Who Guards the BODYGUARD?
Should we love or loathe this latest British television thriller? The BBC has a new drama on weekends. It is cut from the cloth of popcorn patriotic populism. Decorated Military /Police veteran is assigned to protect a top Politician but she seduces him. Danger ensues! Surefire formula for a ratings win; executed by the best? Well acted, directed and edited for the most part, it seems. A fun, pulpy, derivative premise with possibly new spin. Except there are darker designs, thereby muddling the tone somewhat and tainting the product.
Confession: this is my second attempt at a review of BODYGUARD. I initially tried a satirical overview on Brit TV as a whole. But I felt, on reflection, that was an unfairly glib disservice to a drama that deserves and even demands its own spotlight. Both for good reason (the technical craft /packaging) and slightly more critical, reflective causes which will become clear. This show is very popular. Marketed sharply; released at a clever slot of just post summer / the doorway to Autumnal weekends. Trading on the imagery of romance, action and adventure with inevitable nods to James Bond /Bourne et al..whilst merging those motifs with the kind of Kitchen sink /soap operatic / powerful woman in peril tropes that define British television.
Clever, undeniably. And gripping, in its way. The structure is first rate. One cannot fault the acting: Keeley Hawes is compelling and alluring, as always. Richard Madden, is, yes, a solid actor. So, the show justifies its existence as a ratings winner: I concede.
And YET? I cannot love BODYGUARD. You might. And that’s great! Wonderful to find a source of fun /solace and via besieged yet still beloved, BBC; its licence fee existence under threat in a post NETFLIX /Amazon world. I do (sort of, reluctantly) recommend the show for a few hours of engrossing entertainment. Visually it does engage, no doubt. But I find its agenda and reception to be at best, lazy and at worst: distasteful, verging on seditious sensationalism.
What do I mean? Well, let’s start with the politics of the piece. They are happy to set the premise in the world of a war on terror, with a secret army at every corner, intent on our destruction. That’s fine. We are a nation at war.
Brave, brilliant personnel risk their lives, daily, to protect the freedoms we enjoy. Never forget that. So why not simply leave it there? Make a drama / thriller /action-adventure piece in tribute to our valued armed services? It can still be fun! Damsel in distress. Good guy to the rescue. That would be fine, especially given the way that BODYGUARD is marketed, titled and framed to make you expect just that: a kind of romantic /pulp thriller.
The very TITLE by its very nature, evokes memories of the Kevin Costner /Whitney Houston movie of 1992? That surely cannot be an accident? The costume design and sets are also, whatever way one looks at it, culled from the SKYFALL school of earpieces and tight suited hero running through London streets in defence of a woman in power. Lots of ‘yes ma’m’s. That. And there is nothing wrong with that: GO FOR IT! Embrace, enjoy, exploit. Great! But no. They HAVE to at once harness that imagery and subvert / undermine its very ethos.
Spoiler alert: well no, not really..but the baddies in BODYGUARD are NOT simply of the Islamic Fundamentalist variety. No. The shadowy tentacles of a poisonous British establishment loom large, throughout. Like a big, scary, looming..thing. Which, once again, would be absolutely fine IF this were marketed AS somehow subverting or satirising the James Bond style genre. Except the show is happy to bath and bask in the glow and superficial glamour of political power and London landmarks; to propel us into a world of Knights in shining stab vests..only to flip that over and say ‘no! that is morally wrong!’
In this drama? The war /legislation against terror are tools of oppression, rather than protection. Our Police, Politicians and Protectors all come with divisive and destructive agenda. Domestic units are there to be seen as threatening scenes of conflict, rather than symbols of heroism and harmony. Threats that are daily monitored and manged in the real world are instead exaggerated, magnified and poisoned for purposes of a quick and easy, cut and paste set of shiny corridors with civil servants and MPs swearing, shouting and sweating into an aura of perpetual malice and imminent chaos. On Target! On Message! It almost writes itself? Almost. Note, I gave credit where due. This is NOT an..’assassination’ of the show (pardon the pun).
And of course: production is all perfectly punctuated by cut price takes on scenes from Bond /Bourne/Batman et al; as cars and vans flip over amidst intermittent camera shakes and clever edits in a background of London Eyes /Shards /red boxes, phones and so on.
Once again? That would all be fine were this an escapist romp (as frankly, the marketing misleads us into thinking?). One foot in reality to compel and set the hero’s journey, followed by a Hitchcockian leap into a dark world of espionage, perhaps? That makes solid sense. What does NOT for make ANY logical or moral coherence is to take the tropes of adventure and erotic thriller, only to then rob us of those pleasures and lecture, didactically, on a spurious political platform. Consequently: the show is neither one thing nor the other. And a house divided cannot rule! Kinda like a Gourmet Burger: it works but is neither naughty fast food junk nor necessarily classic cuisine? BODYGUARD is defined by an essential identity crisis that promises a crescendo only to deliver perpetual stalemate.
Attempts at emotional investment (a potentially touching sub-plot about getting a child into a special school; a possibly compassionate commentary on how we treat our veteran troops: premises for lovely drama in themselves?) are all lost in a muddled fog of fused agendas. You do get some Sunday night illicit sex. But choreographed poorly: over-hyped in advance and underplayed in the final product. There is a chemistry deficit between the leads and perhaps because they, too, suffer, from the essential bifurcation at the heart of the show.
It as though one gets half a good performance from all concerned and their supporting cast. A boo hiss panto villain VILE! EVIL! (TORY?) A party ‘Whip’ enforcer is culled from news headlines of six years ago (memo to the writers; guys like that get taken down in the press and their reign is short lived). There are good cop, bad cop lady bosses (one talks slow like a teacher; the other shouts and swears, loudly). And that filters to the leads.
Madden is a Shakespearean actor and yes, DOES convince as a traumatised and tragic veteran. But he is less compelling in any way as a man of action or romantic lead, so forget all those click-bait ‘next 007’ yawn articles. It is now laughable that any actor working in England, who has worked with Ken Branagh on stage, done a little time on Marvel movies or Netflix or Game of Thrones and then plays a vaguely military man or shows his bottom on BBC/ITV..is instantly ‘next James Bond’. Dear Daniel Craig: I know you are now a new Dad (congrats, btw!) but hurry up with Bond 25 and show them all what it REALLY takes to be 007, please? Madden can have a perfectly fine career on stage /screen without James Bond hype attached.
Hawes genuinely looks confused as to her brief, veering from villainy to sympathetic confidante via sexual temptress. Now, one could sell both of those patterns among the actors as a reflection of a drama intended to keep you guessing and I would ‘buy’ that, were there any logical / linear progression in genre and purpose or consequently consistent definition of tone. But there isn’t. Next time maybe make HER the titular ‘Bodyguard’? Just a thought. Keeley is as adept at action as she is all other genres (cf Ashes to Ashes; Spooks).
One is simply left with a sequence of set-pieces. A curate’s egg curiosity that one can enjoy in places. But it leaves a nasty feeling in its wake and if there is a sequel, I’d recommend a story about infiltrating a nasty media that seems intent on at once using and undermining the imagery of Britain at its best. Recommended, but with reluctance and reservation!
BODYGUARD IS AVAILABLE ON BBC