The BBC BODYGUARD: Fiction vs. Fact

I wanted to leave it a little for the dust to have settled before reflecting on the highly-successful BBC primetime drama, Bodyguard, that recently concluded.  It’s six episode conclusion gained over 10 million viewers, with the BBC claiming that it had been an outstanding success with viewing figures making it not only the biggest drama of 2018 but one of the most watched dramas of the last decade across British television.  

Virtually every TV and Radio chat show and national newspaper alike were packed with features, guests (me included) and comments from viewers expressing how engaging they’d found it. It had fired the imagination of the general public but also, inevitably, some scorn from those professionals working within that sector. Do the general public think that’s how a PPO (Personal Protection Officer) really operates? Let’s give them some credit - I would think probably not. But I think Mr Mecurio tapped expertly into the general public’s current sentiment, especially in these uncertain times; suspicions of Deep State involvement in government and a high sensitivity to international terrorism.  There is a need to be reassured there are still those hidden heroes behind the scenes that can protect them and let them sleep at night. Specialists working behind the scene who have taken the oath to protect others, virtually undetectable and often, on the surface, looking like the rest of us. From Special Forces operators to James Bond and his countless derivations like Jason Bourne, these characters have always and consistently appealed to and captured the public’s attention. The protector Knight who’s armour and charger now replaced by the business suit and fast car.

But let’s address the proverbial ‘elephant’ in the room. Realism. Ok, the authenticity of how this very specialist service compares to and is delivered in reality is obviously pretty disparate and anyone working within the field could likely compile a list of ‘inaccuracies’ but this, I would say, is somewhat irrelevant. The writer, Jed Mecurio, did a great job of creating an engaging and, let’s admit it, fun piece of dramatic television.

However, where many ‘professionals’ were perhaps most critical were in the ‘action’ scenes, stating that a PPO simply wouldn’t react or behave in the fashion portrayed. It may be a fair point, but it’s to a degree, as a I said earlier, irrelevant. I used to be one of those who’d sit in the front of the screen also cursing (much to the irritation of my family) proclaiming ‘they’d never do that’ or ‘that wouldn’t happen’. But that was before I was asked to be an ‘Advisor’ myself. Having now worked on a few Hollywood movies in the last few years, I have a far better understanding of the process and if any of the professional advisors who worked on Bodyguard are reading this - I know your pain. Entertainment value, the Star, Director’s (and often the Producer’s) vision, budget, time, dramatic impact and numerous other factors can influence how the story will play out. It can simply not make sense to make it more ‘authentic’ in some scenes even if the professional viewer thinks ‘ but it would look better’ with what might seem would be minor adjustments. Maybe consider that there could be some really good reasons for why it may also need to be a little inaccurate. 

I remember on one particular movie, London Has Fallen, I worked closely with the scriptwriter in creating as realistic a story as possible. And I think we did. But that’s not what you eventually saw on screen. Deliberately. There were also some highly inaccurate moments in the finished movie. Again. done deliberately. Why? Well in trying to make it as ‘real’ as possible we actually ended up strategising some scenes which were fast becoming ‘practical’ attack blueprints for any bad guys. I even recall waking-up at 03:00am one morning some way down the process and frantically messaging the scriptwriter to say ‘we have to change this, mate. It’s becoming an instructional video’

Having provided Close Protection for over two decades all over the world from major cities to hostile environments, I can tell you that it’s commonly acknowledged that the job is also more often ninety percent boredom and ten percent excitement in reality. Lots of standing around in offices, hotels, airports, conference centres waiting for the Principal (the client) to finish their meeting, wake-up or move from one location to another. That’s not to say that the other ten percent isn’t going to be exciting. Quite the contrary.  Within my own experience, I’ve dealt with the widest spectrum of threats from crazed fans, stalkers, paparazzi, foreign intelligence surveillance teams, rogue paramilitaries, armed ambushes, car chases, to attempted kidnappings and similar threats.  The role of the professional Close Protection Officer is not only diverse in the range of threats that one can face and the locations within which it needs to be delivered, but also in the extremely extensive skills-sets required beyond simply standing between the Principal and a maniacal threat when they charge towards you gun or knife in hand. 

The ‘modern’ CPO also has to be an incredibly versatile and intuitive person. Principals can sometimes be arrogant, impolite, obfuscatory and occasionally even dangerous (to themselves). Thankfully, most Principals I’ve worked with have been a pleasure, but I’ve had my fair share of tricky ones too. Frequently the hardest part can be their assistants and support staff. There are the ones who are a joy, utterly professional and incredibly helpful and those that simply don’t want (or believe they need) our presence. Some can believe they are as ‘important’ as their Principal and should be treated as such. Both types we have to accept. However, if their behaviour or requests actually increase the threat to the Principal, the CPO has to be prepared that they may even need to consider withdrawing from the job (but always politely and professionally). I’ve thankfully only done this a few times in my career. For example, you can’t protect your Principal if an assistant wants an errand run which might mean leaving your client exposed and unprotected. You can be as sure as eggs-is-eggs that if the Principal get’s harmed in your absence - who will be to blame? A good recent example of this was Kim Kardashian’s Bodyguard in Paris when she was left alone and robbed. So the real ‘David Budd’ for example, would never leave their Principal alone to heroically chase after a roof-top sniper. Great dramatic TV perhaps but a total ‘no-no’ in reality. I even recall one occasion where a Principal was de-bussing (moving from their car) into a venue. The assistant screamed at me to help with bags. An experienced CPO will always wish to help, but only when safe to do so. In this instance, a time when a threat may possibly present itself, if the Principal had been attacked and I couldn’t have easily obtained my weapon due to carrying a bag it wouldn’t have potentially ended well. On another occasion I was with a Principal in a hostile environment when we were ambushed by armed assailants. I fractured one of their ribs by jumping on top of them to provide protective cover. That is probably one of the more extreme examples, but of the type client’s and friends usually prefer to hear. A road traffic collision on a Principal’s car in central London, although carrying one of the richest people in the world, is maybe less exciting to them but for the fellow protection specialist, equally interesting as it could have been far more insidious, a deliberate action as a precursor to an attack. A CPO needs to plan for and be prepared for virtually anything and everything. Being a CPO is a complex tasking that exposes the officer to a wide diversity of risks; some known, expected and many more that might not appear that obvious. To effectively protect someone, you need to not just understand the threat, but know your Principal well too. Being someones protector day and night for extended periods of time can also create a strong bond between you. You might spend more time with them than they do with their wife or husband. So the character David Budd (Bodyguard) having an affair and falling in love with his Principal is certainly something that can happen. Highly unprofessional, obviously, but it does.

So to those peers of mine who will already be possibly pre-emptively groaning in anticipation of the inevitable Bodyguard - Season 2 (many congrats Mr Mercurio, btw), perhaps sit back comfortably in your seat, stop growling, have a brew in your hand and enjoy it for what it is. Remember it’s entertainment, not a documentary.