As Sergeant David Budd unbuttoned his shirt on the Sunday night of the August bank holiday, 6.8 million viewers joined the Right Honourable and rather lustful Julia Montague in gazing at his war-scarred torso.
The six-part BBC One thriller Bodyguard, which depicts a hardline home secretary (Keeley Hawes) sexually entangled with her troubled personal protection officer (Richard Madden), is the most-watched British drama debut in a decade: its first episode reached a total of 10.4 million viewers live and on catch-up.
Written by Jed Mercurio, the former doctor behind the BBC Three medical drama Bodies and the hit police series Line of Duty, Bodyguard is defying the binge-watching habits of those who like to watch television shows on demand. More than 1.2 million 16-to-34-year-olds tuned in for its premiere, when tension between Sgt Budd and his ward builds after a terrorist attack in London, making it the biggest drama of 2018 among that elusive demographic of viewers.
Without the option of watching the full series immediately – as one might a Netflix drama – Bodyguard fans are relishing the weekly anticipation: an old-fashioned enjoyment compounded by the modern-day fun of swapping theories on social media about the latest cliffhanger every Sunday night.
Perhaps it’s because the drama chimes with our times: an overmighty cabinet minister on manoeuvres; a Tory government divided and lurching to the right; the Metropolitan Police under intense scrutiny; security services exploiting terror threats for power. Or perhaps it’s the two attractive yet volatile lead individuals who shouldn’t be having sex with each other.
Whatever the reason, the thriller has captivated Westminster and beyond. Apart from Theresa May, who switched it off after the first 20 minutes (“I watch TV to unwind – I’m not sure a drama about a female home secretary is the best way for me to do that,” she said, having served in the role for six years before becoming prime minister.)
The popularity of Bodyguard hasn’t stopped insiders rebuking it for alleged inaccuracies, however.
“I switched off when whoever she is, the home secretary, seemed to be making a pass at the police protection officer, because I just thought ‘this is ridiculous’,” laughed Met Police commissioner Cressida Dick, who told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that she switched off after watching half an hour of the show. Journalist Zoe Williams pointed out in the Guardian the “anachronism” of Budd’s shock at Montague voting for the Iraq War (“so did everyone else”).
The number of women depicted in powerful positions “represents an imagined world rather than a real one”, according to a piece in the Radio Times by ITV News security editor Rohit Kachroo, who also called the brainwashed female jihadi “one of the great clichés in depictions of modern Islamist terrorism”.
Less seriously, Twitter users quipped that a Euston-bound train arriving on time – as seen in the first episode – would “never happen”.
Yet Mercurio sought the advice of ex-civil servants, political advisers, former bodyguards, police and military advisers when working on the series. And it shows.
As a former “principal” (the technical term for the protected individual), the previous home secretary Amber Rudd wrote in the Sunday Times that the drama captures the tension and pressure between a minister and her protection officers: “A home secretary’s days can be long, stressful and public. Sometimes the easiest people to chat to are indeed the protection officers.”
Rudd’s protection detail supported her through the death of her father and of her children’s father and former husband, AA Gill, a journalist and columnist – even entertaining Gill’s youngest son with the flashing lights and glamour of their security car.
When Boris Johnson’s marriage broke down because of a recent alleged affair, protection officers were the closest witnesses to the drama. His bodyguards were described in the Daily Mail as “twiddl[ing] their thumbs at a nearby table” while the then foreign secretary had a two-hour Valentine’s dinner date with a young female Tory aide. The same report says he was constantly giving them “the slip” to meet up with his love interest. Sources told the Sunday Times that Johnson “angered his police minders by shaking them off for hours at a time apparently so that he could engage in trysts”.
Yet as in Jed Mercurio’s depiction, bodyguards aren’t always on the sidelines. In 2011, a police officer who served in the former New Labour home secretary Alan Johnson’s protection team was sacked by Scotland Yard over an affair he had with the politician’s wife. PC Paul Rice, who worked for Johnson for more than a year, was also investigated for a liaison with the minister’s personal assistant.
“There is an ethical dimension to their training, teaching them not to betray the trust of the principal,” said Bob Quick, a former Met Police head of specialist operations, at the time. “The protection officer is in a privileged position and is invited into the private life of the principal.”
Now thanks to Bodyguard the public, too, is privileged to be party to the most intimate relationship in British politics.
This article appears in the 12 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism