DQ takes a deep dive with the team behind the BBC’s claustrophobic submarine thriller Vigil to find out how they created this unique police drama, built the show’s expansive set and overcame a global pandemic.
From sinking a fishing trawler in the North Sea to lowering star Suranne Jones from a helicopter to a submarine before following her character through a maze of dimly lit corridors, it’s little wonder director James Strong describes the opening scenes of Vigil as “the most complicated 20 minutes I’ve ever directed.”
“It’s very rich and full of really interesting visual elements, characters and story that I’ve never seen before,” he tells DQ. “Hopefully the audience will be immersed in a world they’ve never experienced and be excited by that.”
Named after the nuclear submarine that becomes DCI Amy Silva (Jones)’s home during the six-part BBC drama, the series begins with the mysterious disappearance of a Scottish trawler and a death onboard HMS Vigil, which brings the police into conflict with the navy and the British security services.
Amy is then tasked with joining the submarine’s crew to investigate what happened, leading her and DS Kirsten Longacrew (Rose Leslie) to uncover a conspiracy at sea and on land that goes to the heart of Britain’s national security.
Produced by World Productions (Line of Duty, Bodyguard), the show’s star-studded cast also includes Anjli Mohindra, Connor Swindells, Adam James, Gary Lewis, Stephen Dillane, Lolita Chakrabarti, Daniel Portman, Lorne MacFadyen and Lauren Lyle.
The idea for the series came from George Aza-Selinger, head of development at World Productions’ Scottish office, who was looking for a story with Scotland at its heart that could provide the foundation for a gripping, mainstream drama. An hour’s drive from Glasgow, the Faslane naval base – home to Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines – provided the perfect inspiration.
“I admired the potential of the idea from the get-go,” says Vigil creator and writer Tom Edge (Lovesick, Strike). “It’s a brilliant, contemporary take on an Agatha Christie locked-room murder mystery. It seemed very compelling right from the start. George, along with his colleague [development executive] Collette McCarthy, put together a research pack about the more human side of life for those who choose to serve on these submarines, and once I had sight of the pressures on the crew, I could see how those stories could be great to jump into.”
Below the water, Amy is an outsider among the crew and stripped of the authority she would usually expect in her position. On land, she is paired with Kirsten, who lands an early breakthrough in the case that leads her to believe there is more to the submarine death than they first thought. However, what defines their relationship is the fact they can only communicate one way, from land to sea, as the submarine’s secret location would be revealed by messages going the other way.
“That seemed like an interesting way to look at a relationship where one person can talk to the other and the other is forced to listen and to be alone with their thoughts and their speculation in this highly isolated environment,” Edge says. “Amy goes into this world wearing her DCI badge and charged with a job she needs to get done. But on a mythical level, she is being swallowed into the underworld.”
It is the moments on land that give the audience time to breathe, escaping from the confines of the submarine before being plunged back inside the hulking vessel as it pushes forward through the sea.
“What was key was that it wasn’t all going to be on the submarine,” notes World CEO and executive producer Simon Heath. “You needed balance. You get the claustrophobia, paranoia and secrecy of the submarine and you get these wide vistas of coastal Scotland on land, but with an investigation still threading through.”
“When Tom started talking about this relationship between land and sea, he gave us access to a dual investigation,” says fellow exec producer Jake Lushington, World’s head of drama. “That gives it breadth emotionally but it also gives the audience a breath. That’s a really clever way of taking hopefully a bigger audience through this experience who might have been afraid of just going into a total submarine show.”
Heath places Vigil somewhere between World’s hit police anti-corruption series Line of Duty and Bodyguard, which explored the world of police protection officers. Like those dramas, Vigil is rooted in the real world but has a bold concept and a closed world at its heart. It starts with a conventional premise – a police office sent to investigate a suspicious death – but through its surroundings becomes a conspiracy thriller that the audience follows from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know the rules of her surroundings. Of course, not everything goes to plan.
“On one level, it was really important that Amy’s very good at her job, because at least a part of the show is watching a detective being stripped of everything a police officer usually has in an investigation,” explains Edge, who wrote episodes alongside Ed Macdonald and Chandni Lakhani. “They can usually bring in colleagues and search the internet, search their records, have specialists do things and feel safe and supported, and all of that is removed from her.”
As viewers will discover, Amy has been living with a certain trauma, and Edge says one of the challenges he faced was informing viewers of her background without delaying her arrival on the submarine. It was then down to directors Strong (Vanity Fair) and Isabelle Sieb (Shetland) to bring those flashbacks to life without putting the brakes on her story in the present.
“It was an absolute nightmare from beginning to end,” jokes Strong, who helmed the first block of three episodes, with Sieb picking up the second block. “As a director, you’re drawn to things you’ve never done before, and when I read the first 10 to 20 pages, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know how to do this. Is that possible?’ Those kinds of things are really terrifying but also exciting as a director, because you then have to build the world. I love those shows that have a mystique and a mystery about them. To dive into that was a real joy.”
Building the submarine set was the first piece of the jigsaw, while Strong was also keen to showcase the dramatic Scottish landscape to provide a visual contrast to the confined spaces below the water. Other key challenges early on were how to sink a trawler in the show’s opening scene – achieved with a mixture of practical and visual effects plus drone camerawork – and then the search for a ex-Royal Navy helicopter, which would most notably be used when Amy is winched down to HMS Vigil to start her investigation. The production team eventually found one in the English county of Somerset.
“The effort to plan those sequences took months,” says Strong, “all while battling the beautiful, brilliant and very unpredictable Scottish weather. Then in the middle of it, there was a global pandemic.”
Greenlit in May 2019, Vigil was entering its fifth week of production in March last year when production was shut down because of Covid-19. Filming then resumed in August, with the show wrapping in October.
Fortunately, the schedule had ensured most of the scenes aboard the submarine were filmed before the hiatus. On land, some locations were changed and a couple of additional sets were built to accommodate social distancing and other restrictions.
“A lot of the work James had established early on, before the pandemic, was very claustrophobic, with lots and lots of people,” Sieb explains. “When we came back, for safety reasons, we were allowed half the number of supporting artists but still had to make it feel just as claustrophobic, thrilling and exciting. We did have quite a few exciting fight sequences and very close contact scenes that came with their own challenges but we had really strong Covid protocols. We were safe. We never had to shut down [again].”
Strong and Sieb developed a visual style for the series, which is distributed by ITV Studios, that uses long lenses on the sub to further enhance the sense of claustrophobia as the camera observes the characters against the artificial light, the darkness and the metal structures that surrounded them. Then on land, characters were always framed beneath the sky.
“As things develop and Suranne begins to roam around the sub, the camera starts to move with her,” Strong says. “She’s our conduit; she’s our POV to explore this world. The back story, which plays out a little bit later, is all about a very negative experience of claustrophobia and water, and things become a bit more handheld and ragged.”
“I loved all of the big action sequences. I’ve never done anything like it before, so that was brilliant for me,” says Sieb. “But I love the intimate dramatic moments just as much. Some of my favourite days were definitely when it was just me, Suranne and Rose. It really helped that they loved the characters and they loved each other.”
Working beside the directors were DOPs Matt Gray (Liar), who partnered Strong, and Ruairí O’Brien (The A Word), who joined Sieb.
“It’s a dynamic mix of contrasts and opposing elements. The wide-open expanse of the natural landscape contrasted with the tight confines of enclosed spaces,” Gray says of the show. “We explored this visually by leaning into the softer, elemental hues of nature set against the harsher, unnatural, distorted man-made colours lighting the submarine. We set out to show scale wherever we could and kept the camera moving and engaged as much as possible. This helped us to change perspectives and reflect the web of uncertainty at the heart of the story.”
With the first three episodes, Gray and Strong sought to establish a visual language that would “examine the themes of truth and lies within the framework of a police thriller,” the former says. “We wanted to create tension with lighting and composition that revealed or concealed information to the audience, but also had pace and momentum and kept the story flowing.”
Despite Edge’s claim that Vigil boasts “one of the most incredible casts I’ve ever seen on a British show,” the star of the series is arguably the submarine itself, which was built in a large studio in Dumbarton, on the outskirts of Glasgow. With no plans available for the Trident submarines, production designer Tom Sayer spoke to real submariners who recalled the boats on which they worked and put those details together with layouts of American submarines of a similar class, all of which helped ensure the Vigil was as realistic as possible. Corridors were only widened where it was necessary to fit a camera along them.
Described by Evans’ coxswain Elliot Glover as being the length of two football pitches and as tall as four double decker buses, the enormous set was built across one level. Television magic allowed the actors to climb up and down several different staircases to access the sub’s numerous decks.
“It was an amazingly lavish and huge set that you could explore, and it gave us real freedom to roam,” Strong says. “You didn’t ever feel penned into one little section. You could walk around and there was enough to feel the variety of the landscape. Tom did an amazing job; it was a huge endeavour and it was finished the day before we started shooting.”
Gray also worked with Sayer, gaffer Paul Jarvis and best boy Paul Bates to create an integrated lighting system, thought to be the largest ever built in Scotland, which meant there were no extra lights on set, only those built into the walls and ceilings of the sub. The same set could then be given a different sense of scale or depth depending on the lighting.
“All the lighting was controlled via a tablet and this gave us quick and fine control over the intensity and colour, allowing us to have complicated light changes to denote different lighting states on the submarine,” Gray says.
“That gave you that veracity and the real feeling you were in a real space,” Strong adds. “It was dark, claustrophobic, unfriendly and dangerous when it needed to be.”
While the interiors of the submarine were all built, the exteriors of the boat were created entirely by visual effects. Heath admits he was “incredibly nervous” about making those scenes of the Vigil coasting through the water look as realistic as possible, but effects house Goodbye Kansas Studios ensured they look utterly seamless.
“I already knew from what James and Isabelle had shot that we had a great show,” Lushington says. “But it’s all about the submarine. If the submarine looks shit, you’re in trouble. Goodbye Kansas really worked long and hard at so many of these sequences, and they look brilliant. Fortunately, because of Covid in a way and because the BBC wanted it to be as good as possible, we didn’t have a broadcast date we had to hit. We delivered the show three months ago, so we had time to get that right.”
Following its international premiere at French television festival Series Mania last night, Vigil’s first episode airs on BBC1 this Sunday, with the second playing on Monday and subsequent episodes launching on Sundays thereafter. Heath is pleased this “gripping story” is playing out weekly on a linear channel, hoping this will recreate the buzz that surrounded Line of Duty when it smashed ratings records during its recent sixth season.
“We’re trying to make things that grab people and make them want to watch live. That’s the ambition,” he says. “Hopefully it’ll get a bit of talk about it as well, so we’ll have to wait and see what the audience says.”
“The show is a big swing. It’s high concept. It’s a big, massively bold premise, and you have to deliver that,” adds Strong. “It was a really big tightrope walk but we had that the talent, the quality, the time and the budget to do it properly – and it shows on screen.”
tagged in: Adam James, Anjli Mohindra, BBC, Chandni Lakhani, Connor Swindells, Daniel Portman, Gary Lewis, George Aza-Selinger, Isabelle Sieb, ITV Studios, Jake Lushington, James Strong, Lauren Lyle, Lolita Chakrabarti, Lorne MacFadyen, Matt Gray, Ruairí O’Brien, Simon Heath, Stephen Dillane, Suranne Jones, Tom Edge, Vigil, World Productions