Nipped In The Budd
♦ Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman just took a look at hit BBC show Bodyguard, which ended last Sunday…
Creator: Jed Mercurio
Stars: Richard Madden, Sophie Rundle, Vincent Franklin, Ash Tandon, Keeley Hawes
For those that may still be interested: LOTS OF SPOILERS.
It’s been extraordinarily hard for Auntie Beeb to produce an event series after monopolising such telly for aeons. Back in the 80s, most quality series from the U.K. came from them (not difficult considering the lack of competition), with landmark projects such as The Singing Detective or Edge of Darkness dominating whatever passed for a chatroom prior to social media (an actual room?). As the digital age swept in it also swept away the corporation’s domination, having to follow where once they led. Nearly all long form series since The Sopranos have either been bought in or eclipsed it, forcing the BBC into an ever more populist corner.
They seemed to have learnt their lesson well, however, despite Bodyguard being not that much of a departure from Mercurioworld. The genius, if one can call anything that now, in their viral marketing campaign was to elicit not a positive, but an intense response, polarizing Facebook and Twitter – either it was a case of “don’t bother, it’s overrated” or “it’s genuinely quite gripping”. Rarely was the reaction one of hailing the series as ground-breaking, which it wasn’t. What it was, was standard Mercurio – a labyrinthine plot with a whodunit at its core, a cast of nuance-free, brusque, amoral martinets, and yards of authentic police procedure, with plenty of far too telegenic actors and actresses busting out the jargon and terminology. All the main players have an agenda and are constantly dissembling or being groaningly supercilious, except for Richard Madden’s David Budd, who also does his fair share of deviousness but is a white knight in shining armour compared to everyone else.
Madden, having previously played not just a white knight but a king in Game of Thrones, does a decent enough job as the hero, all thousand yard stares, intensity and grim determination. In the first episode, he talks suicide bomber Nadia Ali (Anjli Mohindra) out of blowing up a train he’s on, and consequently gets promoted to guard Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes). Relations start off as frosty between the pair, with Montague haughty yet progressively apprehensive and vulnerable. They quickly fall into each other’s arms, and Budd inevitably finds himself embroiled in industrial level chicanery – there is more than a passing interest from Minister of State Mike Travis (Vincent Franklin, passive aggressive and smarmy), Director General of MI5 Stephen Hunter-Dunn (Stuart Bowman, craggy, Machiavellian, snarls a lot), Metropolitan Police Commander Anne Sampson (Gina McKee, clipped, cold, beady eyed and somewhat misanthropic) and Chief Superintendent Lorraine Craddock (Pippa Haywood, more subtly manipulative than the others, and also Budd’s superior).
There’s a terrorist attack on Budd’s children’s school, followed soon after by an attempt on Montague’s life by sniper and Budd’s old army pal in Afghanistan, Andy Apsted (Tom Brooke), who ends up killing himself in front of Budd. And so on. It’s all tautly directed, precision work from Mercurio, with enough compulsive suspense to keep the viewer hooked. Yet his attempts to blend bleak espionage with widescreen action hijinks often work, but can only at times seem ludicrous. Madden’s Budd, suffering from PTSD, is a bull in a china shop, occasionally cunning but also far too noble and monolithic for his line of work, considering the menagerie perennially snapping at his heels. There are quite a few times when the plot veers into fantasy, and our protagonist’s efforts are simply too Bond-like to maintain disbelief, but anything less clearly wouldn’t constitute cutting edge drama to the producers.
Mercurio knew what was required these days to elicit that crucial social media buzz, with the show’s Ned Stark Moment (when Montague gets killed off halfway through the run) the plot point which was seen as a daring move. From that scene onward however, the program descends into formula, with an ever more desperate Budd playing cat and mouse with both MI5 and the Met, with even more factors thrown into the conspiracy enmeshing him, including organized crime, double agents and the lead mastermind yet to reveal him, or herself. There’s able support from Nina Toussaint-White and Ash Tandon as his beleaguered colleagues, not to mention Sophie Rundle as Budd’s estranged wife, but the finale, when all the subplots converge, is expectedly overblown and drawn out (good thing for our hero that his flat backed onto Highgate Cemetery). Budd, despite knowing what’s in store, still falls head first into a honeytrap, spending most of the last episode in a game of riotous brinkmanship that somehow still allows him to close out the game.
Compared to the languid Scandi-noir dramas that have elevated the genre in recent years, Bodyguard is still a parochial affair that has little time for humour, character development or arcs. Far too many players have little to do beyond fulfilling their destiny in the jigsaw puzzle, and although the acting is of a predictably high standard, there is little chance that beneath all the hardness and ruthlessness, we might learn something about most of the cast beyond their machinations. Maybe it’s the format – there are only six episodes, while programs like The Bridge had ten, and The Killing had twenty – such series always seemed to find the time for domestic banality as a counterpoint to all the brutality. Not to mention that even the senior officers or minor characters in those shows were portrayed sympathetically despite the lack of screen time.
However there’s no question that Bodyguard was entertaining even if it wasn’t edifying. It had the mood of better shows and Madden was convincing as Budd – but the immersive hype proved too much for many, with BBC-instigated rumours, such as Montague not being dead, stretching matters too far. Cult series, despite this era of far too much choice, can only become such a thing by consensus, not meretricious manipulation. In such cases the show stops being about the content and becomes entirely about the controversy, shortening its lifespan as a going concern, with many dismissing it without watching it, no doubt tired of the blanket coverage. That and the fact that it was still a broadly superficial affair that fell between two stools. Madden may have been King of the North, but on this evidence he isn’t going to be Bond (he just doesn’t have the smugness or charisma). Of course, there are legions of eloquent voices out there on countless forums who might disagree.