End of the Line?

Over the past seven weeks, or so, I have written elsewhere on this website a review of each of the preceding six episodes of the blockbusting TV Drama, Line of Duty, writes Neil Wilby.

Those reviews, each of which also included a look ahead to the next instalment, and addressed the burning questions that grew in intensity each week, became increasingly popular on social media. Both the following, and the surprisingly generous praise, were welcome distractions from the daily grind of investigative journalism and court reporting. Fans reading Line of Duty theories was almost turned into a national pastime.

It was unfortunate that I was not at the top of my game, health-wise, for the much-anticipated Series six finale, and that, undoubtedly, contributed to feeling a little underwhelmed at its conclusion. A complete second look at episode seven, as per usual, plus a closer and further analysis of the key scenes and dialogue, again customary, have changed that view, markedly.

But, in keeping with the two most recent reviews (read here and here) we start with a look at the audience figures and the burning question as to whether last Sunday saw the end of the Line of Duty phenomenon – or will the immensely popular police corruption drama be reprised with one or two more seasons?

A total of 12.8 million viewers tuned in last week, which represented 56.2% of the total audience. 9.1 million tuned into Series six, episode one. Making a staggering 40% increase from start to finish of this season.

The BBC says it was the most watched episode of any drama since modern records began in 2002, although that does not include ‘soap operas’. The last time a TV drama got higher viewing figures was an episode of ITV’s long-running village bobby series, Heartbeat, in February 2001, which reached an audience of 13.2 million.

This is what Charlotte Moore, BBC’s chief content officer has to say: “Addictive event television, Line of Duty has kept the nation guessing for the last seven weeks, so it’s no surprise that last night’s jaw-dropping finale set a ratings record. 

Jed Mercurio is a master of his craft, and I would like to congratulate him and the entire cast and crew for delivering such an incredible drama series. I’m looking forward to having a conversation with the team about where we go next and what the future of the series might be.”

One of the many examples of the Mercurio brilliance is the way that he drew together and tied up so many loose ends, all the way back to Series One, whilst leaving the strong view that ‘The Fourth Man, the elusive ‘H’, had still not been unmasked by Central Police’s Anti-Corruption Unit, codenamed AC-12.

With so many fans, viewers and critics disappointed, at first blush, by the conclusion to the finale it would be a great shame if that was the abiding memory of a show that has lasted nine years and, especially latterly, captured and fired the imagination of such a large part of the population.

Will it return to our screens next year? A tentative ‘yes’ is the call. But a number of stars would not make the comeback even if that were the case. Most notably, the sublimely talented Kelly Macdonald whose presence as Detective Chief Inspector Joanne Davidson (promoted in episode five to Temporary Superintendent) has undoubtedly been a huge factor in Series Six being far and away the most successful ever.

The now incarcerated Superintendent Ian Buckells, played by another star performer, Nigel Boyle, is facing a lengthy prison sentence after taking the fall as the infamous ‘Fourth Man’, formerly and very often referred to as ‘H’. So, apart from occasional cameo appearances in the prison visiting area or AC-12 glass box he is ruled out, also.

Superintendent Ted Hastings, until very recently the Head of AC-12, would need an appeal to succeed against a coerced ‘go or face disciplinary proceedings’ retirement. Adrian Dunbar has, of course, been a focal point of the entire six seasons and, Mother of God, would leave big shoes to fill.

What did we learn from episode seven?

An enduring and overarching view has to be that, at a tender age, Detective Constable Chloe Bishop must be one of the best, and most pro-active, detectives ever to carry a warrant card for Central Police. Literally carrying her more seasoned Ac-12 colleagues over the line. Convincingly played by Shalom Brune-Franklin throughout this series, it will be one of the bigger tragedies if this rising star no longer has a Line of Duty stage upon which to showcase her outstanding talent.

Threaded through the finale was the burning question for Detective Inspector Steve Arnott and, more latterly, his fellow DI, Kate Fleming: Do they, in Steve’s words, ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ over the twin discoveries of £50,000 cash given to Stephanie Corbett, the widow of a serving undercover police officer, who was murdered by an Organised Crime Group (OCG), and the role that Ted Hastings played, inadvertent or otherwise, in that death. Kate was told, in a brief confession, that Steve was in a relationship with Stephanie who remained ‘a person of interest’ in present enquiries. DI Fleming also mused over whether Mrs Corbett was ‘blackmailing the gaffer’.

Apart from his habit of sleeping with witnesses or suspects, Arnott had other pressing personal matters to deal with. Not least, the long-delayed appointment with the Occupational Health Unit (OHU) after traces of painkiller and metabolytes of analgesics were found in a recent vocational random drug test. The end result was Steve having to surrender his ‘blue ticket’ which permitted him to carry a firearm and carry out high speed pursuits. The alternative offered by his therapist was enforced absence from duty.

His bad day at the office completed with a voicemail left on his mobile phone by the love-lorn Stephanie. Keen to resume, it seems, the non-policing under-covers operation at her Liverpool bungalow. The very thought of it brings on a back spasm beneath the underpass made famous in the closing scene of episode two by a burner phone handover to Jo Davidson by the now deceased Beardy Blue Van, the OCG’s Lewis Pickard.

In the closing scenes of episode six attention focused on whom, or what, might be beneath the concrete floor of the workshop used at the Whiterock Park Industrial Estate, by the OCG, to convert replica handguns into viable firearms. Untraceable ammunition rounds were also on the production rota.

Thankfully, there were no more bodies, or body parts, but the contents of the strongbox, uncovered by Detective Sergeant Chris Lomax and the forensic science investigation team, effectively solved the mystery of who murdered investigative journalist, Gail Vella. If not quite why and upon whose orders.

The fingerprints and DNA of Carl Banks, himself murdered in episode two by the OCG for bragging about the killing , were found on gloves stored in the strongbox, upon which blood spatter and gunshot residue were traced that inextricably links them to Gail. A cartridge recovered from the murder scene, at which Gail had been shot once, at close range, execution style through the back of the head, matched a workshopped handgun found in the same box.

Three other weapons, all short bladed knives, were linked respectively to the murders of two police officers, Detective Sergeant John Corbett (late husband of Stephanie) and PC Maneet Bindra; and OCG money launderer, Jackie Laverty.

Two of the knives, connected to Corbett and Bindra, had been handled at least once by rogue cop and OCG plant, PC Ryan Pilkington. He died in a lorry park shoot-out with Kate Fleming at the end of episode five.

The third knife was the one used, in Line of Duty’s Series One, to frame DCI Tony Gates for the murder of his then mistress, Mrs Laverty, when the weapon was placed in his hand whilst unconscious and after it had been used to slit her throat, by a gang of OCG killers wearing balaclavas, who had broken into her home during an illicit liaison between the two lovers. Gates was ruthlessly blackmailed by OCG boss, Tommy Hunter, thereafter, and until he ended his own life by waking in front of a truck. Classified by AC-12 as a death in the line of duty.

Hunter, himself, was killed in an ambush at the opening of Series two. At first it was believed to have been the work of the OCG, fearing he may ‘grass up’ other members. In the event, the perpetrator was bent cop, Matthew ‘Dot’ Cottan, who was anxious that police links to the OCG, including himself as the infamous ‘Caddy’, remained unexplored by AC-12.

Kate Fleming wryly observed that the stash appeared to have been kept as leverage against Gates, Banks and even Pilkington.

Steve Arnott was keen to know if the strongbox contained any links to any of retired bent cop, Chief Inspector Marcus Thurwell, Ian Buckells or the present Central Police chief constable, Philip Osborne.

Chris Lomax said not. But didn’t convince at all when ruling out Osborne.

Thurwell, meanwhile had been confirmed by Spanish police as one of two dead and rotting bodies found in his villa. His wife was the other. They had been ‘dead for several weeks’, said Chloe Bishop. Ted confirmed his title as AC-12’s after-timing champion by observing, belatedly, that ‘Spain was a decoy’ and ‘Thurwell is a stooge’.

One of the key scenes of the entire season, or any other season, took place in an AC-12 conference room as Hastings was tackled by Arnott and Fleming over the gaffer’s inappropriate, ill-thought out, potentially criminal actions that led to John Corbett’s death and the passing of criminal property to his widow in the form of £50,000 cash held back by Ted from an OCG investigation in Series Five.

Misconduct in public office on that scale, theft of such a large sum and money laundering are all serious offences. Stephanie Corbett would also have been prosecuted for handling or receiving criminal property. But the upshot was that Ted was deeply sorry, more than a little emotional over his past, and entirely improper, relationship with John’s mother, Anne Marie Gillis. He further considered that giving away a large sum of stolen cash was ‘by way of atonement’.

The episode wouldn’t have been complete without a Ted-ism and this week’s effort was in long form and didn’t catch the viewer’s imagination in the way his now famous ‘Jesus, Joseph Mary and the wee donkey’ did.

With a tear forming in his eye (Adrian Dunbar can act a bit, too) he showered his two subordinates in this emotional rendering:

‘Who’s going to judge what I did: Steph, the law, my colleagues, God’.

All that was good enough for Steve and Kate to not report him. Of itself, a criminal offence.

Aggravated by the fact that Steve was in an illicit relationship with Steph (about which Kate knew and chose not to report as a police misconduct matter) and was, possibly, having the occasional nostalgia nookie with Kate, given their bizarre ‘keys to each others houses and cars’ arrangement revealed to a bemused Chief Superintendent Patricia Carmichael in episode six.

So, the Mercurio message to Line of Duty‘s millions of viewers is that country’s best known Professional Standards team are all bent in varying degrees, the boss very seriously, and prepared to cover up serious criminal offences amongst themselves, whilst zealously pursuing others at the same time.

The action then, thankfully, stepped up a gear with the news that fans’ darling, Amanda Yeo, a civilian Specialist Technician in Central Police’s Cyber Crime Unit, and currently attached to AC-12, had come up with another ‘definate’ clue. It pointed to Jo Davidson being put in harm’s way by the OCG.

Whilst Ted, Steve and Kate sped off with an armed posse towards HMP Brentiss, Jo’s current abode, Chloe was instructed to search all files for derivatives of the mis-spelt word.

Meanwhile, Jo was being put in the back of an unmarked white prison van accompanied by two bent, OCG controlled prison officers, Jenny Leland and Alison Merchant. A seemingly fake Production Order had been signed off by D/Sgt Lomax and DI Fleming which, purportedly, required her attendance at Hillside Lane Police Station.

It signalled a return of the OCG’s signature mode of transport, the late model Range Rovers with privacy glass. Two of them turned up to block in a white van in a residential backwater, but somewhere along the route there had been a deft switch and in the van were Fleming and Arnott. The ambush, abduction and probate killing of Supt Davidson was quickly quelled; the OCG goons and the bent prison officers quickly rounded up and loaded into other arriving police vehicles.

Jo was taken to an interview room away from AC-12, assured she was now safe and, once again, offered witness protection if she gave up the name of the bent cop whom, for most of her life, she had believed was her father – and the man whom she thought was ‘The Fourth Man’, or ‘H’.

Th information led to an armed convoy heading at high speed, led by Ted Hastings, to HMP Queen’s Chase to the cell of paedophile Patrick Fairbank. The fact that Ted was a former good friend and fellow member of the same Masonic Lodge did not appear a barrier to remaining on this strand of the investigation.

Nevertheless, the expected computer equipment and burner phone(s) were not found concealed in Fairbank’s rather splendidly appointed living quarters. His subsequent post-search interview, before a scathing Hastings, Fleming and Arnott, revealed very little apart from some very good acting, yet again, by the excellent George Costigan.

Meanwhile, more dogged detective work by AC-12’s star team, Bishop and Yeo, pointed the finger towards HMP Blackthorn and Ian Buckells. To the undisguised amazement of Hastings, Arnott and Fleming. ‘He’s been under our noses all the time’. Quite so. She had worked alongside him, twice undercover, on three separate operations in 2012, 2017 and 2019.

Away sped the now familiar Ted-led armed convoy and, this time, the communications equipment they were looking for was found neatly stashed away in his cell.

The OCG-controlled bent prison officers in that jail had worked the oracle by smuggling what was necessary for the encrypted messaging service to remain as a key part of contact between the criminals and their police associates.

As with the Jo Davidson ‘glass-box’ interview in episode six, the interview scene with Ian Buckells, and the enduring, familiar AC-12 trio of Ted, Kate and Steve was a writing and acting masterclass. Making up for the absence of gunfire, throat-slitting, high speed vehicle chases and, surprisingly, a static body count for the first time in any episode this season.

In the end, the anti-corruption cops were just too smart for the bungling, incompetent, but seriously bent, police officer. Whom, in another more catchy Hasting’s Ted-ism ‘failed upwards’. Aided, and over-promoted, by other bent senior officers.

After repeating the ‘No comment’ scenario from the previous week, but, again, with each unanswered question slowly grinding out more of the truth, there was a dramatic change of heart from Buckells: A whispered conversation with his Police Superintendents’ Association representative, was followed by a smug announcement that he wanted immunity from prosecution and entry into the witness protection programme in exchange for ‘going quietly’.

His reasoning, taken at its face, appeared sound: Chief Superintendent Carmichael was not in the room, wedded to the ‘no institutionalised corruption in Central Police narrative’. As was the chief constable who put her in place as the new anti-corruption supremo. They would both want to make all this reputation-damaging scandal ‘go away’.

But, after admitting having had a hand, however passive, in multiple murders and attempted murders of police officers – and Gail Vella – he was trapped by one of the oldest tricks in the book. He was asked if Philip Osborne was the remaining ‘Mr Big’, still at large, amongst the heavily populated ranks of corrupt Central Police officers. More specifically, was he part of the conspiracy to murder Gail Vella.

Buckells was stumped. Not at all assisted by Steve Arnott pointing out that he could not qualify for witness protection if he refused to co-operate with AC-12’s enquiries – and answer all their questions, particularly the one about the bent chief constable.

Kate Fleming then chimed up with the killer line that, having admitted to conspiracy to murder, such a confession under caution, and on tape, would also rule out entry to the scheme.

So, Buckells was left with the stark, if unspoken, choice. Grass up Osborne and face almost certain, and imminent, death at the hands of the remnants of the OCG. Or, take his chance and die the slower death of an indeterminate or full life prison sentence, praying that his OCG, bent cop and bent prison officer ‘friends’ would arrange a scheme to spring him from jail.

He chose the latter and was last seen entering a prison cell in the dreaded segregation unit where inmates are placed for their own protection. Often in isolation.

A short, but touching, unrequited love scene followed in the Red Lion as Kate and Steve shared a couple of celebratory pints. The Fleming flame no longer burns for Jo Davidson, so it seems, and the deep pools of those limpid eyes seemed focused again on the real love of her life. She tried very hard, but failed, not to look jealous when enquiring about the score in the Steph and Steve love match. She didn’t want Steve to end up alone, to which our resident Lothario replied enigmatically: ‘I won’t be on my own. I’ve got you, mate’.

The moving on from Jo, and her regard for Steve, seemed complete as Kate underwent her post-incident OHU therapy. She confirmed that there was no-one in her life apart from son Josh, but, when asked about support from friends and colleagues, she said she ‘worked with one of the best’. Adding, ‘to be honest I don’t know what I’d do without him’.

But the very good news is that Kate told Steve that she would be returning to anti-corruption duty as ‘someone has got to keep you in line’.

The rest of the episode was spent on housework. Sweeping up debris and tying together of loose ends:

Ted is appealing against the retirement edict and has confessed to Patricia Carmichael over his part in the murder of John Corbett, now placing his whole future in the hands of the ultimate ice maiden. Who had interrupted this life changing Hastings by insisting he watch Chief Constable Osborne claim credit for the solving of the Vella murder, still despising and decrying those who claim that there is institutional corruption within Central Police. Instead laying the blame on ‘the misdeeds of a few rotten apples’.

A speech signed off with the standard ‘lessons would be learned’ edict. No police leadership pronouncement on this subject is complete without one.

C/Supt Carmichael had, a short time earlier, given an indication of how that might play out for Ted when telling Kate Fleming, Steve Arnott and Chloe Bishop, tartly, that ‘police officer corruption cases are not a priority’. This was in response of a proposal that they investigate those police officers who served on the corrupted Lawrence Christopher case in 2003. One of those, of course, being DI Osborne, as he was then. Now the chief constable.

The new ‘gaffer’ (she hates that handle) also seemed unmoved by the fact that Darren Hunter, son of deceased OCG kingpin, had been arrested in a renewed enquiry into the death of Lawrence Christopher: ‘Good luck with that project’ appeared to indicate that it might not all be plain sailing and free from senior officer interference or obstruction. Or the conventional assassination of those who pose a threat to the OCG secrets and their police connections.

As Hunter the younger was taken into custody he walked past D/Sgt Lomax, who bears a striking likeness to one of the other four suspects.

But the wrap on this season, and maybe for the final time in Line of Duty, was a Ted Hastings valediction to the work of his colleagues and the AC-12 unit as a whole. He urged his successor, the visibly unmoved Patricia, to ‘carry the fire’.

The irony of the Hastings references to truth and accountability was not lost on those steely eyes staring him down. Nor would it be lost on anyone else who has to confront the malpractice in any other Professional Standards Department in the wider police service.

Happy endings for some

Apart from the cobbled cottage new life for Joanne Davidson referred to in the opening paragraphs of this, PC Farida Jatri, who had been a former lover for the prolific Jo and then ‘fitted up’ by her as an OCG member, was seen returning to duty at Hillside Lane Police Station. A rare triumph for truth and justice.

It was not only a happy ending for Terry Boyle, who was seen being led from a car by his real life mother, to the door of a new socially assisted home and a waiting friend, but the family of Tommy Jessop, who was another actor who turned in a star performance throughout Series six.

Boyle was originally, and very cleverly, framed for the murder of Gail Vella by the OCG and their police accomplices. But, as the case unravelled, there was not a scrap of viable evidence against him. Terry also had the shared distinction, with Kate Fleming, of surviving a murder attempt by Ryan Pilkington. Six other police officers and an unknown number of others were not so fortunate.

Not a dry eye in this house. What about yours?

The questions left hanging from previous reviews on this website

(i) The nagging doubts, more fully articulated in last week’s review, still persist about D/Sgt Chris Lomas and suspected links to either the OCG, Ian Buckells, Philip Osborne or, even, Joanne Davidson.

(ii) We didn’t learn why Jo and Kate Fleming decided to flee the lorry park after the shooting of Ryan Pilkington by the latter. Nor are we any wiser about either the status, or the future, of Kate and Jo’s once-blossoming relationship. Except that it probably led to a most extraordinary decision to overlook a catalogue of the most serious criminality in favour of a charmed and charming life in witness protection. With the only ‘pay-off’ for Central Police appearing to be a dud link to Patrick Fairbank.

(iii) What to make of the enigma that is Chief Superintendent Patricia Carmichael? One thing we do know is that the part is brilliantly played by Anna Maxwell Martin and another 10/10 for the Line of Duty casting team. What we still don’t know is her status as an anti-corruption officer. She is an admitted pragmatist (overlooking Jo Davidson’s fairy story about killing Ryan Pilkington whilst holding Kate Fleming’s gun) but no fire carrier. A disciple of the chief constable, does that philosophical approach place her own career advancement above that of destroying the reputation of Central Police and the wider police service?

(iv) There was no clue either as to the contents of the West Yorkshire Police folder that appeared on the desktop of Steve Arnott’s computer during episode five. Except that the Professional Standards Department of that force has long been regarded as one of the most troubled across the forty-three Home Office police forces.

The residual questions at the conclusion of Series six

(i) The questions of whether there will be a seventh or eight renewal of Line of Duty has been touched upon earlier in this piece. As has the issue of whether Buckells really was The Fourth Man or had to take the rap for him in fear of his life.

(i) Who killed Marcus Thurwell and his wife? Strangled in their own villa and their bodies left to rot. No messages from Buckells in this regard were found on his devices. One inference is that Mr Big is still at large, another could be more simple: He had over-reached his influence in the Spanish underworld and met the same fate as so many in the same situation. Following their seizure by police, it was revealed that the encrypted messages sent by Buckells had been routed via Thurwell’s communications devices in Spain.

Another clue that Mr Big is still active and at large was the strangling of bent lawyer Jimmy Lakewell, by OCG enforcer Lee Banks, in the presence of Ian Buckells. ‘This is what happens to rats’ says Banks in front the hapless superintendent, not looking at all the the all-powerful criminal mastermind.

Will the OCG, or splintered OCGs as we learned, re-form or consolidate to, once again, be a dominant force on the local or regional crime scene? With or without a network of corrupt police officers aiding, and feeding off, their enterprises to live secret lives populated by lavish property portfolios, fast cars and even faster women. Not to mention an on-call militia to eliminate threats or enemies.

The verdict

Upon reflection and after the careful analysis that goes into the writing of these articles the initial feeling of disappointment, as the credits rolled, has now dissipated. Whilst episode seven was much more nuanced than some of the previous instalments with loose ends being tied up rather than new ones left dangling it was, in my respectful submission, a very clever, well thought out conclusion. Enough of an ending to wrap up one of the best TV dramas of our time. But the door left sufficiently ajar for a new season, if that’s the way The BBC and Jed Mercurio go.

The dream team

Head of re-constituted ACU would be Patricia Carmichael, with Steve Arnott, Kate Fleming and Chloe Bishop re-investigating the Lawrence Christopher murder – and in so doing draw in Chris Lomax, Ian Buckells (from prison) and Philip Osborne. Amanda Yeo would head up a re-named Hi-Tech Unit.

Thank you

Last but not least I’m grateful to all those who have read, and indeed made valuable contributions to these Line of Duty articles. To those from whom I’ve received words of of encouragement, or generous praise, or both, a special thanks. Many of us follow the vocation of journalist for mainly those reasons – and definately not the money!

Page last updated: Saturday 8th May, 2021 at 1035 hours

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article. I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

Picture credits: BBC, World Productions.

© Neil Wilby 2015-2021. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby Media, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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