With a satisfyingly large number of high-powered, formula-busting female characters, Stylist contributor Lizzie Pook argues that Bodyguard is one of this year’s most important pieces of TV
Five minutes into the BBC’s new drama Bodyguard, I knew I was watching something rather special. We’re on a high-speed train hurtling from Glasgow to London. Sergeant David Budd (Game of Thrones’ ‘King of the North’, Richard Madden) is soon to find himself face-to-face with a suicide bomber hiding in the toilet. As the door slides slowly open, the tension builds excruciatingly, until the terrorist is finally revealed: a woman.
This nerve-shredding opening sequence is just a taste of how the political thriller – which tells the story of a troubled war veteran assigned to protect the contentious home secretary – is upending the arcane notion of traditionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ TV roles.
Female counter-terror operatives argue with female politicians about matters of life and death; female marksmen whisper covertly over crackling radios with female bomb squad officers about whether or not to blow someone’s head to smithereens; the police chief superintendent, boss of the show’s eponymous bodyguard is, you guessed it, a woman.
Men take their orders from women in this show and, thrillingly, the women are not always likeable, either. The controversy-baiting home secretary Julia Montague, played by the magnificent Keeley Hawes, is haughty, patronising and pig-headed. In short: exactly how we’d expect a male politician to be played. She’s the female lead character and yet instead of getting behind her, we don’t like her at all.
But we love the show – audiences peaked at 6.9 million during the first episode. As do critics. So do the politicians – in response to the show, the former home secretary Amber Rudd wrote a piece for the Sunday Times describing her very own experience with her elite minder (the show’s writer Jed Mercurio thanked her on Twitter and offered her a cameo in series two; she responded by saying she would only play the part of the bodyguard). Prime Minister Theresa May? She says she finds it too ‘stressful’ to watch. Ahem.
But for some, this ‘galling’ procession of women ‘’hogging’ our screens caused a strange sort of hysteria. ‘WHY ARE THERE SO MANY WOMEN IN THE BEEB’S NEW THRILLER?’ screamed the Daily Mail, while some members of the public took to Twitter to deride it as ‘politically correct’ and ‘unrealistic’.
But with three women currently heading up London’s emergency services – Met Police Chief Cressida Dick, London Fire Commissioner Dany Coton and Chair of London Ambulance Service Heather Lawrence – they may want to check the definition of ‘unrealistic’.
Mercurio, who was also behind crooked-cop drama Line of Duty, seems flabbergasted by some of the negative responses the show has received, calling it a “silly and out of date” concept that some members of public found it ‘politically correct’. “It doesn’t really occur to me that certain jobs and certain roles are male specific or female specific,” he said, describing those who questioned the show’s gender roles on Twitter as ‘sexist Neanderthals’. “It puzzles me that something I’m doing, which comes so naturally to me, seems so odd to other people. I think they’re wrong and I’m right.”
I don’t give a toss if Bodyguard is ‘politically correct’ or ‘unrealistic’ – putting women front and centre of huge shows like this normalises the idea that women not only could, but should, be in these positions. Instead of asking whether or not these shows reflect reality, we should be more concerned about how they can change it.
But it’s not just the sheer amount of female characters that makes Bodyguard so revelatory. It’s so much more nuanced than that. The show consistently plays with our ideas of what ‘power’ really means. To most, it’s long been a traditionally ‘male’ construct. Someone can be physically powerful, brawny and muscular – think Idris Elba in Luther, for example. Or they can be terrifyingly authoritative, like mob boss Tony Soprano.
Here, however, as the titular bodyguard, Madden is not particularly big, or strong. He is vulnerable. Physically and mentally scarred from his time in Afghanistan. And we’re just as likely to see him on the phone grovelling to his estranged wife as we are on the streets protecting one of the most prolific politicians in the UK.
His strength, it transpires, is in conversation, negotiation, the diffusion of tension: (if you haven’t see episode two yet, skip the next sentence) holding the home secretary’s blood-spattered hand as she wails inside a car that’s being decimated by bullets; hugging a female suicide bomber to his chest as he tenderly whispers into her ear that it’s ‘all going to be ok’. The most traditionally ‘powerful’ character in this show – with his suit and his shiny arsenal of guns – is actually powerful in the most ‘female’ of ways. That’s what’s truly remarkable about this piece of TV.
Bodyguard is on BBC One, 9pm on Sundays