Whenever there’s an advert for a new BBC drama, there’s usually a checklist to go through. Are the actors dressed like characters who are long dead? Is it the story of a police officer who plays by their own rules? Is this Doctor Who? Sometimes, the answer to all of those is no. It’s a shock to the public which must induce extreme curiosity because Bodyguard is the most successful new BBC drama of the last decade.
Okay, there were crimes involved but it was not a standard police drama. We were introduced to David Budd (Richard Madden), a bodyguard tasked to protect home secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes). Her opinions and decisions attracted the attention of terrorists and that meant top-tier personal protection was required. Of course, it is a drama so there are some predictable elements. Budd is troubled and problems with his home life interfere with his work, but the way these elements are interwoven with the story make them forgivable and justified. These characters are not perfect and that is what sells them. Budd has been through hell and come back burnt. Montague is every bit the British politician, the kind of figure we openly say we wish harm upon but would be aghast were it to actually happen.
Written by Jed Mercurio, who also created Line of Duty, Bodyguard toed the line of playing on the public’s fears without demonising one group. Neither side was completely right or wrong and the sources of a threat were not immediately made clear at all times. It took whiplash-inducing twists and turns. When there was a threat, it was something we felt was real, as if no character was safe and the next episode was ready to deal with the consequences. Scenes pulled the viewer to edge of their seat in a way few dramas can manage.
Tension is not as easy to create as one assumes. It’s more than simply raising the stakes, it requires the characters to be real, for us to feel some sense of loss if the danger becomes fatal. Budd, the most rounded character, felt real because of his struggles. His battle with mental health was believable for those who did not share his experiences, rather than mismanaged for dramatic effect.
Bodyguard’s finale was relentless, not letting the British public catch their breath for over an hour, lest the sound of the air override any dialogue. As an audience, we cared about Budd, we’d seen him battle himself and be forced to pull through. That feeling nobody was safe was amplified; there was no follow-up episode for the consequences. The lead character was not indispensable, his story leading him to life or death with equal legitimacy to the story.
Britain was given a mini-phenomenon. For six weeks, office conversation touched on the events of the show; social media was excited about something that didn’t involve dragons or time machines. Perhaps it won’t be remembered years down the line but, in 2018, it was something we bonded over. Perhaps that says a lot about us.