TV Party: 'Bodyguard' on BBC1
The BBC show is the UK's most successful new drama in over a decade – but what's so good about it?
Screenshots via 'Bodyguard' / BBC
Welcome to TV Party, VICE's weekly TV column, brought to you by resident sad-act, me, Lauren O’Neill, where I basically just talk for a bit about the best (or worst) thing on telly this week. Best enjoyed with a plate of your favourite breaded item and an open mind. Contains spoilers, obvs. This week: 'Bodyguard'.
What was your favourite TV show as a kid? Grange Hill? Round the Twist? Rugrats? That must have been nice for you. Mine was The Bill.
For those who spent their childhoods playing outdoors and developing social skills, The Bill was an ITV police procedural drama which ran until 2010, and followed events at the fictional Sun Hill police station, set somewhere vaguely in London. On the days that The Bill would air, I had a routine. I liked to settle in on my nan's sofa, watching the Emmerdale / Corrie / Eastenders triple that preceded it as a sort of melodrama hors d’oeuvre, taking in their domestic concerns – affairs, blackmail, jacuzzis falling through ceilings – before the main event, with a saucer of Jacob's crackers and Cathedral City on my lap, and total serenity in my heart. I was probably about seven.
Though, thankfully, my taste for The Bill and its multi-episode serial killer arcs waned as I got a) older and b) dial-up internet, my more general love of the police procedural has sustained. Over the last couple of years, it's become clear that the UK does it better than anyone. US crime dramas like CSI might have the bombast, and Scandi noir is obviously the dominant aesthetic of the genre right now, but honestly if a couple of gruff, grim-faced lads standing in big coats by the Thames on a comically overcast day (they've got personal demons to battle and a murder to investigate!!) isn’t your idea of a good time, you can probably close this tab now, you wee shite.
Understandably, crime dramas tend to be the reserve of the "telly and glass of wine on the sofa" audience over the "Netflix and chips in bed" crowd, but with the rise of true crime podcasts like Serial and S-Town, and the online acclaim for US shows like Top of the Lake and the remake of The Killing, all this decade, it makes sense that millennials are coming around. In particular, it figures because, despite their unappealing subject matter (unless, like me, you were inexplicably obsessed with The Bill, the police dramas of your childhood probably just make you think about endless, grey Sunday afternoons round your grandad's, watching Inspector Morse), these shows are often marked by some of the best, most gripping and surprising writing on television.
They're mysterious, tense and frequently exhilarating, and that’s certainly true of many UK offerings. The last five years alone have seen our screens dominated by Broadchurch, Happy Valley, Marcella and, of course, the award-winning Line of Duty on the BBC, which follows a small anti-corruption team as they investigate crimes committed by fellow police officers.
Line of Duty spawned a huge social media fandom, and in general has become so popular and beloved – Adrian Dunbar spitting "bent coppers" at Vicky McClure may well be the avatar of the British crime procedural form – that its writer, Jed Mercurio, was tapped to create another series for the BBC in a similar vein. He came up with Bodyguard, which is now two-thirds of the way through its six-part run.
Bodyguard follows PS David Budd (played by Richard Madden, most notable for playing Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, if you were after, um, a reason to tune in), a troubled ex-soldier-turned-police-officer who is assigned as the personal police protection officer for the Home Secretary, Julia Montague (played by Line of Duty’s Keeley Hawes).
The intrigue comes from the fact that although Montague and Budd's politics oppose – in a manner that may yet prove to be pivotal *very suspicious face* – they develop a close personal bond and do some A+ boning (BBC viewers need An Outlet too!), leading to suspenseful uncertainty about his feelings towards her, as a politician who voted to send the armed forces – of which he was a part – to Afghanistan and Iraq, and feels no regret for doing so.
Madden carries the whole thing ably – he's much more intense here than he's had an opportunity to be in the past, and as such, he positions himself as a great male lead for the first time, handling his transition from "PS Budd looking vengeful in a suit" to "PS Budd looking vengeful in a baseball cap" with aplomb. The powder-keg vibe he gives Budd plays well off Hawes' controlled Home Secretary, unfurled slightly over the course of the episodes she appears in, up to her unexpected death.
Although it put a pin in their dynamic, it's big, risky 180s like this which are the best things about Bodyguard. The plot of the show is essentially the @Horse_ebooks "everything happens so much" tweet writ large – two episodes remain and we've had one lead character killed off and another presumed dead for a good five minutes – but that's balanced out by the naturalism of the script, where (accessible) political lingo dominates.
British viewers for these kinds of shows want proximity to real life, but also total removal from it, and the show's fast pace, with more twists than a rosé-fuelled auntie on a Butlins dance floor, provides a very satisfying viewing experience (I would also like to stress: Richard Madden's Jawline). It seems that the British public agree: its premiere did 10.4 million viewers across the live broadcast and catch-up, including 1.2 million 16 to 34-year-olds, giving it a 40.9 percent (40.9 percent!) audience share, "the highest launch figure for any new drama across all UK channels since 2006", according to the BBC. Understandably, then, it dragged ITV's time-slot competitor Vanity Fair (quite good but unfortunate and crucial lack of Richard Madden's Jawline) behind it, begging for mercy.
The show has been repeatedly startling, and it's a real treat that all I can say confidently about the remaining episodes of Bodyguard is that I have no fucking idea what is going to happen (my one take is thus: I don't think Julia’s actually dead! Because we didn’t see her die! Maybe it’s just wishful thinking because I’d like to see another sex scene! Either way: get me a tin-foil hat – I’m a truther!).
With over two hours of TV left to go, and considering the amount that Mercurio has managed to smush inside every second, it's quite possible that the finale will abuse our sympathies entirely and reveal Budd to be the harbinger of everything terrible that has gone on so far – but to be honest, that's the exciting part.
The ability to keep an audience guessing has been Mercurio’s calling card since he started Line of Duty, and it’s on fine, often enjoyably ridiculous, form in Bodyguard. Though a police procedural might sound more like one for your parents, there are certainly more than a few reasons – gripping writing, great performances, important Jawlines – why it's the biggest drama on UK television in over a decade. Stop stuttering "yeah... but Breaking Bad" and get involved.