Wide Angle

One of the U.K.’s Most Successful TV Writers Started Off as a Doctor

Jed Mercurio shares his unusual career transition.

A middle-aged, bearded white man with a confident smile.
Jed Mercurio Courtesy of Jed Mercurio

June Thomas: You’re a fully qualified doctor. Was it a tough decision to switch from practicing medicine to becoming a screenwriter?

Jed Mercurio: I was very fortunate that I never really had to make the decision. I was working as a resident in internal medicine when my first show was on the air and then it got ordered for a second season. So I ended up taking a sabbatical to work on the second season, and then I just kept extending that sabbatical. I never really felt that I was turning my back on medicine. I always thought that there was an opportunity to go back if TV didn’t work out. As the years went by and I got more involved in TV and farther away from medicine, it became clear that I was on a different career path.

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Are there things from your medical training that you use in your writing practice?

A number of the shows that I’ve worked on have been set in the medical world. That was a big part of my early career. The first show I did [Cardiac Arrest]—it was a little like Scrubs—is probably the best example. It was a comedy-drama built around the experiences of interns and residents. Then I did another show a few years later that was a much darker and more complex piece. It was an out-and-out drama set in obstetrics and gynecology, in a department that had multiple dysfunctions. It was an examination of how things can go wrong in the medical world. I guess the universal factor is that I’ve got primary experience of seeing very stressful life-or-death situations and have seen lots of people in those situations, coping with them and responding to them in different ways. So that gives me a template to write about that kind of scenario.

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I’m curious about when the desire to break into writing came. It’s difficult to get into medical school. You also served in the air force. During all those years, were you thinking, “This is great and all, but I just really want to be a writer”? When did that seed get planted?

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I never really wanted to be a writer until I got the opportunity. I was a fan of TV and film, and I certainly would have jumped at the opportunity, but I went to a very ordinary high school. There was no real opportunity to do creative things. There was a lot of pressure to do well in high school and give yourself the opportunity to get into a secure profession, and that was the path I took. I was a very science-y kid, and I ended up going to medical school. While I was at medical school, I joined the air force, and I was very much set on a career in military medicine. It was only when I responded to an ad in the British Medical Journal—a TV show in development was looking for medical advisers—that I got switched on to the idea of making some kind of contribution. I honestly never expected it to lead anywhere, so I was incredibly fortunate that it did.

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When you did get that break, were there things that you did to figure out how to be a good writer?

Initially, I was very fortunate to serve what you might describe as an apprenticeship with the producers on the show who were very experienced. They mentored me through a process of the absolute basics, from how you lay out a script to some fundamental guidance on how you structure your story. Then once I was delivering drafts, they were giving me great notes, which I was learning from. It was only when the first season aired and was a hit and there were more seasons to be written that I thought, “Well, I need to take this a little more seriously now.” That’s the point where I did the screenwriting workshops, the weekend courses, and read books on story structure and story construction.

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When you made that move from medicine to writing, did you feel like you were using different parts of your brain? Did it feel like you were stretching different muscles? What did it feel like to make that switch?

It definitely felt like I was getting into a new area. I’d always done very technical things. To do something that was quite creative was a real challenge, but also something that I really enjoyed. As the process went on, and as I learned more about it, it was something that I became more confident with. But initially, I have to be honest, I was very naive about writing, very naive about how TV worked. So it was something that I was doing as a hobby or as a sideline and with no real expectation that it would change my career path.

To listen to the full interview with Jed Mercurio, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.

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