Jed Mercurio Discusses His Emmy-Nominated TV Drama “Bodyguard”
Bodyguard is a gritty political crime thriller that’s finally receiving the accolades it deserves. It’s been nominated in the Best Drama Series category for the 2019 Emmys. The show’s creator and showrunner, Jed Mercurio, is also known for creating the award-winning Line Of Duty for BBC. Hot on the heels of his Emmy nomination he spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine to discuss how he created his hit TV show.
Creating a successful TV show has many considerations beyond the initial concept. “It’s never just the initial idea. I need to work on characters and story events until I become convinced they can achieve a “critical mass” in the first episode that sets up a chain reaction that will sustain a season or more,” said Mercurio. A TV series requires an engine that can generate enough episodes to keep the audience watching.
The premise of Bodyguard may be perceived as a boilerplate political thriller. Originality certainly has its place to create a new experience for audiences. Every new TV show does not necessarily require a completely fresh and new concept. Bodyguard contains many familiar tropes of the political crime thriller genre such as a returned Afghanistan war veteran suffering from PTSD and a self-serving Home Secretary he is assigned to protect. Granted, this mix creates a flashpoint for conflict, but Mercurio infused additional unique elements to breathe energy into the show.
“The idea of a bodyguard protecting a politician is fairly generic, but the distinguishing feature of the TV series is that the protagonist may not be the politician’s protector – he may be her assassin. The effect is to create much greater depth and complexity in the key relationships,” added Mercurio.
A key aspect of creating a successful TV show such as Bodyguard is its timeliness and contemporaneousness. Jed Mercurio wanted to create a show that lived beyond the moment, but was also relevant to current times. “In plotting the series, we were careful not to engage in predictive politics. It’s an arena that can change drastically in an instant. We focussed on more stable political concerns such as national security, the basic features of which have remained fairly constant in recent years,” he said.
Like every new TV show, Mercurio had to set the story parameters of Bodyguard. Decisions were made regarding what belonged in the show and what didn’t. “Early on I decided that I didn’t want to dramatize the political world through a lot of detail about the political rivalries present in the series. That led to the decision to employ the device of portraying the politics from David Budd’s (Richard Madden) point of view, so that the audience only sees and hears what he does – meaning much of the politics is seen but not heard, and sometimes not even seen,” he said.
David Budd is an Afghan war veteran who is now a Protection Officer assigned to protect a politician, Julia Montague MP (Keeley Hawes) who’s politics he despises. Jed Mercurio first created a highly-conflicted character filled with torn loyalties and internal strife. Is he the protector or the assassin? In order to enrich Budd’s character, Mercurio gave Budd PTSD. Determined not to fall into typical stereotypes of the condition, Jed Mercurio, approached it from a position of authenticity and humanity.
“We were determined to handle the subject sensitively. It was important not to make light of the condition, by having it “cured” if the hero gained redemption. We wanted to transmit the hugely important public health message that sufferers should seek professional psychological help as a route to recovery. When David Budd admits he needs help, it’s a message to everyone but perhaps particularly important to young men, who are often a group reluctant to admit they’re suffering,” said the TV writer.
The showrunner’s research process balances drama with realism. Bodyguard needs to feel like a drama not a dramatization. “I find I can create a distinctive identity for my TV shows by sticking as close as possible to real procedure. Thanks to the input of our multiple technical advisors with various areas of expertise (police, specialist protection, bomb disposal, politics), we can portray authentic details the audience hasn’t seen before. I’m committed to social realism as the bedrock of my dramas,” elaborated Mercurio.
Despite Bodyguard being a gritty drama, not all real life procedures or events need to be on screen. “We held back on some of the more gruesome elements of violence (gunshot wounds, bomb injuries) as we felt they might be alienating to a mainstream audience. We learned afterwards it was a show that kids would watch with their parents, so I’m gratified we made that choice,” Jed added. “It remains a challenge to balance the complexity a story needs to sustain a season against the simplicity required to make it accessible for the mainstream audience.”
Many TV shows languish in development purgatory and undergo many incarnations before they get green lit. Bodyguard moved along relatively quickly. “There was a very short period of development before I committed to the first story breakdown when I explored the idea of a conventional antagonist for David [Budd] to create a cat-and-mouse thriller. This was thrown away quickly in favour of centering more on David as an antihero,” explained the show’s creator. This speaks to the importance of deeply complex characters making better television than simple chases and explosions.
Jed Mercurio elaborated on the plotting and writing process of Bodyguard. He was asked about balancing the action-packed water cooler moments with more subtle character
work. “I had upfront ideas for all the major action set pieces, and spent a lot of time figuring out the right entry points in terms of the state of play between the lead characters going into each action sequence. The idea was to make the action glue seamlessly with the character stories,” he replied.
There is so much outlining that is achieved during the development process, especially after the characters take on lives of there own. Jed was asked about the elements of surprise and discovery that occurred during the creation of Bodyguard. “We found that the relationship between David and his wife took on greater importance than we’d envisaged for the later episodes. That led to his wife becoming involved in his effort to prove his innocence and to seek help for his PTSD.”
Mercurio started his professional career in the medical field. Although he commenced his TV writing career writing medical drama Cardiac Arrest for BBC, he did not find it peculiar to transition to writing crime stories. His past career left an indelible mark on his world view. “I follow the news, which is full of examples of how institutions other than medicine behave. I’m always fascinated how an institution handles a situation in which its representatives make a mistake. There’s more dramatic inspiration for me there than when things go as planned.”
Jed Mercurio is acutely aware of the fickle nature of the TV business. He ends this article with a quote for TV writers, “Take-offs are optional, landings are mandatory.”
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