The sea, the sea. Truly, I do not ever want to find myself at the bottom of it in a giant metal tube, and because of this, I’m only able to only watch the BBC’s briny new drama, Vigil (from 29 August, 9pm), through my fingers. At times, I even fancy myself short of oxygen, though this breathlessness may also have something to do with Shaun Evans, who plays a Royal Navy coxswain – “I’m a walking HR department” – called Glover (you’ll know this actor best as the young Morse in ITV’s Endeavour). There’s something about Evans’ voice, low and stubborn and reassuring, that really does it for me. Frightened as I am of the idea of an enforced stay on the HMS Vigil, a nuclear submarine that’s as long as two football pitches and as high as four double-decker buses, if he was there to guide me through its crepuscular corridors, I might just be able to endure the experience.
All of which is not to say that Vigil, brought to us by the producers of Line of Duty and written by Tom Edge, isn’t crazily enjoyable. It is, perhaps, a touch bonkers. Cleaning your teeth before bed, you find yourself wondering if any of it could really happen – a feeling that grows and grows until, by the time you put out the light, you’re convinced it’s the most preposterous thing you’ve ever seen. The plot is more overloaded than a family hatchback before a bank holiday. But while it’s on, it’s incredibly exciting and completely convincing. Even through the constant tension and turmoil, the mind catches wonderingly on the smallest details: the silver birch trees on the walls of the mess, seemingly designed to make sailors forget – as if they ever could – the darkness that’s all around; the shelf-like bunks, which come with belts for when the sea is rough; the chain of command, as frangible as steel. You don’t need a murder investigation for this realm to seem utterly terrifying.
But a crime scene this boat – never call it a ship! – now is. Submariner Craig Burke (Martin Compston) has been found dead, and a Glasgow police detective called Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) must attempt to find out if he did indeed die of a heroin overdose. This isn’t, you understand, your average murder investigation. Having been winched aboard from a helicopter, she has no straightforward way of contacting base. She must do her own forensics – the body lies in a torpedo tube, cooled by the North Sea – and every officer she meets is hostile and obstructive. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, her colleague and lover Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie) is being beaten up, seemingly on Silva’s account, with dark (establishment?) forces now in play. Was Burke, whose clandestine girlfriend was an anti-nuclear protester, some kind of whistle-blower? What, if any, relationship does his death have to a trawler that went down on the same day? Most crucially of all, when (if ever) will Amy be able to leave the HMS Vigil, whose reactor, alarmingly, seems to be on the blink?
Jones and Leslie are brilliantly low-key in their roles, their sardonic half-smiles the only sign their characters are registering the (almost) quaintly old-fashioned sexism of all these men with gold brocade on their shoulders. Stephen Dillane, one of my favourite actors, is great as an admiral who could freeze a box of fish fingers at 100 paces, and Paterson Joseph, who plays the Vigil’s commander, issues orders as if he was born to bark them. Best of all is Adam James as Executive Officer Prentice, a minor-public-school type whose superciliousness only serves to show that in any institution but the Navy he would be a failure, a charmless golf club bore with only a tin sports day cup to show for his education.
Glover believes it would be a mistake for Amy to introduce paranoia into a world that must run entirely on trust. But what this really means, of course, is that it would be a grave error to make the failures of the officer class too obvious to the other men at a moment of such seeming peril – and in this sense, if no other, Vigil comes with a certain uncanny documentary streak, brutal and indubitably chilling.
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future