The hero we need right now? That’s SI Ted Hastings, the unbreakable – well, he better be – chief of AC-12, the unit that’s held us rapt for four series of Line Of Duty and counting. Ted is the man with morals of iron. He sucks diesel like no other. And the man who brings him to the screen, Adrian Dunbar, spared us some time for a chat, before he had to get back to bringing down bent coppers.
Hello! How are you?
Yeah, mate! Good [I’ve never met SI Hastin… Adrian Dunbar before, but clearly I’m thrilled he’s called me mate]. Just got the news that we’ve been commissioned for a sixth series!
I just saw that. I trust you’re going to fill me in with spoilers for everything’s that going to happen over the next two series?
[Laughs. He is not]
As everyone wants to ask you about Ted Hastings, I’m going to kick off with Hear My Song instead, a terrific film you made in 1991. That’s where I first saw you. And when Ted Hastings appeared on my TV set, I thought I knew him.
I spoke to the film’s director and co-writer Peter Chelsom about Hear My Song the other year, and the two of you put the movie together, of course. It seemed fuelled heavily by you and your life experiences, and I wonder if Hear My Song was your Sylvester Stallone and Rocky moment? That you wrote it, and had to be in it?
Kind of was like that! It was a fabulous time, doing Hear My Song. It was a time when there were a lot of really good movies coming, but a lot were issue movies. There weren’t that many comedies around, and we wrote a comedy. We thought we’ll write it just for the fun of it.
Channel 4, British Screen, all these companies were ready for something like that to come along. It was quite plain sailing, once we’d given them the script. Within nine months!
We really worked hard on the script, and we brought a lot of our own stories to it. Some of the set pieces are things that happened to us and so forth. It was great fun.
We found a young actor called Jimmy Nesbitt. David McCallum back, because we loved The Man From U.N.C.L.E. when we were kids. All that kind of stuff came together. We had a fantastic shoot, an incredible crew in Ireland, at the end of it we thought we’d robbed an orchard or something! We’d got away with it!
Then we went into the edit, and hey presto, a fantastic film came out of it. Absolutely beautiful. Loads of heart, funny, great performances. A fabulous journey, and music-based as well.
Is there more of the personal storytelling itch that you want to scratch?
Yeah. I’m writing all the time, I never stopped writing. I also wrote another couple of films with Peter Chelsom, and they were really out-there films.
The thing about Hollywood and so forth is they’re great recognisers of talent after the event. They all say to you ‘if you’d brought that script to us, we would have given you the money’. But the fact of the matter is they wouldn’t. Some little strange quirky auteur filmmaker exists outside of that system.
We wrote two more films together, really good fun. One was called Freddy Randall Spends His Dad’s Money, which was about a guy who during the second World War, with a bunch of misfits, ends up capturing Rudolph Hess. The other was called Sam And The Sergeant, about a guy who was stressed, whose tension became manifested in an old sergeant from the second World War who was living with him – and nobody else could see him, of course. We wrote these way out films.
But I haven’t stopped writing myself for some time. I like Ealing. I was brought up watching Ealing comedy. At its best, it has a heart to it. A very attractive quality.
It’s quite telling, and a real testament to Ealing, that even the Coen brothers couldn’t quite capture what those films managed.
No! That’s right!
Comedy is essentially about watching a bunch of people who you really love lose their dignity. But you have to love them first. That’s the point, you’ve got to love these characters first. Once you love them, then you can have them slipping on a banana skin, and everybody starts laughing. So it’s great. I’m still doing that.
I’m doing a screenplay with my friend Simone Glover, called Vicky Draper And The Comedy Caper! A huge homage to Ealing. Also, I’ve written other things that are much smarter, noir-ish type films. I’ve done a lot of screenplays, and worked with a lot of people. It’s something that I keep doing.
I’m in a place at the moment where there’s a lot of variety in my life. I’m going to my home town of Enniskillen, and directing some Beckett over the summer. There are a lot of things like that going on, the theatre, the variety.
Now, though, that you’re the nation’s favourite, greatest superhero…
Well you are! We usually talk about Batman and Star Wars on our site, and it’s all out the window now Ted Hastings has become our hero of choice!
Does it, then, grease the wheels for you in any way? That you’ve had this huge hit role, as you’ve admitted yourself, one that’s come later on in your career. And you’d also said it’s had a transformative effect on your work. Does that help you get more things moving?
Yes, I suspect it will, simply because you’d be welcomed through the door.
It’s a very good calling card, Line Of Duty, and I think anybody involved with Line Of Duty. A high tide raises all the boats, and it’s great for everyone involved, including Vicky McClure, Martin Compston, Thandie Newton. It’s one of those shows where the writing is so good, and it has a transformative effect, and we shall wait and see how that manifests itself. Whether it means I get offered some interesting roles out there in film, in the theatre, in TV. That would be lovely, to be offered some interesting stuff, some decisions to make there.
But my life will not change. And things move on, the public moves on. I’m glad in a way that Jed writes everything himself, because it’ll be a couple of years now before we’ll be back. If it was 13 episodes every year, like Breaking Bad – the build that that show had was just incredible. I think that a bit of distance between each series of Line Of Duty will have an effect on everything.
We’ve just been told we’re doing series six, and we’re all very excited about that. We’re very proud of it.
When we hear these announcements – we know you’re back in series five – does that mean you’re at the stage where we can assume you’re in series six too? How far ahead do you and Jed see the path of Ted Hastings?
We don’t want you to die, is basically what I’m getting at.
[Laughs] I don’t think anyone wants Ted to die, least of all me!
We don’t want you personally to die either…
[Laughs] That’s alright, then!
You know something? Jed plays his cards very close to his chest. He might hint every now and again as to what might happen, but sometimes that’s to get us all thinking of it in a completely different direction. So we all head down there and hey-ho, turns out to be a bit of a blind alley actually. He’s actually headed off somewhere else. He even does that with us.
The only thing he’s ever said, is that if we were only doing five series, and the BBC hadn’t commissioned a sixth, he wouldn’t be able to plan six. So the story arc… what allowing us to do a sixth series is going to do, and thank you BBC, is to allow Jed to explore the personal relationships of the central characters. Which I think the audience is interested in now. I think he can probably do a bit more of that in-depth stuff in the next series, and then maybe wrap things up story-wise and storyline-wise in six.
Are you at the stage where you’ve talked about ending it? Maybe after the sixth series? Or is it a case of if the BBC keeps asking, you’ll keep coming back?
I think if the ratings stay the way they are! I think Jed always had it in his mind to do six series. I don’t think any of us at this point are believing that we’ll go any further than that. I think it’s probably going to finish at six.
At the launch of series four, Thandie Newton was talking about how precise Jed was over elements of the character of Roz Huntley. Jed has been open about the fact that Ted was envisaged as a very different character until you came in to audition. I wonder if you, as an actor, have ever had as good a relationship between writer and actor, and how that’s changed the character of Ted?
First thing I would say is that the relationship between writers and actors, in general, is probably the best relationship. They can only but help one another in what they do. But with Jed, yes, you’re right. I throw bits at him, he throws bits and pieces at me, it ends up on the page, sometimes I might change things slightly here and there. But I think we’re both on the same side, bringing different things and qualities to this character. It is a pretty fair 50/50 creation at this point, I’d imagine.
You talked about how future series will dig into the characters’ personal lives just before. Jed has also said that you and he have chatted about Ted’s earlier days, exploring his life in Ireland. Is that something you’re keen to do? My colleague did try and pitch an origin series for you to him, but he wasn’t having it…
[Laughs] I think, look, here’s the thing. Line Of Duty, AC-12 are a group of people investigating the police. As a TV programme, we can’t ever suggest which police we might be investigating, because that’ll lead to obvious problems. Wherever we are, it’s just another [unnamed] UK city.
But if we were looking to Ted, that might be a bit more difficult. We’ve said he’s come from a specific police force. I think it may not have anything to do with a police force in particular, maybe to do with individuals, I don’t know. I don’t know quite what’s in Jed’s head yet, because quite frankly I haven’t seen him since finishing the series. I might see him in a few weeks’ time, and quiz him over a glass of wine as to what is going to happen [chuckles].
Basically, we’re all just hammering the same man for information then?
That’s right. We’ll see. I’m hoping Ted will survive the next series and get to the sixth, but we don’t know the Byzantine nature of Dr Mercurio!
I really hope that’s what you call him on set!
Just one acting question. The interview sequences on Line Of Duty inevitably, rightly, get a lot of intention. But I’m curious: how is it when someone new is brought to that process now, to work alongside dab hands like yourselves? How does it alter things?
Well, we will have rehearsals, so that the day before, sometimes we need to take time off for some rehearsals to get the scenes up to speed. By the end of a rehearsal or just running the lines a few times, the new person gets a sense of actually how long it’s going to take, and what the twists and turns in it may be.
But still, once the camera turns over, it has its own pressure. We’re going to roll now, constantly, for the next 25 minutes. That’s a huge amount of time, Five seconds is a long amount of screentime. To run for 25 minutes, it just builds and builds. The crews get exhausted too, we’re rolling on three cameras sometimes, because you have to, else it’d take two days to shoot. They are marathons, and they are a signature.
I’ve got to learn them, too. I learn them like little one act plays. Sometimes when working on TV, especially when doing procedural cop work, you can refer to your notes. Your notes, of course, do contain, naturally, all the information you need.
However, you need to be able to see to do that! Sadly, I wear glasses to read! As Ted doesn’t wear glasses….
You can’t cheat, then!
I can’t cheat! So I have to learn them all!
I think we’re out of time. Can I ask, then, a wholly inappropriate and unprofessional way to end the interview. Could you just look, proudly, out of the window, as if I’ve cracked a connection in the case, and tell me I’ve done good work, son? I think I can get through life if you’ve done that.
[Pauses] Yeah. Alright. Well, look, well done son.
You’re doing a great job.
Just keep it up, alright?
I’ll try Adrian Dunbar. Thank you very much!
LINE OF DUTY SERIES 4 AND COMPLETE SERIES 1 – 4 BOX SET ARE AVAILABLE ON DVD FROM 8 MAY