‘Vigil portrayed us as malevolent robots’ – submariners torpedo the BBC’s nautical hit

Fifteen minutes to launch a nuke? Rampant drugs and hairspray? No beer in the torpedo hatches? As the tense thriller concludes, navy experts scuttle its boatload of mistakes

What did the BBC get right in Vigil, its tale of sex, drugs, treason, murder and perfect shoulder-length hair aboard a Trident submarine? “I noticed the clingfilm over a mug to stop spillage,” says Alexandra Geary, curator of the National Museum of the Royal Navy. “A submariner or sailor has obviously given them that tip.”

But ahead of the hit show’s finale, in which millions of fans will be hoping Suranne Jones and Rose Leslie’s detectives sail off into the sunset in their very bubbly bathtub, having made the world a safer place for Britain’s floating nuclear arsenal, the reception from submariners and naval experts I’ve spoken to has been disappointment at its lack of research and empathy.

“Apart from the dead officer, the navy are to a man and to a woman represented as robotic, malevolent and unprofessional,” laments a retired submarine commander who asks not to be named. He even suspects that Vigil is bent on undermining the case for Britain’s nuclear deterrent, Trident. “When you consider their ‘submarine expert’ is a retired submarine weapons officer who is an SNP councillor in Glasgow and whose wife is an SNP MSP, it’s not hard to understand the anti-Navy, anti-submariner tenor of the series,” he says.

The councillor he means is Feargal Dalton, cited in Vigil’s credits as Naval Advisor, whose wife MP Carol Monaghan has long campaigned for Trident to be removed from the Clyde in line, she says, with the will of the Scottish people. The show’s makers have repeatedly denied bias and, arguably, it is a stretch that Vigil’s creator Tom Edge (who has written for The Crown, also indicted for alleged inaccuracies) wrote a show torpedoing the case for Trident because of Dalton.

That said, the drama does echo the real-life story of a Trident whistleblower. In an essay about Vigil, written for Warships International Fleet Review magazine, retired submariner Robert Forsyth, whose long career underwater included commanding the nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS Sceptre, writes: “It has been clear from the start that CPO Burke has big secrets to reveal. This has echoes of one former Trident submarine sailor who, in 2015, publicly alleged that nuclear deterrent safety was being compromised by one of two submarines being in a poor state mechanically.” That alleged negligence was denied by the Ministry of Defence but the whistleblower, William McNeilly, was dishonourably discharged from the Royal Navy soon after he made his allegations.

Paterson Joseph as submarine commander Newsome.
Stay calm … Paterson Joseph as submarine commander Newsome. Photograph: Mark Mainz/BBC/World Productions

In any event, Vigil comes at a topical moment for the future of nuclear subs. Writer Edge said recently: “Over the next 10 years submarine warcraft is going to dominate.” Mind you, even Edge couldn’t have predicted his drama would be broadcast as Britain announced the Aukus military alliance with Australia and the US, whereby Australia would have nuclear subs for the first time. The worry is that Vigil may undermine public confidence in both Trident and the Aukus alliance, by presenting British submariners as panicky, trigger-happy and about as good at their jobs as Gavin Williamson and Dominic Raab before they were reshuffled.

For instance, in the opening episode, DCI Amy Silva is told that Vigil’s missiles are on 15 minutes notice to fire. “Shame on the BBC for a serious factual error,” says Forsyth. In fact, they are at several days’ notice to fire and, since 1994, do not target missiles at any state. “I appreciate this is far less dramatic,” says Forsyth, “but the BBC has seriously misled viewers because, contrary to what some may think, there are and have been no nuclear threats since the cold war ended that would justify high alert status.” More improbable still is how the crew panics when the reactor fails. “Unrealistic in the extreme. They’re all trained for such eventualities and would behave calmly.”

To be fair, submarine dramas are apt to take poetic licence. And many of the complaints about the drama’s free-standing cupboards, inaccurately painted walls, improbable bunking arrangements and the class of helicopter that winches Silva down to Vigil (should have been a Merlin not an HAR3!) are quite petty. But submariners are no doubt right to complain that a CO would not have called his XO a prick in front of the crew. They’re also right (let’s hope) that it’s unrealistic that a whisky-sozzled gun-toting submariner threatening to shoot Silva then himself would have been given a mild ticking off after being disarmed.

Some veteran submariners, however, recognise that Vigil’s dramatic licence and unrealistic set designs are justified. “Two people wouldn’t be able to walk abreast holding a conversation on a real submarine,” says one retired submariner, “because the corridors are not that wide. But I quite understand having one character walking behind the other trading dialogue would have been ridiculous.”

Others have complained about the implausibly diverse crew: in reality, there would be fewer women and people of colour on board, one veteran told me. But, as one viewer put it on a compelling online thread: “Guess what? I have a sneaking suspicion it’s meant to be a fictional drama, not a fly-on-the-wall documentary.”

The real thing … HMS Vigilant returns to base in Scotland after an extended deployment.
The real thing … HMS Vigilant returns to base in Scotland after an extended deployment. Photograph: CPOA(Phot) Thomas McDonald/MoD/Crown Copyright/PA

Vigil does draw on real life, though, nowhere more so than in its shattering opening scene in which a Scottish trawler is dragged under by a submarine. Do subs really operate in fishing waters? “Happens all the time in Clyde exercise areas,” says Forsyth. The scene includes a nod to the real-life tragedy of the Antares, a fishing boat whose nets became tangled with the HMS Trenchant passing beneath it in the Firth of Clyde on 22 November 1990. Four fishermen were dragged to their deaths.

In Vigil, as the Commander refuses to go up to aid the fishermen aboard the fictional Mhairi Finnea, outraged CPO Craig Burke, the future dead man played by Martin Compston, shouts: “What about the Antares, a whole crew left to drown? We know there’ll be men in the water up there. You’re going to let them die?” And die they do, because the CO doesn’t want to disclose Vigil’s position by surfacing.

Many of the inaccuracies on Vigil have driven sundodgers (as some submariners call themselves) and other naval experts to distraction, but will pass unnoticed by most. “The CO got promoted from Commander to Captain in episode four. Terrible continuity!” says Forsyth. “The murder victim is a chief petty officer,” says Geary, “but in his photo he is always shown wearing ‘square rig’ which is that of an able seaman, a lower rank.”

A bigger issue is the plausibility of Burke’s body being stored in a torpedo tube. “In my days,” David Lovell, a retired submarine lieutenant commander, told Metro, “it was highly unlikely that a death would have required the submarine to break patrol; there are cases of deaths where the body was stored in the vessel’s deep freeze food compartment until return to base.” But a senior retired submariner told me that if the sub was at the start of its journey and the freezer filled with food, storing a body in the torpedo tube would make sense. Forsyth adds that torpedo tubes are cold enough to be “used as storage for beer sometimes”. But not, he clarifies, cold enough to stop corpses decomposing.

Poor welcome … DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) comes aboard.
Poor welcome … DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones). Photograph: screengrab/BBC/World Productions

More unrealistic is that a torpedo hatch would have been left open while characters chatted. Ever since 1 June 1939, this has been very unlikely. That was the date 99 men lost their lives on board HMS Thetis in Liverpool Bay after the inner hatch on a torpedo tube was opened while the outer hatch was also open. This led to a so-called “Thetis clip” on each British submarines’ inner torpedo tube doors so they could be fractionally opened to check the tube was not open to the sea before being fully opened. “Otherwise 21 inches of full bore water would come pouring through,” said my naval source. But no Thetis clip is in shot during this scene.

“The biggest thing that grates,” says a senior retired submariner, “is that DCI Silva’s not welcomed when she arrives on ship. She’s not given a safety brief and asked about drugs and hairspray that she would have had to give up. She would have been told you can’t use any of these things and they would have been put in a bag until she left.” Yes, but a claustrophobic copper on board a submarine, going manic after running out of drugs – implausible perhaps, but what a story! And in any case, who cares if the products Silva’s using could cause a bigger nuclear meltdown than Fukushima? Her hair looks lovely.

Another senior retired submariner tells me that one common theme vexes him. “All the characters in uniform are harbouring dark secrets and can’t be trusted. They’re all portrayed as malevolent tossers. This is a significant political statement by the BBC and a shameful one.” Not everyone agrees. Geary says: “We have to remember that it’s a drama. Things will be overdramatised to look good on screen. I think the timing is great. There is currently a debate over the renewal of Trident, and it is good to portray what submariners have to leave behind and what life is like on board.”

For Forsyth, encouraging viewers to consider the Trident issue is welcome, even if Vigil’s depiction of submarine life charts a course resolutely clear of reality. Since his retirement in the depths of the cold war, Forsyth has become a critic of nuclear deterrence and the renewal of Trident. In Why Trident? published last year, the former sub commander argues that the billions spent on Trident would be better spent on conventional defence, and contends that present MoD policy “includes potential first use against rogue states if they ever used chemical or biological weapons against troops in the field. The general public are not aware of this.”

But when he watches the denouement along with 10 million other Britons, such matters will not be at the forefront of Forsyth’s mind. “The big question really is whether it works as a TV drama in its unusual setting. For me, it does. I’m as gripped as many of my civilian friends.”

Vigil concludes on Sunday at 9pm on BBC One.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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