Sunday’s opening episode of the new BBC drama, Bodyguard, was a masterclass in suspenseful television that only writer Jed Mercurio – creator of Line Of Duty – could teach. Within 20 minutes, viewers were plunged into a terrorist threat on a London-bound train packed with civilians, including our apparent hero, PS David Budd’s, children, and – not one to keep things mellow – Mercurio wrote in a full armed-police response, complete with snipers, a bomb-disposal team and commanders. It was a brilliant opener to what is shaping up to be an equally exciting series – but some of the record-breaking 6.2 million viewers weren’t happy.
“I’m all for gender equality in the police but so far the operational commander, sniper and explosives expert are all women. What an utter load of bollocks,” wrote one Twitter user. “PC gone mad…woman sniper, senior cop & bomb disposal officer?? where are all the guys?” complained another. According to these viewers, the inclusion of so many women in superior roles makes the programme entirely unbelievable and too politically correct to be worth watching – despite the fact that one of the main characters in Bodyguard is a female home secretary, Julia Montague, played by Keeley Hawes. I dread to find out what they thought of the second episode, in which we meet the female head of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Unit, Commander Anne Sampson.
But it isn’t unbelievable at all. There are no official figures available as to how many women are in the anti-terrorism branch of the Met Police, though it’s unlikely that none of the 1,500 members of staff and officers are women. While we don’t have a female home secretary at the moment, Jacqui Smith, Theresa May and Amber Rudd have all held the position. Cressida Dick is the first female commissioner of the Met Police. And, while viewers are complaining about the number of women in high offices, the UK we see in Bodyguard has a male PM – perhaps a more realistic writing of the government we’re used to, of course barring the current office-holder.
It’s a boring, out-of-date and reductive conversation, and one that reeks of disdain for real-world women with power
Cries of PC madness are misguided, not only for their inaccuracy, but for the lack of sympathy afforded to characters just because they are women. Very few of the characters – women or not – are likeable, perhaps bar Vicky, Budd’s estranged wife. Montague is a hard-faced, unapologetic politician at work; Sampson is an articulate leader with her command’s best interests at the forefront of her arguments. The firearms officer and the sniper were keen to shoot the scared and most-likely coerced female terrorist, while PS Budd protected her from their fire. In short, every woman who is apparently taking a man’s place is simply doing her (very important) job.
Mercurio didn’t set out to create a drama with a political message, but it’s apparently unavoidable when women are cast in prominent roles. Rather than accepting that women can be snipers, or police chiefs, or home secretary, we feel we have to dissect what the casting “means” – was it on purpose? Does it affect the reality of the programme? Does it undermine the narrative? Would a woman really act like that? It’s a boring, out-of-date and reductive conversation, and one that reeks of disdain for real-world women with power.
Ultimately, Bodyguard is a television drama and, by its very nature, not real life. And, while a story like this has to be rooted in some form of recognisable reality, Mercurio and the casting team aren’t tied to the traditional yet outdated gender roles we are still subject to. The inclusion of so many women in prominent speaking roles is something to be celebrated – it’s also something to look forward to.