I was lucky enough to see tonight’s opening episode of Bodyguard at an advanced screening for critics and members of the BFI. The series, created by Line of Duty creator and all-around TV supremo Jed Mercurio begins with one of the tensest and engrossing opening sequences I’ve ever sat through. If you’re reading this review I’m assuming you’ve seen the episode and that, like me that opening sequence on the train is still racing around your head. For days after the screening, I played it back and forth in my head. It’s a testament to what a skilled writer Mercurio is that within moments of the first episode the entire of our screening room was engaged, but in stunned silence, as we watched the sequence unfold.
On the train, with his two young children, David Budd (Richard Madden) scans his carriage. While most around him are asleep, fiddling with their phones or reading Budd appears restless and the sense of unease was felt acutely by this audience member. I jump at the slightest sound and as I sat in the screening room transfixed by the cinema screen I felt my muscles tighten. It’s important to stress that at this very early stage we know absolutely nothing about this character. We’re not even sure why he’s on the train but Mercurio expertly puts the audience in his shoes. He zeros in on an attendant who knocks on a bathroom door but gets no reply. She too appears jumpy (not as jumpy as me by this point but equally as nervous). After asking a fellow passenger to keep an eye on his sleeping children Budd walks up to the skittish attendant and introduces himself as ‘David Budd from the Metropolitan Police’. It’s here we learn that Bud is an ‘operation firearms commander with specialist protection.’ What follows is a worryingly real scenario where Budd confronts a suicide bomber.
With every passing moment, the Mercurio skillfully builds the tension and anxiety to an unbearable level whilst Budd remains relatively calm. We get a second to catch our collective breaths as a man emerges from the toilet looking bemused and even Budd relaxes. If the sequence had ended there my blood pressure would have been grateful but as armed officers wait to stop the train, and Budd examines the toilet to double check for signs of a device the audience we’re flawed yet again as he finds a terrified woman wearing a suicide vest with a finger hovering over the trigger.
As Budd gains the woman’s trust we learn a bit more about this heroic passenger. He was a soldier in Afghanistan, a war he sees as pointless and he tells the woman she’s been brainwashed. He refers to politicians as ‘cowards, liars’ and people ‘full of talk that would never spill a drop of their own blood.’ These statements are key to the foundations of Mercurio’s new series because the series isn’t a Spooks-esque drama where our hero prevents destruction every week, it’s a drama about a man, struggling with demons from his past who finds himself working for and protecting someone who he somewhat blames for the tragedies and atrocities he has seen with his work in the army.
Whenever people talk about Line of Duty they talk about the BIG shock moments. I haven’t quite recovered from Georgia (Jessica Raine) being brutally hurled out of a window at the end of the first episode of the show’s second series. But big and exciting action sequences aside, what Mercurio really excels at in all of his dramas is the tension between colleagues. My first experience of this was in 2004 with his excellent medical drama Bodies which aired on BBC Three. It’s the story of a young doctor who works alongside a well-respected gynaecologist. Everything appears to be going well until the young Doctor discovers that his boss makes catastrophic mistakes in surgery which can lead to brain damage or death. It’s not your standard medical drama. Mercurio is far more interested in the interesting powerplay between his two characters and the entrenched hypocrisy of hospital politics. If you’ve never seen it please treat yourself to the DVD. With Line of Duty Mercurio often focuses on the minutiae of police procedures and hierarchy so in a lot of ways you can see a few parallels with his latest piece of work.
Whilst that nailbiting train sequence takes up the first 21 minutes of the opening episode, I actually find myself more drawn in when Budd is assigned as ‘Bodyguard’ to self-assured Home Secretary Julia Montague portrayed superbly by Keeley Hawes. This is the second time Mercurio has created a character for Hawes after her character DI Lindsay Denton became an instant fan favourite as the focus of the Line of Duty’s second series. Budd researches his new employee, a simple Google search tells him about her family life, educational background and political beliefs. The thumping bassline intensifies as he learns she was in favour of sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Budd appears professional and calm when he first meets Montague. Mercurio presents him as a man who takes his work very seriously, but behind closed doors, and in his dark flat, we see Budd has a more troubling side to his personality. He fixates on a section of Montague’s interview with guest-star Andrew Marr (this is a cameo that feels genuine and not one awkwardly shoe-horned in as these things often can). He also makes pleading phone calls to his estranged wife Vicky (Sophie Rundle) and reacts erratically when he learns she has a new boyfriend.
Personal beliefs aside, it would appear that Budd and Montague do ‘click’. Hawes and Madden have brilliant chemistry and there’s an undercurrent of sexual tension running throughout their relationship that I’m sure I’m not the only one to pick up on. Mercurio also peppers his fast-paced opener with humour including Budd having to give his white shirt to Montague for a TV appearance and Budd telling the Cheif Whip he’s mixed race after he is referred to as ‘a monkey’. Mercurio packs a lot into every moment of this first hour.
But what is Bodyguard actually about? In the closing moments, Budd meets an army colleague who paints the audience a picture of what Budd was like in Helmand. Budd shows yet another dark side to his personality as he remembers the time he spoke about what he’d do if he were able to get close to a politician. Is Montague in danger in Budd’s presence? Is his perfectionist work ethic just a persona? It’s an intriguing thought and one I’ve been since that day in the screening room. The BBC have made a wise decision to put the first two of the six episodes on over the bank holiday weekend. I can’t wait to see where it goes, but if I know one thing, I should never second guess- Jed Mercurio!
Bodyguard continues Tomorrow at 9.00pm on BBC One.