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Vigil: was the BBC’s submarine saga good? Was it terrible? No one knows

·4 min read
Suranne Jones as Amy Silva in Vigil  (BBC/World Productions)
Suranne Jones as Amy Silva in Vigil (BBC/World Productions)

Vigil: it’s truly the Schrödinger’s cat of telly. Was it good? Was it terrible? I don’t know. I don’t think we will ever know. The finale aired last night, and after five weeks of delicious underwater nonsense, we still frankly have no idea what happened. Suranne Jones escaped her tube of terror, thank god, but was it a tense geopolitical thriller or a tender love story? It didn’t seem sure. But we didn’t care, because it delivered twists so disturbing that the nation collectively screamed/tweeted “NOOOOOO” in unison.

The Sunday night BBC drama arrived on our screens last month with an air of brisk confidence. It didn’t need us to watch it — it simply knew that we were going to watch it. It took the BBC drama gold-standard template of a police procedural, inviting Line of Duty comparisons left, right and centre (the production team for one thing) and then said, “oh, and by the way... it’s set on a submarine”. And then it killed off Martin Compston within the first five minutes.

Kirsten Longacre driving somewhere to get some answers (BBC/World Productions)
Kirsten Longacre driving somewhere to get some answers (BBC/World Productions)

And we loved it. After Line of Duty’s clanger of an ending, it seemed that we had a new gripping, twisty drama to obsess over, where actors we liked could die at ANY MOMENT, and people moodily strutted about while reciting terminology we didn’t understand. “Sunday nights are stressful again - I wouldn’t have it any other way,” wrote my colleague Katie Rosseinsky in her four-star review of the series opener.

But then it all got a bit silly. Everyone kept calling each other by their surnames, but you never quite knew who was who. Everyone looked very, very serious throughout. And as the plot got thicker and thicker, we were sort of just waiting for the inevitable moment when the submarine was probably going to start leaking or explode.

Paterson Joseph as Vigil’s captain, Newsome - probably trying to divert a major crisis (BBC/World Productions)
Paterson Joseph as Vigil’s captain, Newsome - probably trying to divert a major crisis (BBC/World Productions)

How to explain the plot? I’m not sure anyone can, but I’ll try. Suranne Jones plays Amy Silva, a police officer who has claustrophobia (the cause of which is explained by chronic flashbacks), so naturally, she’s pinged out of a helicopter and into a submarine in the first episode, where her bunk bed is about as wide as an A4 piece of paper. She’s there to investigate the suspicious death of crew member Craig Burke (Compston, thank you for your service), and it doesn’t take long for Amy to work out it was murder (and that people who live on submarines don’t have great social skills). From there on in, she was demanding answers from surly Navy men who threatened to lock her in a cupboard if she didn’t shut up. All the while, her hair got glossier.

On land, it was also non-stop for her colleague and ex-girlfriend Kirsten Longacre (played by Rose Leslie), who was always driving around chasing Russian intelligence officers, evading MI5, sending Amy cryptic/expositional messages and also, looking after her cat. Also involved: Shaun Evans AKA young Morse, as the sexy ‘walking HR department’ coxswain, Paterson Joseph AKA Alan Johnson as the man in charge of Vigil, which, genuinely, seems like it might combust at any moment. And Stephen Dillane as an important on-land naval person, who tends to peer down his glasses and then shout things like “IT’S A STAGGERING ACT OF HOSTILITY!”

Lolita Chakrabarti and Stephen Dillane as Branning and Shaw,  who find all questions extremely annoying (BBC/World Productions)
Lolita Chakrabarti and Stephen Dillane as Branning and Shaw, who find all questions extremely annoying (BBC/World Productions)

Watching Vigil has been a journey. Episode one? What a simply excellent show, I must watch this every week. Episode two? Oooh Vigil. Are you watching Vigil? You must watch Vigil. Episode three? Hmmm. Bit silly. Episode four? No idea what was going on, fell asleep halfway through. Did not regret. Episode five? Nah, not sure I can be bothered, oh okay, I’ll give it one last go and then... oh my god. It turns out that people snogging after potentially being infected by a nerve agent wasn’t the most shocking thing in that episode.

There have been and will be far better things on telly this autumn — The White Lotus was so good it made me giddy, and the third series of Succession is finally getting close. But Vigil has been the first vaguely watercooler-ish drama to air since life went slightly back to normal, and there’s been something comforting about overhearing the hushed demand of, “oh my god, did you watch Vigil last night?” across the office. Yes, the plot was impenetrable, and yes the baddie has turned out to be some random dude who only had about three lines. But we will miss it — and we need to discuss those twists.

Catch up with Vigil on BBC iPlayer

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