Taking flight

Taking flight

By Gabriel Tate
December 7, 2023


DQ heads to Scotland to meet the cast and writer of BBC thriller Vigil, which is shifting the action from its first season submarine setting to explore the fallout from a disastrous airbase weapons demonstration in season two.

It is midsummer in Greenock, 20 miles west of Glasgow – not that you’d know it. Amid the drizzle and mist by the River Clyde sits the tail end of a Hercules plane. Suranne Jones is huddled in a warm coat, Dougray Scott is muttering about being “the coldest I’ve ever been on set” and Romola Garai sports a bandage on her knee. The cast are not long back from filming scenes for the second season of BBC thriller Vigil in Morocco and the end of a gruelling shoot approaches.

“I’m as bruised as I am knackered,” admits Jones in her trailer later on. “I had a doctor in because I was so rundown when I got back from Morocco. She said, ‘What have you done?’ I was like, ‘What haven’t they put me through?’”

The first season of Vigil – which airlifted Jones’s DCI Amy Silva into a nuclear sub to investigate an unexplained death on board – was the UK’s most-watched new drama launch since Bodyguard in 2018, attracting more than 13 million viewers and winning an International Emmy. Both were from World Productions, sharing that company’s knack for juggling hot-button issues with gasp-inducing cliffhangers.

Vigil was a smash hit that creator and writer Tom Edge has now opted to subvert by opening out the claustrophobia of the submarine to the skies with a story spanning two continents in season two. When a weapons demonstration of RPAS (Remote Piloted Air Systems, colloquially dubbed drones) at a Scottish airbase goes disastrously wrong, leaving several military personnel dead, the intended oil-rich clients from the fictional Middle Eastern state of Wudyan (represented on screen by scenes shot in Morocco) are distinctly unimpressed.

Silva and her personal and professional partner Kirsten Longacre (the returning Rose Leslie) are subsequently called in to investigate, much to the chagrin of Air Vice Marshall Marcus Grainger (“unreadable, geopolitically conscious, very influential and incredibly good at what he does,” says Scott) and Squadron Leader Eliza Russell (“quite insecure because she’s only just stepped up to run the base in Wudyan,” explains Garai); toes are trodden on, shots fired and uncomfortable secrets exposed.

In Vigil S2, DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) swaps a submarine for the Middle East

“It wasn’t the easiest thing, figuring out a way back into the show,” Edge admits. “But season two has enough of the DNA – the isolation of the police detective forced to rely on ingenuity and deduction – to feel like a continuation of the same show. We probably had the Speed 2 conundrum in our heads: the things that were brilliant about Speed weren’t necessarily replicated by finding another vehicle that could move at a designated speed! We knew we’d exhausted the submarine as a domain and an aircraft carrier wouldn’t do as a substitute. We wanted a new domain to ask interesting questions about Britain’s place in the world and the compromises we should or shouldn’t be making.”

Thematically, the subject of drone warfare felt both contemporary and sufficiently underexposed to be worth closer examination. “We wanted to look at what felt like the near future, although events in Ukraine have asserted that it’s perhaps arriving faster than anticipated – a lot of the things we’d been reading about have been borne out there.”

Despite this rich material, Jones still required persuasion. “There was always a clause in the contract that there could be a second, but I needed to be convinced about this storyline. Then they told me about the scale of what they wanted to achieve and I wondered whether they could. Now we’re filming, I can see how different the look of it is, and I think this one is going to be better – rooted in something visceral, harrowing and topical. As for Amy, she was very unsettled on the submarine and in her personal life whereas this time, she’s very settled and happy with her daughter Poppy (Orla Russell) and Kirsten.”

Dougray Scott joins the cast for the new season

This last development came after a plot twist appropriate for a World show. Producer Marcus Wilson received a call from Leslie, who informed him: “I’ve got good news, which might be bad news.” She was pregnant, just as she had been during season one. This time, however, it would need to be written into the story and Edge saw an opportunity.

“The last thing we wanted was to shoot Rose constantly from the shoulders up, so instead we leant into it because it was an idea we’d discussed early on anyway. Logistically, it was more of a challenge – we weren’t going to be throwing Rose out of helicopters – but we were able to fashion something that felt emotionally truthful and worked really well for the show.”

Aside from Leslie, Jones, Russell and Gary Lewis as DSU Robertson, the second season has an all-new cast headed up by Garai and Scott. For Garai, it was all about the challenge of a role she rarely gets offered.

“The military is an unknown world to me, so I was really happy to get the opportunity to run around and hold a gun and do a different kind of acting,” she says. “So much of the stuff I’ve done has been heavy dialogue and lots of emotional character journeys, whereas this is being part of a collective, ensuring that the misdirects work and that the story is told really well.”

Jones co-stars with Rose Leslie, who plays her personal and professional partner

Scott has found the scripts occasionally challenging – “I haven’t had such technical dialogue in my life” – but enjoyed slipping back into military regalia. “I’ve done quite a lot of military roles so not much surprises me,” he continues. “I know the involvement of the government and various nefarious shenanigans and deals and relationships involving the British Army in Afghanistan, for example. The British Army is supposed to be apolitical, but sometimes I think they’re used unwisely. Marcus Granger is staunchly patriotic – he would do anything to defend his country and for him the ends justify the means.”

With Garai, Scott and Jones all embroiled in their own projects – Jones following up Maryland, the first production from Teamakers, her company with partner Laurence Akers, Garai working on her second film after directorial debut Amulet and Crime star Scott’s Buccaneer Scotland juggling a full slate – Vigil offered a welcome chance to enjoy just acting.

“Nothing makes you fall in love with acting like directing a low-budget film!” Garai laughs. “I loved it and I’m hoping to do more, but now I really relish turning to a director and saying: ‘What can I give you?’ I appreciate acting in a way I didn’t for a long time.”

Edge, meanwhile, has more plans for Silva and co after season two debuts on BBC One this Sunday. “Having come back once, we may be a little readier to have a third look at the world around us. We can safely say events of the last couple of months suggest the world does not feel in a particularly stable and predictable state, so it’s great to have a show that can take an audience into the heart of some of those places and explore them.”

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