Proper Gander: Guarded Bodies

Would you like someone always by your side, there just to take out any would-be assailants or even take a bullet for you? Fortunately, most of us don’t have the kind of life where we’re likely to need this, even if we were in a position to hire someone. However, it’s different for the senior politicians who have their own personal, steely-faced minders. This is the set-up of BBC1’s blockbuster drama Bodyguard, which features Richard Madden as David Budd, the police protection officer (PPO) assigned to Julia Montague, a Tory Home Secretary.

As a bodyguard, Budd’s role is to keep his ‘principal’ safe from dangers such as assassination, theft, kidnapping, violence and harassment. There’s some tension between the two characters as Montague supported military action in the Middle East, and Budd is an ex-soldier haunted by his time fighting there. Inevitably, there’s sexual tension between them as well, although sleeping with their principal presumably isn’t in a bodyguard’s job description.

At least 10.4 million people tuned in to Bodyguard’s first episode, one of whom was Theresa May, although she reportedly switched off after 20 minutes. Writer Jed Mercurio has been behind other hits such as Line Of Duty, Bodies and The Grimleys. His breakthrough came in the mid-‘90s with Cardiac Arrest, which was as much an angry polemic about working conditions in the NHS as it was a drama. He’s always thorough with his research, this time bringing in ex-bodyguards as advisers and basing much of the plot in real-life departments of London’s Metropolitan police. PPOs are part of the Met’s Royalty and Specialist Protection branch (SO1), which provides protection for the royal family, some government officials and visiting heads of state. The police force as a whole is there to defend the status quo, which this department does in a more literal way than most. The Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) works to detect, investigate and prevent terrorist attacks and networks, which in the drama has a fraught relationship with MI5 in uncovering who’s behind the threats.

The culture of the police and politics is depicted as starchy and clinical, with suspicion rather than much warmth between the characters. This is ideal for a thriller, of course, but isn’t the kind of world which seems attractive to work or live in. The inner workings of government, police and security services are likely to be cold and bureaucratic, being there to prop up a divisive, restrictive system. The fact that politicians need bodyguards demonstrates how removed they are from those they are supposed to represent. The threat of attack comes from people or organisations so affected by the system that they are desperate and damaged enough to see violence as the way to respond. Although tactfully not referred to in the drama, it comes only a couple of years after the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by a far-right loner, and the attack in Westminster by an Islamic extremist. Since then, the process for MPs wanting to make additional security arrangements has been simplified, and they have been offered training in Krav Maga, a type of unarmed combat. A wider effect of this climate is an increase in surveillance, not just of suspects but of everyone. In the drama, the Home Secretary is keen to strengthen the real-life Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which covers state powers of surveillance, from undercover officers to bugging to intercepting communications. These days, it takes just a few clicks of a mouse to uncover what anyone has put online, their whereabouts and their movements. Bodyguards are only one part of the state’s security machine.

Bodyguard has a twisty-turny plot which takes us away from what’s recognisable. But how realistic is the series’ basic set-up? In an article in the Mail on Sunday (26 August), ex-PPO to three Foreign Secretaries, Detective Constable Paul Ellis said the programme did ‘a terrific job’ in portraying a bodyguard’s role, adding ‘the relationship between a PPO and their charge, or principal, is fluid in that he or she is not actually your boss – you’re a police officer and as far as security goes, you’re the boss’. Ex-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said as a Minister she ‘was used to the constant company of aides and officials. But what I had never experienced before was the 24-hour-a-day presence of armed police officers as one of the senior Cabinet Ministers who receive personal protection. … You could hardly make a good drama from the mundane reality of what it’s like to have personal protection. I would have liked to see them try to make a compelling television scene out of the burly protection officer having to make small talk with constituents at a coffee morning’. According to former protection officer Brian Isdale, getting involved so intimately with their principal’s life can mean bodyguards ‘start to adopt the mannerisms of those they are protecting. It’s known as ‘red carpet fever’’ (Guardian, 21 January 2011).

So, being a PPO to a politician is a peculiar relationship, both close and alienating. But then you’d have to be a bit peculiar to be a politician, or someone who would take a bullet for one.