Jed Mercurio, writer and creator of Sky 1's hit medical drama Critical, talks to PRN about his transition from doctor to showrunner.
As a nurse who has worked in a major trauma centre in a busy London hospital, I felt the same adrenalin rush when watching the first episode of Critical as if I was standing there myself waiting for the trauma call to arrive. The setting may have have slightly less familiar to me - slick, swooshy lifts and a digital scribing system rather than old fashioned pen and paper, but the sense of expectation and trepidation felt just as real.
Experience and personal perceptions of reality are recurring themes throughout my interview with Jed Mercurio, creator and showrunner of Critical. Mercurio says it was an ambition of his to make the show as “clinically and technically accurate as possible.” The emphasis being on ‘as possible’ - during research and discussions with a large group of medical advisers, Mercurio says often there would be variations in how units or individuals carried out different clinical procedures; ”you end up having to make a decision about whether you are representing something that follows a Gold Standard, because as soon as you depart from faithfully following a Gold Standard you’re into an area of discretion whereby if someone misses out part of an algorithm, or deliberately cuts a corner, or unwittingly cuts a corner, how representative of medical practice is that? The fact is, there are a wide variation of medical practices and wide variations in how practice is enforced.”
If it sounds like Mercurio has an uncanny grasp on the medical world, it’s because he originally trained as a doctor. Critical is his third medical drama and has been widely acclaimed as a success: arresting visuals, uncompromising medical jargon and visceral, technical procedures are blended beautifully with a gripping narrative and scalpel-sharp acting. However, this dramatic depiction of a certain kind of accuracy inevitably leads to people applying their own experiences to clinical procedures, and therefore often looking for inaccuracies. Mercurio says this level of scrutiny was expected and medical advisors who work as major trauma consultants in environments such as the one on Critical were on hand to respond to the predictable social media naysayers. Of people’s need to look for mistakes he says; “ you watch TV drama with a different suspension of disbelief. When you’re in real life you trust your sensory input...if you’re watching a TV drama you know it’s fake so therefore you’re looking to use what knowledge you have - or think you have- in order to point out where it’s obviously fake. So often people are challenging themselves to pick holes in it. The problem is it’s really embarrassing if you reveal that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Mercurio had an opportunistic entrance into television when he answered an advert in the British Medical Journal looking for doctors to help develop a TV series. Cardiac Arrest was aired in 1994 and was the result of two years of writing, editing and developing. It showed an idealistic newly qualified doctor's experiences in the NHS and was groundbreaking in its portrayal of less than angelic nurses and bullying consultants. After Cardiac Arrest, Mercurio returned in 2004 with another medical drama, Bodies, which delved into the murky world of medical malpractice within an obstetric unit. He is also responsible for BAFTA nominated and hugely popular series Line of Duty, a Police procedural which, again, garnered praise for it’s attention to detail and which starred Lenny James, who plays trauma consultant Glen Boyle in Critical.
The actors in Critical had to undergo rigorous training in order to portray their characters convincingly, according to Mercurio. This included attending a ‘boot-camp’ at St George's hospital where they shadowed their counterparts for a couple of weeks. They also had to learn and understand the medical jargon as spoken by their characters, and rehearsal time was used to learn clinical procedures on prosthetics before building in dialogue and character moments.
I ask if Mercurio is making any comment on the NHS in Critical and the answer is no; “it’s too big a subject. In the way that I think there isn’t a singular medical culture, I don’t think the NHS is a single institution. I think it’s so big, and so diverse. We’ve all had experiences of working on ‘good’ units and ‘bad’ units - units where we’ve felt more supported by our colleagues, units which have effective leadership and units which don’t. Therefore there’s so much diversity I think it’s very hard to make a global comment about it.” This is reflected in people’s reactions to the ultra-modern almost space-ship like setting of the major trauma centre in Critical. “Lots of people who had never worked in that environment said ‘that doesn’t look like an NHS hospital’, but there are parts of the NHS that do look like that.” The Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham was a large influence on the visual style of Critical, as were other new-build major trauma centres.
If Critical is Mercurio’s final medical drama series, as he has suggested, it is a fine way to complete the trio. After spending even a short time with Mercurio it became clear to me that his refusal to buy into generalised opinion and favouring fact over conjecture are part of his success. He says of this;” I value facts higher than opinions. Being the showrunner I have to make decisions and the best decisions I make are based on fact rather than someone’s opinion.” A trait that his medical training surely must have played a part in nurturing.
Critical is shown on Sky 1 HD on Tuesdays at 9pm.
After our interview it was announced there will be a new series of Line of Duty.