From Vigil to Bodyguard: What is the secret thriller formula that viewers can’t resist?

·5 min read
Brine of duty: Suranne Jones in the Jed Mercurio-esque thriller ‘Vigil’ (BBC/World Productions)
Brine of duty: Suranne Jones in the Jed Mercurio-esque thriller ‘Vigil’ (BBC/World Productions)

These are buoyant times for outlandish thrillers. Vigil, the BBC’s submarine escapade, dragged 13.4 million viewers down with it. Unless you count the national football team beating Germany at the Euros, it was the BBC’s most successful original drama in 2021. It is the most viewed debut since Bodyguard, not coincidentally also from World Productions, the company that gave us Line of Duty. When the consolidated finale figures are in, they may eclipse Bodyguard (14 million) or even this year’s Line of Duty (15 million).

In some senses this feels inevitable. Who wouldn’t want to watch Line of Duty under the sea? Vigil is the latest example of a formula that has been steadily perfected since the start of Line of Duty in 2012. Has there ever been a programme better designed to smash the Sunday night audience? Lesser dramas are written; Vigil was concocted in a lab. An identifiable star is bumped off in the early moments, so we know we are playing for keeps. It’s set on a nuclear submarine, so the stakes couldn’t be higher. In Suranne Jones it has a likeable, reliable star, supported by a few of the Game of Thrones crew and Johnson from Peep Show. Although we know there will be twists, many twists, the early premise of the plot is easy to follow: detective is sent to submarine. There’s a lesbian love story between two conventionally attractive white women. All the talk of Trident and geopolitics makes the viewer, or at least this viewer, feel quite intelligent even though he had a couple of glasses of wine with lunch.

In one sense it should not be a surprise that these programmes do well. A well-made Sunday night institutional-conspiracy thriller has always found an audience. Even David Hare’s iffy politics number, Roadkill, was watched by 10 million last Christmas. Sure, there was a national lockdown at the time, but they can’t all have been Hugh Laurie ultras. Midweek slots seem more susceptible to being eroded by Netflix.

What’s refreshing about the output from World Productions is their commitment to the genre. Lead characters die. Betrayal and double-crossing are the norm. Every episode ends on a cliffhanger. Whoever the baddie turns out to be, it won’t be who you thought it was at first. What doesn’t matter is that it all makes sense. These shows are finely tuned but they are not overthought. Despite superficial commitment to the lingo, with acronym-heavy dialogue about procedure, plausibility is always low down the list of priorities. This was especially true in Bodyguard, in which Richard Madden’s traumatised close protection officer seemingly teleported around London while subject to a city-wide police manhunt. Nobody cared except a handful of snooty reviewers, whose criticisms viewers ignored in their millions.

They have also benefited from being old-fashioned TV in an era of streaming binges. Now that the norm is watching several hours of a programme in one go, being drip-fed a cliffhanger once a week is like being given a doughnut in quarters. I might find it annoying, but I’m still going to eat the whole doughnut. Besides, it gives you time to google fan theories and WhatsApp incorrect ideas to your friends. In entertainment terms, you get more out of the experience this way than if you binge it all in a night. You get the viewing time, the thinking time and the talking nonsense in the threads time. It’s better value than being sacked from your job because you watched six hours of Squid Game last night.

Other shows are cottoning on to the strategy. Mare of Easttown, HBO’s small-town Kate Winslet police mystery, was delivered in weekly instalments and was rewarded with record viewers for HBO Max, its American network. The future of scheduling will likely be neither one thing nor the other, but instead whatever works best for the programme. There’s something less daunting about a weekly hour, rather than sitting down to something knowing that if it hooks you in, you could be sitting there until dawn.

Kate Winslet drew rave reviews for her turn in HBO’s ‘Mare of Easttown' (HBO)
Kate Winslet drew rave reviews for her turn in HBO’s ‘Mare of Easttown' (HBO)

The fear is that the success of the format acts as an independent deterrent on other types of programming. Given the choice between making something that is like Line of Duty and something that isn’t, producers and commissioners will be forgiven for sticking to the formula. Period dramas, traditional detective shows, comedies, histories, literary adaptations and sci-fis risk falling by the wayside, crushed by the ratings juggernaut. In keeping us guessing until the last minute whether one of the heroes was the supervillain “H”, Line of Duty inverts police show tradition, where we know the detectives will survive and are basically goodies. Other series can feel staid by comparison. Every British programme with a policeman in it, from Unforgotten to Informer to Luther, stands in similarity or contrast to Jed Mercurio’s show. Either you can basically trust the cops or you can’t. This isn’t to say they can’t be excellent programmes: Unforgotten more than makes up for its slower pace in character and feeling, but it’s less thrilling.

Meanwhile “from the star/producers/director/writer of Line of Duty” has become a stamp, like a protected origin label on food, that is not necessarily a guarantee of quality but a sign the contents will conform to certain pulse-enlivening standards. Bloodlands, the James Nesbitt vehicle set in Northern Ireland and produced by Mercurio, fell apart at the seams after a promising opening. Knowing a recipe is not the same thing as serving the meal: you have to remain vigilant.

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