Line of Duty has created a plausible fictional city in which AC12 can hunt down bent coppers and corrupt politicians. And it’s taken care over every detail from its geography to its power structures.
The unnamed city has an elected mayor, as well a police & crime commissioner and a city council. It has both a train and a bus system. When Vihan tries to run in season 5 episode 1, he is brought down in front of a bus queue and half of them don’t even look up from their phones.
It’s also got at least three hospitals: City, South Central and St Anthonys. Both Birmingham and Nottingham have a City hospital, but there are no South Central hospitals in the UK. The only St Anthonys is a private one in Cheam. Line of Duty is not set in Cheam.
The unamed city has two local papers, the Herald and the Evening Post, but does seem to be mysteriously free from copies of the Metro scattered everywhere. The names of the two publications evoke local papers perfectly, whilst clearly not being either the Birmingham Mail or the Manchester Evening News. Plymouth has a Herald but Line of Duty is not set in Plymouth.
The neighbourhood names are the really great touch. The phone box in season five is in Moss Heath, which is a name that suggests both Manchester’s Moss-side and Birmingham’s many Heaths. There’s a Moss Heath outside Formby, but that’s an actual heath and is unlikely to have a phone box with cards for Nikki9.
The golf club where Matthew ‘Dot’ Cottan was recruited by Huntley into the organised crime group is in Edge Park. It’s a leafy and well-to-do surburb, according to the scripts. There are lots of Edge’s in various cities in the Midlands and the North – I used to live at Netheredge in Sheffield. But there’s no Edge Park. There is Edgsbaston in Birmingham, which is indeed a leafy suburb.
The police station at the heart of season 1 is in Kingsgate: perhaps one of the most generic placenames possible, and which seems very plausible as a English city name. Birmingham has both Kings Heath and a Kings Norton, and a Queensgate. Manchester has a Deansgate. This sort of precisely wrong naming infuses the city with plausiblity: each new name seems probable because it echoes parts of real cities we know.
Details like the roads (the M6, A38 and A51 are all named) and the maps do strongly push towards Birmingham. And so far in season 5, we’ve seen both Midlands Ballistics Forensics Laboratory and a Nottingham Forest scarf. The first season was filmed in Birmingham, and subsequent seasons have been filmed in Belfast. Both cities provide a plausible post-industrial urban landscape. Yet the city remains determinedly “the city”.
Why is it fictionalised? Why not name a real city, with real police forces, real hospitals and real suburbs? Line of Duty strongly recalls ‘Red Riding’ which was explicitly set in Yorkshire, but was also set in the past. It was easy for viewers to create a distance from it using time. The fictional city also means writer Jed Mercurio’s sources are protected, and the show does not accidentally damage any genuine investigations.
By making Line of Duty about a contemporary unnamed but plausible corrupt city, it makes it applicable to any city. It exists in a liminal space where it could be your city, and your officials. Just so long as one of them has a name beginning with ‘H’.