Film & TV Muse

Breaking Budd: BBC's Smash Hit

Joseph Silke examines the most successful BBC drama in a decade

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Image: BBC

Bodyguard was the most watched BBC drama in a decade, with its series finale attracting 10.4 million viewers, more than any other broadcast this year aside from World Cup matches. The tale of police protection officer David Budd and fictional Home Secretary Julia Montague as they battle political intrigue, terrorism, and even organised crime with explosive set pieces gripped the nation for a full six weeks. This success has precipitated a sense that watercooler television might survive the Netflix revolution. Bodyguard has raised pressing themes that viewers and commentators have been discussing vigorously since the series began: the nature of the news, terrorism and surveillance, men's mental health and representation of different groups in society, particularly women in Islam.

The revival of watercooler television during the show's broadcast was palpable. The Netflix revolution has changed the way people consume television, and many people watch programmes at their own pace after whole series are released in full on streaming sites. BBC's Bodyguard managed to keep millions of people across Britain enthralled week after week, with colleagues theorising with each other about who might be behind various attacks or intrigue. This represents a major accomplishment in television for the BBC. The decision to broadcast on a Sunday, when most people stay in for the night due to work starting again the next day, boosted views, not least because few want to risk falling victim to spoilers at work. Sunday is quickly establishing itself as the principal day of drama, with the BBC recently moving their flagship sci-fi show Doctor Who to Sunday too.

The programme did much to capture the zeitgeist. A Conservative, female Home Secretary with an authoritarian bent attempts to pass controversial surveillance legislation to combat the rising threat of Islamic terrorism. The parallels with reality were clear. So much so that the real-life Prime Minister Theresa May said that she switched the programme off after twenty minutes. May understandably commented that she did not enjoy watching the programme: "I watch TV to unwind," she said. "I'm not sure a drama about a female home secretary is the best way for me to do that." Her successor Amber Rudd, however, was a fan and might even appear in a cameo role if there is a second series, the Hastings MP suggested this following the finale. She praised the depiction, noting how lucky she left with her own protection detail.
Bodyguard managed to keep millions of people across Britain enthralled week after week

The creators have been open about their desire to make the show resemble reality as much as possible. This extended to including real-life BBC reporters, including Laura Kuenssberg, Nick Robinson, and Andrew Marr. The decision attracted attention from critics, who noted how the decision blurred the lines between the news and drama. While these cameos may have been eaten up by many politicos, the BBC was forced to defend the decision after some were caused major distress. Viewers took to social media to raise ethical concerns, high-lighting that the appearances could be said to have broken the BBC's own guidelines which state BBC presenters should not appear in fictitious reports if this could cause "confusion and concern". BBC news controller Gavin Allen responded by stating that producers made a concerted effort to ensure that it was clear the series was fictional.

The representation of women in Bodyguard has also attracted commentary, particularly the representation of women within Islam. Much has been said about the character of Nadia Ali, the would-be suicide bomber from the opening episode. While the performance of Anjli Mohindra has been praised, some criticised the writing and claimed that it perpetuated two damaging stereotypes about Muslim women. Nadia is presented first as a helpless victim of her husband's cruelty and second as a terrorist mastermind hell-bent on murder and destruction. Critics have claimed that these two representations are all too prevalent in the media and fuel Islamophobia. It is true that these tropes exist, but one could argue much of Bodyguard relies on cliches to some extent: the scheming politician; the dubious security service; dirty coppers, and so on. Few, if any, come out of the Bodyguard looking rosy.

Men's mental health has been a huge topic of debate with suicide still the leading cause of death for men under fifty. Men often feel a terrible stigma when suffering from mental ill health and suffer in silence. Budd's flashback leading to him strangling his secret lover and his suicide attempt were standout moments, even among the drama of explosions and politicking. Unlike Filth's DS Bruce Robertson, the saga of Bodyguard's Scottish copper didn't end in tragedy, but still did much to highlight the battle many men, especially veterans, face with crippling mental health issues. The final scene showing Budd finally seeking the help he needed was met with warmth. Critics heralded the representation of Budd's struggles, praising how the programme depicted that, sometimes, admitting that one needs help can be the most difficult step to make. This message was echoed in a BBC tweet following the finale, striking an important lasting note with viewers.

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