As the new BBC One series is due to air, series writer and former RAF Officer, Jed Mercurio talks about inspiration and his time in the RAF.
What made you decide to join the Royal Air Force?
I’d always been interested in aviation and actually when I went to medical school I was doing some research into breathing problems and I happened upon a research paper from the Institute of Aviation Medicine (IAM) down in Farnborough and it got me very interested in the idea of what aviation medicine might be, and I did a little bit of background research and made contact and it was actually John Ansting, who was running IAM back then, who invited me down for a tour and I just found the whole thing so fascinating. And also, it seemed very important to overcome the human factors in flying so that the Royal Air Force could perform better in its flying duties and that was what motivated me entirely to join. I was able to put together my interest in medicine with my interest in flying.
When did you join?
I first started to show an interest in joining in my third year at university which was an Intercalated BSC in Pharmacology, and then I went through the selection procedure and was lucky enough to be commissioned into the Royal Air Force at the end of that third year and then when I went back into medical school. I was at the beginning of my third year of medicine, so I had another three years of medicine to do, and I was a Pilot Officer in the medical branch on a full cadetship for three years and then became a Flying Officer for one year during my pre-registration house jobs.
How did you balance your studies with your RAF commitment?
It requires a lot of flexibility to get the most out of the opportunities that are open to you when you join the Royal Air Force as a student but I was very fortunate that in medicine there are times when you are doing private study, or you can defer some work, or there are just gaps in the day, and I was very fortunate that I was at Birmingham which is only half an hour drive from Cosford, so I was often able to come out here for half the day, get some flying experience, hang out with the other guys who were in the Air Squadron. There was a very active social life as well which was a big part of it so we had town nights once a week at our town headquarters which were just near the halls of residence on the University of Birmingham campus. So there was a lot to do but I think one of the expressions I heard in the Royal Air Force back then was that if you want a job doing give it to a busy man, but it was all part of the RAF ethos to encourage people to join in, to push yourself to the limit and to make sacrifices so you can participate.
What were your fondest memories?
Very much my fondest memories of being here on the University Air Squadron at RAF Cosford is the camaraderie. That building of team spirit, working together and achieving together, I think that again is very much part of what was instilled into us, and we had a fantastic bunch of QFIs (Qualified Flying Instructors) who were real mentors in terms of what we wanted to achieve in flying careers, but also in terms of what we wanted to be as Officers.
How did you become a writer?
Becoming a writer was a bit of an unexpected twist in my life. I certainly had no plans to be involved in anything creative, I loved flying and was very committed to a career in aviation medicine, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to pursue that in the way that I wanted to because there were cutbacks following the end of the Cold War. The job of Medical Officer Pilot was cut from the opportunities open to RAF medical branch officers, so I had to do a serious rethink about where I was going and it was during that time that I got an opportunity to advise on a medical drama for TV which then led to an opportunity to write the scripts. The timing was very fortunate for me that one career seemed to be coming to an end just as another door was opening.
Has your flying experience influenced your writing?
I wrote a novel called Ascent which was about a Russian pilot who served in the Korean War and then became a cosmonaut in the space race and it was hugely informed by my experiences of flying at UBAS (University of Birmingham Air Squadron) and also some of the fast jet flying I was fortunate enough to do during my detachments to RAF Valley. What I really wanted to give the reader was an immersive experience, an idea of the sensory experience of being a pilot at the very limits of your operating capacity. So I kind of reached back into my memories to remember what it was like flying here and flying at Valley and some of the visual imagery comes directly from RAF Cosford. When I was thinking of the airfield that the Soviet Air Force was using in the novel, ‘An-Tung’ in northern China I actually did no research on this, it was a fictional base and I just imagined RAF Cosford.
Would you make a military drama?
People often ask me whether I would be prepared to write a military drama, and that’s not something I would ever close the door on. I think it’s very difficult to represent the forces on mainstream TV. I think there’s still a lot of ignorance about what forces life is like and possibly that then makes it very hard to do an authentic drama. I think there ends up being a pressure between the necessities of drama and the rightful desire to give a true reflection of military life so I think then it becomes very hard to secure the kind of cooperation you would need from the Ministry of Defence and any forces units in order to make the drama appear authentic, and so I think it’s a bit of a double edged sword. I certainly think it would be very interesting maybe to do something that was a true story, a drama based in fact because then everybody is pushing in the same direction. Everyone wants to be as true to reality as possible.
What would you say to someone considering a career in the RAF?
I would heartily recommend a career in the Royal Air Force. I do look back as my time in the Royal Air Force as being some of the best days of my life. It’s incredibly enjoyable, you will make friends for life and you’ll also be a part of something bigger and you get experiences you could just not get in any other organisation.
Series 5 of Line of Duty starts on Sunday 31st March at 9pm on BBC1.