he also the undercover cop whose handlers, having lost contact some months ago, fear may have gone native? AC-12, in the form of DI Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) and DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston, now with added beard), would love to know, though they’re also desperate to find out who leaked details of the drug convoy to Corbett’s lot.

This storyline is front and centre of the new series, but the show’s long history nevertheless hangs over it, like grubby net curtains. For me, Line of Duty is all about the gaffer, Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), now. Not since I was ten, and the Usborne Detective’s Handbook was my personal bible, have I been so obsessed with solving a case (alas, I can measure out my life, not in coffee spoons, but in police dramas from Juliet Bravo on).

Was the corrupt copper who is known as H (the name moaned by Dot Cottan in his dying moments) actually Derek Hilton, as Hastings now loudly insists? Or is H still out there (by which I mean: in there)? With every episode, Mercurio injects just a soupçon more fear into the hearts of those of us who have come to love Hastings. You hear his righteous brogue, and feel you would throw yourself in front of a bus for him. But then you see him returning to the cheap hotel where, separated from his wife, he’s now living, and where his latest bill has not yet been settled, and you wonder… Why the financial dire straits, Ted?

Fleming and Arnott’s loyalty to him, previously as solid as granite, is showing chinks: a quizzical glance cast here; a withheld sliver of information there. He is starting to sound, at his most indignant, slightly hammy, as if he’s only going through the motions. What lies beneath his pious wrath? An unsullied heart, or a crooked one?

In truth, I do not think we’ll find out any time soon. I read that series six has already been commissioned, and what would that be without the Super, and his eternal inability ever to believe quite what he is hearing? 

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers