Jed Mercurio has worked in television in the UK since the 1990s. After several successful series, mini-series, and TV movies, Mercurio found international acclaim with his latest, “Bodyguard.”
The series follows David Budd (Richard Madden), a London police officer who is assigned to protect a politician as part of the Royal and Specialist Protection Branch. The series won a Golden Globe, and scored a nomination for Madden.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Jed Mercurio about “Bodyguard,” and finding a worldwide audience.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: Thank you so much for taking some time. I’m sure you’re very busy today.
Jed Mercurio: Oh, no. It’s absolutely my pleasure. Thank you so much for your interest in the show.
KP: You have a pretty great job.
JM: Yeah, I’m very fortunate. I came from a very unorthodox background in terms of getting involved in writing for TV. I certainly never dreamt that one day I’d be creating a TV show that’s seen all over the world. So I do feel very privileged to have had this journey.
KP: How did you get started with “Bodyguard?” Where did this idea first come from?
JM: It started with a conversation about the arena of politics. Looking for a way into doing a drama set within that world because over here in the UK, there hadn’t been a show in that precinct for quite a long time. I know that we’ve had American shows, plenty of them, very successful in the last 20 years. But over here, we haven’t. So it felt like it was a good patch to carve out. And then it was about finding a way to make it a thriller. So the next step was really about constructing a way in that was a version of a cop show. What’s unusual about our bodyguards over here who are responsible for protecting high ranking politicians is that they’re police officers rather than being part of a specific unit like the US Secret Service. So that’s something that allows us to use the audience’s familiarity with the police institution and hierarchy as a way in. And then the last element was really around the protagonist and that relationship between him and the politician that he’s guarding.
KP: How did you develop the character of David, who Richard Madden plays? Was he the first person you wrote?
JM: Yeah. It definitely was an important step in the creative process to consider that character. Initially, started thinking about a fairly orthodox approach, which would involve him being a kind of square-jawed protector and that it was maybe a cat-and-mouse thriller where there was a threat out there and he was involved in protecting the politician and navigating through that jeopardy. Kind of something along the model of, say, “In the Line of Fire,” which was a terrific movie. But then we had the idea that maybe it would be more interesting to go a less conventional route and make him an unbalanced character. Someone who plausibly could be the threat as well. And therefore we were able to implant hero and villain within the same character.
KP: I think that’s what makes this such a compelling show to watch is the fact that you don’t just have a hero that’s 100% a good, wholesome person without a hint of bad.
JM: That’s right. And that was absolutely our intention, to give the protagonist certain complexities and psychological traumas which could plausibly make him a threat to her. Could plausibly make him an unbalanced individual whose political antagonism toward Julia Montague might lead him to either let harm come to her or even be complicit in causing harm. So that was something where we really have to pay a lot of tribute to Richard Madden, who delivered such a fantastically complex and layered performance.
KP: What was the process for casting him in the role of David?
JM: It was actually a very straightforward process because I’d had the pleasure of working with Richard before. He played the game keeper Mellors in a version of “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” which I’d adapted and directed for the BBC. And I just had a brilliant time collaborating and found him to be such a hardworking and incredibly thorough actor in terms of his approach to character.
We were very fortunate that Richard was available and we had a meeting where he really latched onto the character. It was just a joy to reignite that collaboration.
KP: He really is such a great, talented actor and he does bring that depth you were describing.
JM: Absolutely. That was why we were so thrilled that he agreed to play the role. And when we were working together in rehearsals and then on set with the director, and also with Keeley [Hawes] in terms of feeding into that pivotal relationship in the story, he was such a smart actor, always asking the right questions and then taking responsibility for delivering what the character needed to be. And it’s a real challenge to an actor because there were times when he had to withhold so much and there were times when he had to take creative steps which would make the character potentially alienating to the audience. He was courageous enough as an artist to do that.
KP: He’s so good. The opening scene of the very first episode starts off with this bomb threat on a train. It’s one of the most intense openings of a show I think I’ve seen in a very long time. What were some of the decisions that went into planning that scene?
JM: That’s a really good question because it went through a number of iterations during the production process. Initially the idea was that we wanted to introduce the character in a dynamic way. But I didn’t want to do something that felt like it was an orthodox five-minute opening sequence when you see that he’s some kind of super cop who’s then transplanted into the story and that’s all you find out about him. I wanted to do something where the backstory that’s so important to the character is being played out in the present. That involved that empathic relationship with someone who he believes is also a victim of military operations in the Middle East. Someone who he also believes has been coerced into a situation of great jeopardy to them.
And then the other thing was that we had a number of production challenges to overcome. It started out being something that was going to take place in one of our major railway stations in London. But then we lost permission to shoot there and had to reconceive the sequence. We revised it so that it would all take place on a moving train. And we then shot that sequence right at the end of the shoot.
KP: One of the things that I think really makes that stand out is the fact that David is a dad and he’s got kids and his kids are there. Was there ever a point where they weren’t part of that scene?
JM: No, it was always part of the concept that we presented as much of the character’s story as possible in as contained a way as possible. To establish that he was a parent was important then. That leads to the assumption that there’s a mum, and that then propels us to the scene where he reunites with someone we believe is his wife. And then we find out that actually they’re estranged. So it was all part of the plan of finding the most dynamic way, in the present, to establish all the character backstory.
KP: It really adds an emotional heft to it. So often in these types of stories, even when the protagonist has someone in harm’s way, it’s not usually their young children.
JM: Yes, and I think that kind of brings home the particular complexity the character has in that situation that he is in a position there where he is a protector to them on a personal level. That’s obviously his professional role, so it sort of foreshadows the fact that he will have emotional conflict around that protector role in the forthcoming series.
KP: What are some things you’ve learned as you’ve been researching and working on this series?
JM: We were very grateful for the support we got from a number of experts and advisers on the police side in terms of the specialist protection role. Also, we had a political adviser and it was really very educational to hear the inside track on how those things work. We were very committed to creating real authenticity in the world of the show. They were invaluable in terms of the procedure and the details we wanted to convey.
KP: This is a series that has found broad appeal around the world. You won a Golden Globe, it’s on every shortlist for the Emmys. What are some of the things you’ve heard from fans?
JM: What’s been really thrilling is the way in which people have said how hooked they were on the show. They’ve said there were times they were struggling to breathe, the tension was so great. When you hear things like that, it’s such a delight because as a writer, you want to reach out to people. You want to make them feel certain things. And the greatest compliment of all is when people feel really invested in the reality that you’ve created out of what is actually pure artifice.
KP: Is there anything about David’s story that you weren’t able to include but wanted to?
JM: No. I felt we were able to give a very detailed portrait of someone that is typical of an individual who served in the armed forces, who then comes home, who then works for another public institution, and then is put in a position of great responsibility. What was most interesting, I think, was the way in which the central relationship of the story ended prematurely. That was the boldest creative choice. And that was something that we did kind of leave on the field in terms of having an opportunity to explore it further but deciding creatively to go a different route.
KP: One of the big differences between American and British television is the number of episodes in a series. What are some things you might have done if you’d had more episodes in this season?
JM: That’s a really good question. I think if that were the case, we’d have to prolong the central relationship and create more of a sense of a conspiracy that she was involved in and explore more of the political side. I think it would have been hard to keep creating situations where she was in jeopardy and we had Richard Madden’s character acting as her protector. It would have become repetitive and that was a big concern. So it was a great advantage to us that we had fewer episodes, which meant that we could have a very focused story told within that canvas.
KP: That’s something I like about a lot of British shows is that with the tighter timeline there’s not a lot of wasted time. It keeps things moving.
JM: That’s right. I think that it suggests a certain pace that, in respect to the serial like this, allows you to burn through a lot of story very quickly because you’re not worried that you’re going to have a lot of empty hours to fill.
KP: What is a way you feel you personally have grown through the course of creating and writing “Bodyguard?”
JM: I would say that it’s been a really educational experience for me. It’s the biggest show that I’ve had the privilege to run. And with that comes a lot of responsibility. So I felt it was really important that the central collaborative relationships on the series were all very focused on the needs of the production. Because the other show I do in the UK, we’re onto season five, those relationships are already established. So I think the biggest part of my journey on this was developing those new collaborative relationships and working very closely with industry colleagues on a very challenging production. I’m very grateful to their input and the mutual support that created.