Television is one of the most powerful ways to entertain people. Who doesn’t enjoy sitting in front of a TV, watching a drama, or hiding behind the sofa from the latest aliens in Doctor Who? Many of our most enduring childhood memories involve television shows of one form or another. Yet as we age, what entertained us when we were younger feels suddenly less enjoyable the older we get, and the more we experience the world.
For those who have served in the armed forces, television shows about the military can generate a particularly strong and often emotional negative reaction. For a variety of reasons, they are seen as missing the mark, and not being accurate or credible – yet at the same time, wider audiences seem to enjoy them immensely.
Television coverage for shows about the military broadly covers either factual ‘fly on the wall’ documentaries, where camera crews actively observe military life and create a story around the content they’ve captured, or drama shows are filmed, sometimes using military equipment.
The Royal Navy has over the years tried with varying degrees of success to make fictional TV shows based on their actual ships – the 1970s TV drama ‘Warship’ set on a fictional Leander class frigate (‘HMS Hero’) was extremely popular, as a drama that was filmed on Royal Navy ships and sites, and had strong support from the MOD.
The show was extremely popular, and three seasons were broadcast on the BBC, and it is still fondly remembered to this day. By contrast, an attempt in the 2000s to try a similar formula through the drama ‘Making Waves’ was regarded as a complete failure, which despite significant support from the Royal Navy suffered the ignominious fate of being cancelled halfway through the first season. Since this point, the MOD has been reluctant to support similar naval dramas, perhaps to avoid getting stuck in another ‘Making Waves’ drama.
Instead, the MOD has been very supportive of fly on the wall documentaries, which can be extremely successful in sending a message about life in the forces to a wide audience. The documentary about HMS Raleigh (Sailor School) reportedly saw an enormous boost in applications to join the Royal Navy as a result of people being inspired by what they saw.
Similarly, documentaries about life at sea are also extremely popular – the Channel 5 TV show ‘Warship’ (no relation to the 70s drama) has just returned for its third series. This time the filmmakers have followed the actions of HMS Northumberland’s crew as they go on patrol for Russian submarines.
At times this footage can become agenda setting. What begins as a simple fly on the wall documentary can generate international headlines. In the case of the Warship documentary, the news that HMS Northumberland had a ‘collision’ with a Russian submarine during her patrol, which was filmed on the show, has become headline news around the world.
This sort of high drama makes for excellent viewing, creating real-world drama in a manner better associated with cold war novels instead of modern military operations.
When this sort of event is captured, it helps remind people of the significant risks and challenges the military face when at sea.
But capturing this sort of genuinely dramatic event on camera is all too often the exception, meaning documentary makers have to rely on forced drama to build tension. The use of tense music, or language to imply high drama can be grating to a military audience.
In the first episode of Warship, there was footage of the Northumberland steaming with HMS Queen Elizabeth, and suggesting that the ship was providing close in protection, some 500yds away from the carrier. In reality, this very dramatic footage was taken during a ‘PHOTEX’ (photographic exercise), designed to show the carrier group coming together, and the narration was far more dramatic than the reality.
To the military veteran, this sort of film footage can come across as frustrating and too ‘dramatic’ – for example due to the editing process, events that occurred for different reasons can be fused together in a single narrative to provide more dramatic impact.
It is this conflating the often mundane reality of military life with the occasional high drama that can happen that can at times sit poorly with military veterans. Seeing film footage make out that a very routine event is high drama can feel a bit odd. Where it can become even more frustrating is when it occurs in television dramas where everything is entirely made up for dramatic effect.
The recent BBC show ‘Vigil’, a 6-part drama about the murder onboard a submarine which rapidly escalated into an ever more dramatic series of plot twists and turns, is a good example of this. Lambasted by many serving and former naval personnel, it nonetheless attracted an audience of over 13 million viewers, making it the most successful BBC drama since ‘The Bodyguard’.
Why do TV shows about the armed forces generate this reaction, and what is it about them that both creates frustration in the veteran community, but excitement among the wider audience?
A common complaint about ‘Vigil’ was that it seemed designed to tick all the boxes to annoy anyone who had served on a Royal Navy submarine. Even though the drama was set on the largest submarines ever built by the UK (the Vanguard-class displace some 16,000 tonnes and are 150m long), they are still remarkably cramped vessels.
Yet watching ‘Vigil’, they seemed anything but cramped – the sets seemed much larger than real life, with far more space than anyone who has served on a submarine would be accustomed to. The claustrophobic nature of a submarine was lost, at least to former submariners, and replaced by something that appeared positively palatial.
This sense of space was then magnified by a cast and use of language that appeared remarkably ill-suited to the real world of the submarine service. To former submariners, the ‘Vigil’ casting just felt ‘wrong’. Anyone who has spent any time in the company of naval personnel will know they talk and act a certain way, usually in language peppered with Three Letter Acronyms (TLAs!). The team of ‘Vigil’ felt as if they never quite got the language right, and some of the casting seemed more intended to push an agenda of reinforcing class stereotypes rather than reflect the reality of the modern Royal Navy.
This lack of accuracy in casting was reflected too in the attention to detail – the uniforms were clearly wrong, and the working procedures were not realistic. It was clear to those who had served that the advisors they had for the show were clearly a long time out of the Service and that minimal research had been done on many parts of it.
To the military audience then, ‘Vigil’ was a drama that lacked credibility, but to the non-veteran, it was compelling television. Is it a bad thing that the drama isn’t credible to those who have served, and why is it so difficult to make television that veterans can relate to?
Part of the difficulty in getting any show to look realistic is the practicality of filming. Building sets that are able to incorporate the various technical aspects of set design that make them usable for filming requires accepting that you cannot build something that is the same dimension as a real submarine (or other military vehicles).
This makes perfect sense from a filming perspective – why make life unnecessarily difficult, and in turn create sets that will lack the ‘wow’ visual factor to preserve realism. Good examples of this trade-off are the submarine movies ‘Hunt For Red October’ and ‘Crimson Tide’, also set on Soviet and American ballistic missile submarines, and in which the sets feel claustrophobic to the outsider, but cavernous and unrealistic to anyone who served on those submarines.
There is also a question of balancing of design aesthetics versus what internal arrangements look like. In particular ‘The Hunt For Red October’ featured an extremely advanced and futuristic looking control room, that was not only spacious but appeared to represent cutting edge technology. Yet after the end of the Cold War, and when the first images appeared from inside the Typhoon class on which the film was set, it was clear that the interior was utterly different, and did not remotely resemble the futuristic visions set out in the film.
For military viewers though, seeing sets that do not resemble their world is immediately a switch off, because it causes them to question the levels of accuracy shown in the rest of the show. Another reason why they may switch off is when the show appears to portray a way of working that is utterly unrealistic.
Anyone who has served in the armed forces will have a clear idea of how things are done in their world – be it flying fast jets or taking part in close combat. They will know in intimate detail the language, the ways of working and how people work together, and the way that things get done.
It is often said that combat is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror, and that much of military life involves ‘hurry up and wait’. Operations can take many months to carry out, while the process of planning a mission, or carrying out an airstrike is complex, time-consuming and requires a lot of input from different sections to deliver.
Trying to capture this in a film or drama is incredibly difficult because it is not particularly film worthy – if large parts of your movie involve staff officers populating PowerPoint slides or drafting mission orders then that is frankly not very interesting television. Secondly, there is the challenge of time – producers must compress a great deal of activity into a short amount of time and condense it into something that is both interesting, filmable and makes good entertainment.
‘Vigil’ may have cut a lot of corners in how it portrayed operations.
While ‘Crimson Tide’ may lack the authenticity of simulating how a nuclear missile is launched, but in doing so it makes the resulting film footage watchable. The price paid is that of authenticity, and ‘Vigil’ took a lot of flak from online commentators about this point. If though this helped keep things moving along, and kept people watching clear about what was happening, even if it wasn’t accurate, is that necessarily a bad thing?
Another challenge the producers faced is trying to get an accurate representation of what actually goes on in the military space, particularly highly classified areas, when there is very little publicly available information. This is the difficult balancing act where they have to try to tell a gripping story but doing so in a manner that seems technically credible to the audience.
There is very little public information on how navies operate their ballistic missile submarines – a few bits of film footage, the odd memoir and still imagery, but often very dated. To create a credible portrayal of a secretive world where people to this day are reluctant to talk about their exploits is hard. In the case of Vigil, the MOD did not provide any technical assistance, forcing the producers to find consultants who had formerly served in the Royal Navy for advice.
Even the little details matter – for example Vigil was picked up on by many of its veteran audience for failing to get the technical language correct, or uniforms wrong – things that matter to the military. To former submariners this immediately makes the show lack any credibility – how can you take television seriously if it clearly lacks the accurate portrayal of the submariners world?
The reason this matters may sound minor, but to those who have served, it counts for a great deal. Service personnel and veterans are rightly proud of their time in the forces, and proud of what they have achieved. Those in elite organisations, be if fast jet pilots, Special Forces or submariners believe that they are part of an elite – members of a special club within a club, because they have passed training and assessment that proves they have what it takes to go where others cannot.
They are proud too of what they did – speak to any submariner about their time in the Service and there is a deep pride in themselves and their mates for going to do missions that even decades later remain classified as Top Secret, and which will almost certainly never be publicly discussed.
Others are proud because they know that when they went to sea, they carried out a difficult and dangerous mission well, with the minimum of fuss publicly, no matter how challenging things may have been onboard. They want their friends and families to think well of what they did, and not be left with the perception that they messed up.
When dramas like Vigil come out, perhaps one reason why the veteran community reacts strongly to the inaccuracies is not that they particularly care if the little details don’t quite add up, but because they feel that the image it portrays shows their organisation, and by extension themselves, in the wrong light.
They don’t want their friends and families to think of themselves out at sea, on a submarine with murderers onboard, or where all manner of terrifying things happens in a way that wouldn’t actually happen. To them it is an attack on their service and professionalism, and undermines what they did while out on patrol.
Even though most of the public will never go onboard a submarine, they will form opinions based on what they see and read. Shows like Vigil, particularly when they aim for the air of authenticity to make it seem credible may make people watch it and think that this really is how submariners behave. This in turn can make veterans feel demeaned by the coverage and angry that their world is not being portrayed fairly or accurately.
Does it matter though? After all, the submariner community is tiny – there are roughly 5000 submariners in the Royal Navy, less than 20% of its total headcount. While members of this small community may feel that Vigil did not do the Submarine Service any favours, does it really harm them?
There is also the danger that the professional submariners who watch the show forget that they are not the intended audience for it -they may see it and cringe inwardly at every error or problem they spot – but the show is about entertainment, not accuracy.
It could be argued that actually a little bit of inaccuracy isn’t an issue if it helps raise overall awareness of the Royal Navy. If watching Vigil encourages some people to think that they’d like to find out more about being a submariner, is that a good result?
Sometimes what some think seems outlandish or ridiculous can in fact generate surprisingly positive impressions by others. Judging by the reaction on social media many in the Royal Navy were surprised and unimpressed at the TV show ‘Navy School’ which focused on trainee recruits at HMS RALEIGH, yet the same footage that made experienced sailors unhappy led to a boost in recruiting figures as the public who loved the show sought to join up, inspired by what they had seen.
In a similar vein, sometimes reputations are enhanced by inaccurate coverage, no matter how silly it may become. MI6 is at pains to explain that its staff do not operate in anything like the way that James Bond operates, yet no matter how inaccurate the films are, Bond provides a significant cachet to MI6 which other intelligence services lack.
This unexpected soft power boon from a fictional character and film series arguably does more good than harm – how many potential foreign agents tempted to betray their country and spy for MI6 did so because they saw James Bond and felt that the British would be the right country to work for?
While Bond himself may be an increasingly dinosaur-like character in terms of his conduct, attitude to women and disregard for office policies, he still cuts a scene on the global stage that MI6 can exploit – indeed, the relationship between fiction and real life is increasingly blurred, with MI6 confirming their new head of research and development is genuinely now given the title ‘Q’.
Sometimes a TV show plot can have an unintended impact in real life.
Reportedly after a character in the BBC drama ‘Spooks’ was killed in a deep fat fryer, it had a knock-on impact for recruitment to MI5 as applicants were allegedly put off by the prospects of meeting a similar grisly fate. It may have borne no reality to real life, but the scene was enough to damage recruitment into the real intelligence world.
The point that is perhaps missed though when criticising shows like Vigil for the accuracy of their coverage is that all tv shows are going to have to cut corners or prioritise storyline over detail. For every submariner cringing at how Vigil was showing life onboard a submarine, there are doubtless countless doctors and police officers frustrated at medical dramas or crime shows. It is perhaps inevitable that anyone who works in a specialist area will not be pleased with the resultant show, because it can never meet up to being the accurate portrayal of their own lived experience.
Ultimately TV is about escapism and not worrying about the real world. Vigil may have been a drama that tested the credulity of its veteran audience to the limit, but to the British public, it was a fantastic drama that entertained them. It did what it set out to do, tell a good story well, even if it wasn’t a technically accurate masterpiece.
Warship on the other hand will show the viewer exactly what the Royal Navy does daily, and how hard it works around the world. While some of the fusing together of film footage and storylines may annoy serving personnel, the narrative it offers helps show those outside the service an insight into life in the service.
With over 13 million viewers watching it, many of whom are unlikely to have had much to do with the Royal Navy before, perhaps Vigil's legacy will be a rise in interest by many of them in the work of the RN and possibly even a recruiting boon in due course. If so it may prove the old adage true that there is no such thing as bad publicity?
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.