Bodyguard Episode 1 delivered an absurdly tense hour of television and re-established Jed Mercurio as the master of the timely TV thriller.
Bodyguard Episode 1 debuted on BBC One last night, and opened with perhaps the most nerve-shreddingly tense scene I’ve seen on-screen all year. It took up 20 minutes, a third of the episode’s hour-long runtime, but I held my breath for almost all of it. By the time it was over my chest hurt and my palms were slick. I felt like I’d been hit by the train that was almost blown to bits by a petrified suicide bomber played brilliantly by Anjli Mohindra.
That sounds like hyperbole. But as a scene-setter it had a sense of unpredictability and legitimate dread that is rare on television in general, much less on the BBC. Then again, Bodyguard comes courtesy of Jed Mercurio, whose beloved police procedural Line of Duty took similar risks to award-winning success.
The terrorist’s interlocutor is David Budd (Richard Madden), a troubled veteran who is aboard with his two children. Haunted by visions of war, he’s estranged from his wife, Vicky (Sophie Rundle), and in a dangerous close-protection career that he’s mentally unequipped for. But on that train he’s the only thing that stands between an unwilling martyr and a police marksman; between a train and whatever you’d call several tonnes of shredded, scorching metal. It really is a terrific scene, orchestrated with true panache by director Thomas Vincent.
The following 40 minutes of Bodyguard Episode 1 aren’t quite as devastatingly tense, but they’re no less compelling. Budd is swiftly promoted for his heroism to the personal bodyguard of the Home Secretary, Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), a chilly former barrister who has repeatedly voted in favour of military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ideological schism is played up here alongside non-too-subtle suggestions that Montague is fostering national mistrust and division to further her own political career; the co-leads are different people with very different views, but they’re united by circumstance, and it’s unclear where that proximity might lead.
And when I say unclear, I really mean it. By the end of Bodyguard Episode 1, it’s still not obvious what the show might be about going forwards. It could be a romantic tale of political opposites falling for one another – Madden and Hawes, the latter especially, are attractive and charming enough to make this work. But it could just as easily be about a deeply unstable man plotting to kill a high-ranking politician. That both seem equally likely speaks to the strength of the show’s writing.
This is tremendous television – a political thriller that is actually both political and thrilling. I never thought I’d see the day. But after Bodyguard Episode 1 you can consider me well and truly hooked; and as mistrustful of National Rail as I always have been.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.