TV Preview: Bodyguard – BFI Southbank

Bodyguard - BBC1

A more public role than ever before, we are used to reflecting on the profile and lifestyle of our politicians from every angle. Culturally, there are plenty of examples of work that position MPs and Cabinet Ministers in their wider context; we’ve seen them from their own perspective in dramas like The Deal  and Coalition, we’ve seen them through the eyes of their closest aides and party whips in the original House of Cards, Yes Minister and stage play This House, and we have reflected on their role in broader circumstances as part of ensemble dramas like David Hare’s recent Collateral. Now, acclaimed writer Jed Mercurio adds to this portfolio with his new six-part thriller Bodyguard that pits the Home Secretary against her closest support, her Protection Command officer.

At the premiere of Episode One at the BFI last week with accompanying Q&A, writer Jed Mercurio stressed the importance of subtly grounding his work in the fears, concerns and issues of our age, while structuring work-based scenes around the individual’s need to do their job, and such conversations must reflect the natural interactions that allow people to fulfil their role. Often, the pursuer and the pursued toy with the truth, using silence and stillness as tools to create dramatic depth and credibility. Mercurio’s writing is notably free of excessive exposition and, as audiences have seen in fast-paced dramas Line of Duty and Cardiac Arrest, information is specifically revealed to the viewer at the right time or deliberately unfolded in realistically-constructed conversation.

As one member of the audience inevitably pointed out, the title brings with it a ready-made degree of expectation. But those expecting a brick-wall Kevin Costner-type slowly being thawed by his flamboyant and desirable charge, with tense actions scenes at the Oscar, all the to the strains of ‘I Will Always Love You’ will be disappointed. Bodyguard may share a title and a central male-female dynamic but, so far, there the allusions end.

On the basis of Episode One, which largely established the characters, context and a complicated power dynamic, this TV drama will head in a very different direction, challenging the ability of our two public servants to undertake their roles. And, with a troubled backstory, the show asks questions about a bodyguard’s ability to do his job in compromised political circumstances. As Keeley Hawes, who plays Home Secretary Julia Montague, explained the focus will be on deciding whether the life being protected is worth saving.

Yet, Episode One starts by exploring that idea in quite another context. Mercurio likes a high-tension opener and previous series of Line of Duty have begun with a dramatic police operation that will be repeatedly unpicked in the ensuing weeks. In Bodyguard, Mercurio uses what will (probably) be an isolated incident in the overall story, but one carefully designed to give the viewer an immediate insight into the core context of the drama – an atmosphere of terrorism and suspicion – that ground it in our recognisable reality. It also introduces us to our anti-hero David Budd, played by Richard Madden, whose perspective we will follow for the next six episodes.

Putting him instantly into a tense and carefully pitched incident in a public setting establishes not just his family situation, but almost wordlessly reveals aspects of his personality that will be crucial to the direction and resolution of the core plot later in the show. Without talky exposition, we see a constantly alert David, aware of everything around him, assessing a situation and feeling a duty to help without fear for his personal safety. He takes command, instantly calculating both the wider safety of the public and the humanity of the criminal, balancing his response to the situation, asking us to see him as smart (or reckless) enough to defy instruction where his own reading of a situation differs.

A high-stakes incident on a train full of families and innocent passengers emphasises the normalcy and rather grim condition of public transport in the slightly washed-out visual effect. Here, Mercurio places the viewer in a highly recognisable situation, a contained environment in which travellers have no power to control their speed, direction or immediate circumstances. In around 20-minutes, a fair chunk of Episode One, the writer gives us visual clues about David that confirm his level-headedness and compassion in a situation where most would panic.

As a variety of official security groups attempt to take control – all notably played by women – David only trusts his own assessment of the situation, and his ability to read the behaviour of individuals. How this affects what’s to come remains to be seen, but Mercurio uses this entire scenario as a shorthand introduction to the character we will invest-in over the coming weeks. That whatever else we learn about him, under pressure he kept control of himself.

But, David is not a classic selfless hero, and the scenes that follow are designed to act as a forerunner for the confliction he will encounter in the episodes ahead. From a seemingly happy family life, his personal circumstances are soon shown to be considerably more broken, and his experience as a soldier in Afghanistan will come to define the new role he is about to assume with the Home Secretary. Instantly, our perspective on what we have just seen on the train changes. Madden shows David visibly blanch,  clearly now more than an attempt to quell his fears, and instead it’s a nod to an earlier combat experience – suddenly Mercurio has turned us around, making a couple of easily missed moments of pause on the train make sense in a new way. And, though never explicitly referred to, we begin to understand that a PTSD theme will shape the future of this story.

Crucially, David is advised more than once to seek help for anger and related issues with the term “PTSD” on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but never actually vocalised. Panel Chair Kate Adie noted that there is an average 13-year delay between people experiencing a traumatic event and seeking help, so David sits within that timeframe, still unwilling to admit his experiences are having a damaging effect, or that his responses are now beyond his control. Mercurio explained that an official diagnosis would result in a “career hiatus”, forcing David to take a break from a job he seems to love, and, as Episode One implies, the only stability he has.

Asked about drawing on veteran testimony, Madden explained that few wanted to talk about it openly even among his group, but Bodyguard will deliberately avoid “crass flashbacks”, relying on the strength of Mercurio’s characterisation to reveal the interior life of the individuals he creates. Madden captures David’s inconsistencies extremely well, moving credibly from the anxious but calm control of the train scene to the emotive interactions with his family members, and the curt formality of his engagement with the Home Secretary. “I was attracted to the contradictions within the character… fighting with himself” Madden explained, aptly creating the complexity in David’s character that offers multiple avenues for the story’s trajectory. He uses the silences to grapple with his introspective moments, suggesting a man whose professionalism at work and more destructive personal circumstances will soon collide.

In this first episode, our impression of the Home Secretary Julia Montague, played by Keeley Hawes, is largely through the eyes of her surrounding staff. A subplot with a chaotic intern reveals an almost callous disregard of individuals who fail her, and our early impressions are purposefully coloured by David’s knowledge that she voted for the war he had to fight. Hawes is excellent in a difficult role where her initial purpose is largely to embody the preconceptions the audience has about senior politicians and the complaints of other characters – “I don’t need you to vote for me, only to protect me” she tells Budd coldly.

Affecting a slightly more refined accent suggesting the product of an expensive boarding school and Oxbridge, Hawes’s Julia cuts a powerful figure, determined to be publicly visible and impatient with the trivialities that appear to impede her work, seen in the impatience she displays when David checks her home each night. But Hawes hints at something more beneath this image, a humanity that the ensuing weeks may well reveal, as David comes to understand the person he’s now working for. Nothing in a Mercurio drama is black and white, so we can expect a spectrum of behaviour from this character and the rug pulled from under us as David’s approach to her changes.

There is much to draw upon in this opening episode, which nicely establishes a set of intriguing characters, a context of instability and fear, and a central relationship that could develop in many ways. We’re also promised the arrival of Gina McKee heading a much wider cast, so it’s clear larger forces will soon be at work. Drawing on his medical experience and RAF background, Mercurio’s writing continues to resonate because it takes a new perspective on seemingly familiar public service roles and explores the lasting consequences of corruption, ineptitude and poor decision-making. At the end of Episode One, what’s in store for David and Julia is unknown, but with so many interesting threads to draw on, and compelling lead performances, it’s all set to be a cracking and unmissable drama.

Episode One of Bodyguard was previewed at the BFI Southbank followed by a Q&A with Jed Mercurio, Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes, chaired by Kate AdieEpisode One will air on BBC1 on Sunday 26 August at 9pm . Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 600 shows. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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