Vigil cover

Veteran Backlash At BBC One Drama Vigil

Vigil cover

Former military members have criticised a new BBC One drama over what they claim to be an unrealistic plot and inauthentic portrayal of life on board one of the UK's Royal Navy submarines.

Vigil, which stars Suranne Jones, began at the weekend and continues throughout September in the Sunday night primetime slot.

The drama surrounds a suspicious death and subsequent cover-up on board a fictional submarine responsible for delivering Britain's constant nuclear deterrent.

While many took to Twitter to complain about perceived inaccuracies in set design and dialogue, others, including an ex-submarine captain, voiced concerns about how the Royal Navy is portrayed. One ex-Commander questioned whether the show's producers and the BBC have adequately considered the consequences of what he believes is a problematic portrayal of the Armed Forces.

BBC One's new drama blockbuster Vigil is from the producers of Line of Duty and Bodyguard. Picture: BBC.
BBC One's new drama blockbuster Vigil is from the producers of Line of Duty and Bodyguard. Picture: BBC.

The plot was firmly established in episode one when a crew member on board the submarine was found dead after being relieved of his duties in the boat's control room. As the death occurred while the submarine, Vigil, was in home waters, Police Scotland opened an investigation resulting in their officer – DC Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) – flying out to the surfaced sub via an RAF Sea King helicopter, which had the words Royal Navy painted on the side.

Silva found her efforts constantly wrongfooted by the submarine's officer class, who, it appeared, were trying hard to disrupt her investigation. Onshore, her partner followed leads to the sailor's death, pointing her to anti-nuclear war protesters camped out near the submarine base. One of those protesters was also seen breaking into the secure Royal Navy base and held at gunpoint by uniformed guards carrying SA80 rifles.

There were likewise incidents involving heroin on board the submarine, visible bullying by the boat's executive officer to subordinates, and the imminent meltdown of the craft's nuclear reactor – for good measure.

Many viewers took to Twitter to criticise the set design and unrealistic qualities of how the submarine looked inside.

Waistar (@wlee168) questioned the "spacious" nature of the submarine …

He was joined by @SSN14CO, who tweeted a picture of an actual interior of one of the UK's nuclear subs.

Others took issue with the show's dialogue, which, according to William Montgomery (@askten), was "cringeworthy" and included "procedural inaccuracies."

Tom Franks (@tomfranks1990) echoed this, who mentioned the "military inaccuracies are cringeworthy and embarrassing."

Yorks (@punishedadmiral) jokingly stated that the producers "didn't talk to anyone in the submarine service" but "did watch Hunt for Red October."

One former submarine captain has spoken about some of the fictional account that he says appear to be inaccuracies.

Ryan Ramsey, who was the captain of HMS Turbulent, a Royal Navy submarine charged with carrying the UK's nuclear missiles, said that if you had "any knowledge of submarines, Vigil's premise becomes difficult to accept."

Mr Ramsey's feelings about the portrayal of the men and women on the submarine were equally critical. He said:

"The perception of the submarine service being autocratic could not be further from the truth.

"There is an utter lack of comradery visible in the programme. If I were sent on that submarine as a Trainer, I would be swapping people out of their roles. That is the reality."

Some viewers have remarked on the spacious nature of the submarine's intero
Some viewers have remarked on the spacious nature of the submarine's intero

Mr Ramsey spoke about his experiences of working alongside the media on board a real submarine, recalling a project with Heston Blumenthal for Heston's Mission Impossible. Back then, Mr Ramsey said that producers were keen to establish a high-tension environment on the submarine that would come across on TV. "The truth was," Mr Ramsey told us, "they were unable to do it and resorted to playing tricks on the crew to create some sort of tension."

"Submarine crews are close, tight-nit and full of comradery."

Mr Ramsey was keen to establish that Vigil is, first and foremost, a television drama. But he also drew attention to the upturn in interest audiences will have expressed in the Royal Navy due to seeing the organisation in such a prominent TV spot. He said:

"I think in the veteran community, there was a whole load of anger at the end of episode one. But by the end of episode two, that had shifted to outright humour towards the inaccuracies, and the show's inplausable premise."

Boris Johnson on Vanguard submarine HMS Victorious 290719 CREDIT MOD
Prime Minster Boris Johnson aboard HMS Victorious in 2019. Picture: MOD

The BBC has been approached for a comment on the criticism Vigil had received from former members of the Armed Forces, but the organisation declined to give any official remarks. However, the corporation was keen to draw attention to the positive praise Vigil had received from viewers, including those who served in the military.

On Monday, Vigil’s production designer, Tom Sayer, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and described the processes he undertook during the show’s creation. He said:

“The first thing I did was try to get into any submarine just to get a feel for it. So, I ended up going down to Portsmouth very early on in the pre-production. They have the old HMS Alliance down there, a World War Two submarine. So, I went and had a look in there just to get a sense. But I very quickly realised that what we were dealing with was far greater and far more sophisticated. And so a great deal of research had to begin.”

When asked if he had studied photographs of subs, Mr Sayer pointed out that one cannot easily study images of the inside of Vanguard-class submarines. Instead, the production had to depend on the advice of its military adviser.

“I would sketch out as he talked out a virtual walkthrough a submarine. I would clean up the plans and show him, and he would say, ‘yeah, that’s about right’ or ‘no, that’s completely wrong.”

Mr Sayer added:

“Any changes we made to what we found out was the reality were for dramatic and cinematic effect. Of course, they are much narrower, the passageways are much narrower, but you can’t really have a conversation between two actors if they are walking exactly behind each other. We had to add on a little percentage there so we could at least see both their faces when they are walking and talking.

“We made sure that what we built would fit inside the outer skin of a Vanguard-class submarine, but I am very much aware that was thinner on the ground in terms of detail. It’s just a giant machine, a huge machine, and to have replicated it utterly accurately, we’d still be dressing it now.”

Another former submarine captain, Mike Davis-Marks, spoke to The Sun and said that he "enjoyed it," adding, "they've done a good job getting a lot of it right."

A BBC source said that producers did solicit the services of both military and police advisors, whose names appear on the programme's end credits.

The MOD did not respond to a request for comment.

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