The BBC’s six-part series is a claustrophobic and brooding underwater conspiracy thriller
Why aren’t more things set on submarines? There’s The Hunt for Red October and U-571 and Crimson Tide, but they’re within quite a limited subject matter: goodies and baddies and chases and male intra-crew beefing. BBC One’s new six-part Sunday night blockbuster Vigil sails into new territory: an underwater detective conspiracy thriller, “Line of Das Booty”. It’s even made by the same production company, World Productions, responsible for Line of Duty and Bodyguard. It’s such a fertile setting, so claustrophobic and brooding, that you wonder what other franchises the Beeb could profitably move to a submarine. Doctor Who? Motherland? Strictly?
HMS Vigil is a fictional Vanguard-class submarine, one-quarter of the UK’s continuous at sea deterrent. At the start the submarine is involved in an incident with a trawler in the Hebrides, just outside its base at Faslane. The captain, Newsome (Paterson Joseph), thinks it might be an enemy submarine. Craig Burke (Martin Compston), the sonar operator who heard the trawler, thinks there may be men in peril on the surface. His protests are ignored. He is found dead in his cabin soon afterwards, in one of the least credible “suicides” you’ll see.
The boat was still in British waters when it happened, so a Scottish detective, DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones), is sent to investigate at sea, while she deputises her junior, Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie), with whom she has some fraught personal history, to investigate on land. Silva’s sense of foreboding only increases as she flown out in a Sea King helicopter, and the camera indulges us with sweeping Jurassic Park-style shots of the sea and the Scottish coast.
Different rules apply at sea. The submarine – as long as two football pitches and four double-decker buses high, as we are helpfully told – is basically a nuclear-powered prison. When Silva arrives, she is the ninth woman in a crew with 140 men. From a TV point of view, it feels as though everything about the set-up is designed to build tension. There’s the sea, always looming. The threat of unseen enemies. The psychological pressure of knowing you’re onboard a world-killer.
There are three centres of power: the police, the navy high command, led by Rear Admiral Shaw (Stephen Dillane), and the crew of the submarine itself. The exchange of information between land and sea is tightly controlled. Silva’s demands can be rebuffed in the name of national security. The rogue element in all this is the group of anti-Trident protestors who live outside the perimeter of the base.
Vigil has everything it needs. The script, by Tom Edge, who wrote the Oscar-winning Judy Garland film Judy, gets everything going at a brisk clip. The boat looks fantastic, more like a spaceship than the usual cramped tin can. The cast are solid throughout, especially Joseph, who sets himself up beautifully as the captain under pressure from forces both seen and invisible. Shaun Evans is equally slippery as Elliot Glover, the Vigil’s coxswain, a man who has quite clearly got something going on.
Accent fans will enjoy seeing Compston, best known for playing English Steve Arnott in Line of Duty, revert to his native Scots, while the technically Scottish-but-sounds-more-English-than-Princess-Margaret Leslie deploys a Scottish burr. (We await her telling someone they know nothing.) If you ask me, it doesn’t seem impossible that the next five episodes will reveal a conspiracy running to the highest levels of the British government.
If there’s a reason not to love Vigil, it’s that it all feels familiar. The plotting, the music, the rhythm and style of the direction: it all slips into gear too easily. If you were being harsh, you could say that it’s a cynical and unimaginative way to approach a series. A more generous interpretation would be that BBC One is simply giving the punters what they want. I expect it will come to dominate the next few Sunday nights either way, but we ought to be asking these questions. Vigilance might be the price of liberty, but it’s also the price of decent telly.