I’m not really proving very good at this blogging lark at present, am I? Far too many long gaps. Turns out that writing about a TV series you haven’t even seen is deeply boring and put me right off. On which basis, I hereby declare the Peaky Blinders debate a draw. No, I haven’t seen it, and on that basis I’m not qualified to comment on how closely it fits my model of a great piece of art that puts women front and centre. But on the other hand despite everything I’ve heard and read about it I’m still entirely uninterested in watching it, so there we are. Case closed. But I CAN (and will!) comment on another magnificent piece of TV drama about men with PTSD which I have seen, namely Bodyguard. NB Spoiler alert!
Ah, Bodyguard. You were so, so close to being one of my favourite TV shows of all time. I really thought we could go the distance. I was all prepared to give you dix points, five stars, ten out of ten, an unqualified Yes! from me, and so forth, and you let me down. You were never quite the series I believed you were, after all….
So. Pros and cons. Pros. Well, first off, Richard Madden, obviously. Great, great performance, and as my friend Carole Woddis put it, he is clearly a made man now. To carry a whole show like this and never put a foot wrong is an amazing achievement and he is to be saluted for it. The direction was equally good and the writing mostly the same. No complaints on that score.
From a Bechdel-Wallace point of view it passed the test with flying colours. Women a-plenty, with names and motivations which didn’t involve men and conversations about said motivations rather than about men. Women being ambitious. Women being tough. Women being devious. Women being sweary. Women being evil. Women in lots of juicy roles and making the most of them. Hooray! Even Commander Craddock was allowed to be bent simply because she was greedy and not because she was in love with the mob boss, or being blackmailed by him, or trying to save her son or husband or brother from him. The female bomber too turned out to be a jihadi and a bomb-maker in her own right rather than being an innocent cowed by her husband. Her little speech at the end about how eager the police were to believe she was a poor down-trodden woman could equally be aimed at us, the audience. Double Hooray! (from the point of view of gender equality. I will leave the question of whether the show put forward a convincing portrayal of Islamic womanhood to one side.)
On which note, it was mahoosively refreshing to see a large number of roles taken by women which would “normally” be assigned to men without a second thought. Huge props here to the extraordinary Pippa Heywood, who was beyond praise. I kept thinking I’d seen her in something before and never clocked that it was Joanna from Green Wing. Good lord. She was entirely convincing from start to finish, never more so than in her last scene, being interviewed by her erstwhile colleagues after being unmasked as the leak. That, my friends is acting.
As for the rest, it looked fantastic, all steely blues and greys in a London both bleaker and more modern than the real thing. The plot moved like an express train and was convincing enough for the various holes in it to be forgivable (except for the last fifteen minutes which were pretty risible and featured the strong sensation of loose ends being hastily and rather randomly tied up – but, hey) . And it featured a large number of BAME actors (although still not enough in leading roles).
Yes, on the whole, Bodyguard should have been so, so lovable. And yet. And yet. If I have to give it a mark, it nevertheless comes in at a mere 7.5, because of the great big ball it so obviously and regrettably dropped. Ah, yes, Keeley/Julia. Oh, what a falling off was there. Jed Mercurio, how could you!?! Which brings us, I’m afraid, to the cons.
For starters, Keeley Hawes. Nope, not because she was terrible, but because she was brilliant. Beyond brilliant. For my money Hawes is one of the best actors working on TV today and if you’re lucky enough to have her in your show, you keep her. Not just because watching her is always a pleasure, never a chore, which is why she is audience catnip, but also because she is the original Accept No Substitute. Once audiences have got used to the idea that This Show Will Feature Keeley Hawes they feel deeply cheated when it turns out not to be so, as evidenced by the number of viewers who remained convinced, right up to the closing credits, that Julia wasn’t really dead and that she and David/Dave would be reunited in the end. Taking Keeley away from the Bodyguard audience halfway through was like taking a big juicy bone off a pooch which is well tucked into it; Jed Mercurio may not have been bitten but there was certainly quite a lot of whining. Keeley should have been Bodyguard’s secret weapon, its major plus point, but by killing her off when he did Mercurio turned her into a minus, simply because the show after she stopped being in it was never as good as the show before.
Which of course brings us to the relationship between Julia and David/Dave. Which was compelling. It’s always a boon to a director when your two leading actors have chemistry, that elusive creature, going on, and Hawes and Madden undoubtedly had it. The relationship between the characters crackled with tensions of all sorts and made their burgeoning involvement unlookawayfromable. (Is that a word? Well, it is now). It was like watching a pair of fire-jugglers involved in a slow motion car-crash – you absolutely knew it couldn’t end well but you still couldn’t stop watching. How the actors made it believable is a miracle, but they did, and the fact that they did had the audience rooting for Julia and D/D big time, even when they could see the flaming torches and the bursting petrol tank right in front of them.
By contrast David/Dave’s relationship with his wife had zero chemistry and zero interest. Whether this was because the actors had no chemistry, or because of the fundamental flaws of the wife role was moot, but as a character, Vicky was the very definition of Meh. I don’t know if it was because of poor direction or because the actor wasn’t up to the challenge of making such an underwritten role in any way interesting but, my god, she was dull. A dreadful amalgam of those threadbare old women’s ‘roles’, “Stop it, you’re scaring the kids”, “Come to bed, honey, it’s late” and “I believe you, even if nobody else does”, every time she came on screen the temperature dropped by about five degrees. She failed the Bechdel-Wallace test in every way and, judging by the comments I’ve read about it, which are basically none, the audience regarded the clichéd scene in which she and David/Dave drove off into the sunset with total indifference.
And that was what we were given instead of the magnificent, the mesmerising, the peerless Julia Montague. What a character! What a dame! Complex, strong, immoral, hypocritical (you had to love the scene in which she complained that it was unpleasant to be shut out of your own home, to a man who was in exactly that position), Machiavellian, power-hungry, sexy and sexual (allowed to have sexy-times with a man eleven years her junior without the age difference even being considered worthy of comment – way to go!!!), vulnerable – everything about the publicity and the first three episodes gave the impression that this was a show about the Home Secretary as well as the Bodyguard. I truly believed that Julia Montague, her actions, and her relationship with David/Dave were going to be just as much plot drivers as D/D himself and the search for the supposed terrorists and I was over the moon that Jed Mercurio had given us such a magnificent, magnetic, mesmerising female lead. The relationship too was shaping up to be fascinating, with its complexity, tensions, and the way the power shifted backwards and forwards between them (something which the characters overtly acknowledged in episode three). How could they resolve this? And should they? I was settling in for a fabulous three more episodes of enjoying her character and their relationship. And then Jed Mercurio only went and fucking fridged her.
Yep. What a con. It turns out that she wasn’t one of two lead characters at the centre of the show throughout, her journey as important as his, and their relationship a major part of the story. Nope. She was just there as a plot twist and the relationship was to give David/Dave a reason to keep pursuing the villains. It was a show about him all the time, not a show about them. As ever, the ‘bad’ female character (powerful, ambitious, complex, sexual, active in her own right) gets destroyed and the ‘good’ female character (caring (Vicky is a nurse), maternal, innocent, largely passive, acts only in relation to the man) ‘wins’ (or gets to live happily ever after, but only as the spouse of the hero). Barrfff!
Oh, its so fucking boring and it makes me mad. And I stayed mad, and feeling majorly cheated, right through the last three episodes, a feeling which still hasn’t gone away. From the post-show analysis, I’m not the only one, and if Jed Mercurio and the BBC have any sense they’re even now negotiating like hell with Keeley Hawes and writing a second series in which it turns out that her character wasn’t really dead after all……
In the meantime, there you go. Bodyguard. Game of two halves. Episodes 1 to 3, a big fat Spinal Tap 11. Episodes 4 to 6, 5 (would be higher, but marked down because death of JM created unflattering comparison with first half). Overall score, 7.5 – could do better. What a missed opportunity. What a shame.
So… Do feel free to comment. I may or may not respond, depending whether I feel you’re 1. making an interesting observation which will forward the debate or 2. failing to grasp that we live in a patriarchal society in which gender discrimination (and a lot of other types of discrimination too) is endemic and systemic aka “No It’s Not Sexism Because”, yawn, snore, please educate yourself because really I can’t be arsed.
Pro tip: to check whether your comment is a 1 or a 2, please ask yourself: is my comment basically “No it’s not sexism because (insert other thing that it is – forwarding the plot, exploring the lead character’s motivation, being realistic, keeping the audience on tenterhooks, using the modern plot device of No-one Is Safe etc).” If the answer is Yes, then your comment probably is a number 2, (ho ho, do you see what I did there?) because (buckle up, now, this may come as a shock) SEXISM DOESN’T EXIST IN ISOLATION.
Oh no. It happens while people are doing other things but THEY DO THEM IN A SEXIST WAY. So for instance, to take an example completely at random, when Brett Kavanaugh comes home and his wife asks him what he did that day, he doesn’t reply “Well, this morning I did some sexism and then I had lunch and in the afternoon I did some more sexism.”. No. He says “Well, I judged some cases, and then I had lunch, and then I judged some more cases.” But here’s the kicker – HE JUDGES THEM IN A SEXIST WAY (allegedly. Please don’t sue me).
Gasp!!! That sneaky sexism!! Creeping in when people think they’re doing something else like looking for a good plot twist or a way to motivate the lead character, eh? What’s a person to do? Apart from trying to be aware of how easily discrimination happens in a society which is set up to facilitate it and in which it permeates everything so you constantly have to think about whether what you’re doing really supports a world in which the genders are genuinely equal or not, of course. Well, that would be a start.
The Guardian article on fridging to which I linked earlier finishes (about the film Upgrade) “It’s really good, except it’s about a man whose wife is killed. Then he gets an implant in his brain and becomes somewhat superhuman. It’s a fun 80s throwback action movie, but: could it have been something else? Could you maybe not have killed the wife?” To paraphrase, It was really good, Jed Mercurio, but: could it not have been even better? Could you maybe not have killed the Home Secretary?