What we really thought of the ratings-busting series.
I know what you’re thinking. Why now? Why review a series when every man, woman, child, animal, vegetable and mineral in the country has already had their say on it? It’s immediately carved out a place for itself in British television history, with the Beeb’s best audience share on a programme for over a decade (previous title holder Downton Abbey, whose narrative structure of master and servant is shared here, which probably speaks volumes about the British psyche) and finally made Jed Mercurio a household name in a way the cultish Line of Duty has seemingly failed to do so, despite being four seasons deep. More than that, it’s a rare example of an episodic drama capturing the imagination of a nation on a weekly basis – a genuine word of mouth phenomenon that isn’t supposed to happen this way anymore and would have any broadcaster crawl over broken glass to replicate. I think even the BBC were surprised by the reaction it’s received (and immediately lost the rights to as it’s ironically produced by ITV).
Well, you may or may not have noticed a Sunday-shaped hole for it in our weekly reviews and that’s because here at The Killing Times Towers we’ve been debating since its first episode aired if it really held itself up enough as a crime drama to warrant our attention. We’re definitely card-carrying members of Team Jed and Line of Duty fan club, which is surely one of the best crime dramas of the last 20 years – and I’ll sulk if anybody says otherwise – but something about Bodyguard immediately went off in another direction, towards the conspiracy thriller end of the market, and that put me off. I contrast it against the BBC’S earlier offering Collateral, which had similar themes around terrorism but was very much more grounded in being a police procedural. By dropping the inevitable grind of detective work, Mercurio was no longer hampered by reality and subsequently turned everything up to eleven. Bodyguard is deliriously silly: a ludicrous confection that consistently tip-toes over your credulity to see just how much an audience can take without throwing their remote control in anger at the television screen; a show so assured of itself it was capable of keeping a whole nation mesmerised as a man fiddled with duct tape for 40 minutes and considered it entertainment. Subsequently I am now convinced Jed Mercurio is an evil genius.
I’m not going to get into the episode by episode plot of the show (I heartily recommend Lousia Mellor’s hilarious recaps over at Den Of Geek for that), but suffice to say it is a typically twisting narrative from the man who brought us the complex machinations of AC-12. Firstly, Keeley Hawes and Richard Madden are on exemplary form as the Home Secretary Julia Montague and her protective officer David Budd – but you can’t put a national treasure and a Poldark-level mancandy in the same room without sparks flying and setting a nation of knees trembling. The ‘romance’ between the pair was the first casualty of reason in the story and hilarious in its clinical functionality as there was a complete absence of chemistry between the main stars, to the point where Hawes resorted to a supposedly alluring spot of self-service in one scene that had all the eroticism of an MOT inspection.
But apparently the British are easily pleased and the so-called ‘steamy’ trysts made front-page headlines and sold papers – suddenly the BBC had a hit on its hands, and with only half a season aired too. Winner winner chicken dinner. As is the way with these things, every good romance needs a tragedy and Mercurio delivered that in explosive spades when he did the hitherto unthinkable and blew up his main star – literally. To my dying day I’m sure there will be Keeley Hawes ‘truthers’ online, dissecting reels of slow-motion footage as if she popped up post-explosion here and there in the background of a frame like a pantomime villain. The internet was immediately flooded with conspiracy theories about her death and the BBC gleefully played with everybody’s heartstrings for weeks simply because they knew most of us are too inured by years of cookie-cutter plot lines to believe somebody could be actually, really, honest-to-god dead as a doornail in a drama like this (I am naturally immune as I saw Spoorloos as a teenager and now everything in a drama must have the grim expectation that somebody, somewhere is very VERY dead).
Certainly, it was a brave move on Mercurio’s part – but considering the competition (the show Bodyguard dethroned as the most watched featured a man crippled by a shell blast that miraculously heals, tally-ho), maybe he didn’t have to try too hard to shock his audience. To be fair, Bodyguard does contain two genuinely bravura scenes that deserve all the praise heaped on them, chiefly the opening gambit where Budd talks down an aspiring suicide bomber, which for twenty sticky minutes had a nation collectively clenching their buttocks in abject fear – anybody that rides public transport on a regular basis has undoubtedly had that thought cross their mind in recent years and Mercurio relentlessly plucks away at the same irrational idea in the build-up to this scene until it’s red raw. Likewise, just as things are settling into a calmer rhythm a few episodes on, he decides to deliver a precision headshot to a driver and cover Julia in disgorged brains, and for another breathless twenty minutes of high suspense Budd goes full Bourne in a bid to quash the first attempt on her life. It’s jaw-dropping stuff and shows just how powerful Mercurio’s pen can be (surely Hollywood soon beckons).
Sadly, the remainder is a curious mess. I watched this twice – week by week then all in one go as prep for writing this. Suffice to say it does not bear the weight of repeat viewing, mainly with the hindsight of what’s to come robbing you of those initial shocks and spills. With that removed, what it does do is shine a light on those plot holes that might have been irritating on a first watch, but under secondary scrutiny are so large you could drive a truck through them. Mercurio gamely keeps us guessing on who is to blame for five episodes – deep state, secret service, SO15, organised crime, take your pick – and then fluffs the landing in the last reel with a very ordinary villain and an ending so disingenuously neat I actually thought I’d nodded off and missed a bit. Ultimately who’s to blame became second string to watching Budd defy logic again and again as he escapes bomb belts, custody, police cordons and CCTV to present his own weird form of justice for Julia through a motivation that felt weaker with every episode – it became more about saving his own skin then any sense of loyalty to a woman I’m not even sure he actually liked – let alone loved.
I can’t deny I wasn’t swept along by its hurricane pace the same as everybody else who was supposed to be relaxing on a Sunday night and had to reach for the Ovaltine after – but judging by that barometer of bottom-of-the-barrel opinion that is Twitter I wasn’t the only one who felt a little cheated in the cold light of day after. But Mercurio as a writer has no responsibility to offer us all the answers – only entertainment, and that he provided as promised by the bulk-load. All in a day’s work, ma’am.
- How bad was Nadia’s villainous moustache-twirling act in the final reel? It felt like a very crass conclusion and made little to no sense considering she was supposed to be in custody throughout the show.
- Any series with Gina McKee, Paul Ready and Vincent Franklin can’t be all bad. I especially enjoyed Franklin’s ascension to the throne after such an inauspicious start from being Julia’s mousy colleague.
- BBC must have a formula for male nudity now they know it gets press in the Daily Mail – if it isn’t Aidan Turner’s chest, it’s Madden’s buttocks causing them faux outrage (but here’s 20 photos).
- We never did get to meet Vicky’s mysterious boyfriend – a long standing conspiracy theory round my house that was cruelly dashed. Et tu Jed?
- Budd had clearly been watching Home Alone after setting up his little mace trap for the evil Longcross.
- Has anybody tried to use duct tape with anything but perfectly dry fingers? There’s no way Budd’s makeshift trigger replacement was going to hold considering how sweaty he was.
- I’m not sure somebody of Sharma’s intelligence would call out his boss’s corruption five yards from where she was standing quite clearly in earshot. She’s a wrong’un!
- The overacting award goes to DCI Rayburn’s petulant handling of Budd’s supposed double-crossing – I don’t think arguing over the radio with a guy strapped to a bomb is the best time to clear the air.
- No hope of a repeat of this cultural phenomenon – the rights for a second series have been sold to Netflix.