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Of all the things going on in the world that you really don’t want to dwell on, the fact that there are currently any number of nuclear weapon-carrying submarines continually circling the depths of the world’s waters is one of the most menacing.
In the UK, we have the contentious Trident fleet, four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, one of which is always deployed in a classified location, ready to launch a thermonuclear warhead from up to 4,000 miles away, should certain events ever escalate. It’s a chilling enough premise in itself, and now a dark BBC drama asks the question: what happens if someone is found dead under suspicious circumstances in one of the 150-metre long boats?
Vigil - named after a fictional Royal Navy submarine - sees DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones), helicoptered and locked into the working ship with crew members (including characters played by Martin Compston, Shaun Evans and Connor Swindells) to investigate the foul play and she soon finds things are murkier onboard than the pitch-black sea bed below.
Creator and writer Tom Edge used artistic licence to tell a fictional story from a real-life issue that has once again become very topical. Speaking at a press event for the series at the BFI, he predicted: “I think over the next 10 years submarine warcraft is going to dominate in a way they haven’t been thought about for a while.”
In the engrossing drama, when Silva comments that we’re not currently at war, the captain of Vigil replies: “That’s just an illusion - we’ve always been at war”, and Edge says his research really brought home this statement, harking back to the Cold War era and the constant perceived threat of attack: “Missiles are problematic because they can be shot down but Russia has just spent hundreds of millions of pounds creating a nuclear torpedo that can pilot itself across the world and is designed to explode in harbours and send a radiated tidal wave. For a long time Nato thought this was fiction, then they were like ‘oh no, we’ve got pictures of it, it's out there and it exists’.
“China and India are also all investing huge amounts of money in submarine warfare, so I think it’s a curious area, where something feels like it was born of a specific moment in time is swimming back into sharp focus. There are inevitable questions like, where do we sit in all of this as a player at the table? And if it’s of national interest.”
Trident is part of the Continuous At Sea Deterrent military exercise which was set up in 1969 as a ‘nuclear deterrent... to threaten an assured and effective response to aggression’, according to the Ministry of Defence. Once the research on the series had begun, Edge got deep into the subject. “I was surprised to learn during the course of the research how much money is being spent on submarines again,” he said. CND estimates that the current annual spend on Trident is £2 billion a year, and that plans to extend the life of the missiles into the 2060s could cost up to £250 million.
The spiralling costs of the submarines - not to mention the ethical question of their very existence - is an issue that has dominated all different parts of society since its inception. This is reflected in Vigil with the clash of the Navy, the police, the security services and the peace camp, which is inspired by the Faslane peace camp in Scotland, next to Faslane Naval base, home base to the UK’s nuclear weapon-carrying fleet.
This setting proved fertile ground for Edge’s story to be both political and personal, as the plot also explores the psychological impact of being essentially imprisoned in a giant steel box underwater, which later becomes a crime scene.
Edge explained: “We were looking for stories that said something about Britain today; its place in the world and [something] that would be exciting. The seeds of the idea were there and the team did some great research which brought to life the pressure these crews are under - and there have been a lot of scandals in recent years.
“There’s people who do some incredibly hard work in isolating and tense conditions and who have to subsume every other part of them while they do this job in a twilight existence.”
He added: “One of the things I found very moving early on in our research was that the people serving on these boats get one message a week from one designated family member of 100 words of less. It’s vetted up to seven times by the Navy for any possible codes and they’re never allowed to contain bad news, so you go on board knowing if your partner was killed in an accident, the first you’ll know of it is an hour before you come to the end of your patrol when the ship docks. It's about keeping crews stable.”
Virgil was filmed in Scotland, and it provides a cinematic backdrop to some of the jaw-dropping action sequences throughout the series. Suranne Jones did many of her own stunts - including what appears to be a death-defying helicopter drop down in the sea - leading her to suffer with “whiplash and bruises” from the hard-going production.
Filming was halted during the pandemic, and picked up again after the first lockdown, which only added to the claustrophobic stress of the storyline and her character, Jones said: “The anxiety that was already there of working in closed spaces...it was hard and added to the tension. It was tough.”
Edge hopes that, in part, his series shines a spotlight on the strange world of these military behemoths and the people working within them: “The thing I was most drawn to was how mythical these machines are. They take a bunch of people onboard and suddenly it disappears. It’s invisible. [Now] we get to see what lies beneath.”
Vigil is on BBC One on Sunday 29 August at 9pm, with episode two at 9pm on the Bank Holiday Monday, 30 August. Vigil will then continue weekly each Sunday night.
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