Politics on the small screen: the inside track on Bodyguard
Keeley Hawes plays home secretary Julia Montague in BBC’s latest political drama.
The BBC’s latest political drama sees writer Jed Mercurio casting the same light on the dark areas of close VIP protection he has previously shone so successfully on the world of police internal affairs in four increasingly jaw-dropping series of ‘Line of Duty’.
Bodyguard, a prime-time six-parter, sees Game of Thrones actor Richard Madden as David Budd, a former soldier turned policeman assigned to protect home secretary Julia Montague, played by Keeley Hawes. Adding an extra frisson to this already enforced intimacy is Budd’s preoccupation with the damage inflicted on him and close comrades in Afghanistan, during a war what he learns that Montague wholly endorsed.
For Mercurio, the germ of this narrative has been in his head for years. He describes it to me as "the idea of this professional relationship, meaning the private protection officer [PPO] gets an insight into a politician’s private life – if they’re up to something the public doesn’t know, there’s a huge chance the PPO will know, and that felt like something interesting to get into".
The show may share the same name as a certain 1992 American romantic thriller smash-hit, but Mercurio doesn’t venture down the same road travelled by Whitney Houston, Kevin Costner and so many others. He explains: "There have been so many stories, the most famous example being JFK. I thought it was more interesting to look at it in terms of the conspiracy thriller – what insights would the bodyguard have about the home secretary’s meetings and manoeuvrings that other officials wouldn’t know about?"
The writer was also keen to avoid "the political becoming polemical, where you end up with something theatrical, people giving speeches. That’s not how I write, I’m more interested in what people do. This is more about the political intrigue than the actual politics".
For example, there’s no mention of Brexit in the six hours of ‘Bodyguard’ – as Mercurio explains. "That’s too dangerous, because you could write in something extremely topical and, then just like that, massive changes occur. Over the course of the gestation of the series, there’s been a change of prime minister, a change of home secretary."
While Keeley Hawes has revealed she spent hours on YouTube watching former cabinet minister Amber Rudd in action, Julia Montague is no individual impersonation. Mercurio says: “I just needed the two main characters to be gender balanced. It could have been the other way round, but it was a more common story for the former solder to be male, and it felt interesting to go with a female politician, bearing in mind the political landscape.”
The writer also deliberately eschews any drum beating around the drama’s central dilemma, Budd and Montague’s opposing views on government policy on Iraq and Afghanistan: “I’m really not making a point about that,” says Mercurio. “It’s useful to have a reversed consensus. There are still a considerable number of people sharing her view that our actions were the right thing to do, and similarly a considerable number who think the opposite, so as long as the viewer doesn’t sit back and say, ‘Well, no one would think either of those things,” I think you’re fine.’”
The man behind Line of Duty is used to keeping secrets while the rest of the nation scratches their brow to work out the identity of Balaclava Man and he stays poker-faced now as to his own political leanings. “There’s lots I could say about the world of politics, my own world view clearly wouldn’t be shared by many viewers, but that’s not what this is about,” he says. “We stick to one particular subject, national security and advance the two basic points, that enhanced security presents a challenge to civil liberties, while also recognising that if you don’t enhance national security, people won’t be alive to enjoy those liberties. But it’s first and foremost a thriller.”
It may make for enticing drama, but how realistic is the set-up? In reality, the chances of someone so ideologically opposed to a VIP coming into such close proximity are almost impossible, says Nigel Thomas, formerly of Special Forces who has run his own close protection firm for almost two decades. He explains just some of the protocols in place to make sure "you just cannot bring anything like that into the job, you have to leave your own views at the door".
The real-life bodyguard adds: “Government agencies can delve into backgrounds more than commercial agencies, so there’s all sorts of background checks they can make regarding religion and other values. Some companies also use psychometric testing to go further."
"But the most significant aspect is that this industry runs on word of mouth," says Thomas, who has 30 staff on his books at Blue Mountain Group and has provided VIP protection all over the world for politicians, CEOs, royalty and celebs."Your integrity is everything, you always work in a team and if there’s a weak link in the chain, it’s spotted and acted upon. I’ll get a call – ‘He’s talking about this and that, it doesn’t feel right.’ The team self-monitor. At the end of the day, you’re there to protect the principal and their family, and if there’s even a little bit of doubt that the bodyguard would actually step in, it’s an immediate deal-breaker."
What if it goes the other way, client and bodyguard getting a little too close for comfort, as must inevitably happen? "There’s a line you don’t cross," says Thomas. "But of course, people are human. The bodyguard is really taking a gamble because it’s a code they’ve broken, and I’ve known stories that get repeated even ten years down the line. It’s the kind of stuff that sticks."
Apart from a calm head, Thomas cites honesty, integrity as necessary qualities for the job – "and, above all, discretion. Previous clients I’ve worked with know that what I’ve seen will never be disclosed. It’s about building up trust. The principal needs to know they can live their life without the person protecting them going around talking about it".
Would they take a bullet, as made mythical by the Secret Service and all the films inspired by it? "The answer should always be yes," says Thomas. "If a person becomes unsure, because of the knock-on effect it has on the team, the individual knows it’s time to leave."
Bullet or no bullet, if Line of Duty is anything to go by, Mercurio will have viewers hanging on their seats until the last minute of ‘Bodyguard’. However, the writer does tell me that this series “could run again” - implying that David Budd’s character at least may well survive the final credits. “There’s something we could run with, if the audience wants us to” he says, intriguingly.
Will Blue Mountain Group boss Thomas be watching, like every policeman did for Mercurio’s previous outing? The experienced bodyguard says yes: "10 years ago, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. I’d have been spotting all the flaws. But now, I can relax." He pauses: "As long as they don’t give away too many trade secrets."
‘Bodyguard’ begins on Sunday 26 August, 9pm, BBC One.