Sunday night television is not what it was. September 26th saw the sixth and final episode of BBC1's superb submarine epic, Vigil
. It was a cracker. Some complained about its minor element of 'happily ever after', but I was not one of them. Some easing of the series's bleakness was welcome, while the episode as a whole was as tensely absorbing, engrossing, and even more frightening, than anything that had gone before. The work of Jed Mercurio, Vigil
was as great a popular and critical success as his Line of Duty
had been some months earlier.
Set and filmed in and around Glasgow – particularly alert viewers would have noted fashionable Finnieston, Blythswood Square and the so-called squinty bridge – but much more important, and central to the work's meaning, were its wonderful opening images. First, high-flying shots looking down and along the Clyde and its estuary, past its submarine base, and out to the vastness of the sea beyond, suddenly juxtaposed to the bulk of the submarine itself cutting through the water hundreds of feet below the surface.
The story Vigil
told over its six episodes was not a particularly original one. In fact, it contained a range of ingredients familiar in the genre of the crime investigation thriller. As one commentator put it: 'Throughout, Vigil
has been a rich and sometimes sickly meal. Just one of its anxiety-inducing scenarios would be enough for most dramas, but this had international conflict, political intrigue, claustrophobic horror, psychological trauma, murder, cops, romance and nerve agents thrown in and set to various clock-ticking countdowns'.
Fair enough no doubt, but to my mind what matters, and what explains the power of the piece, is but two elements in this list: psychological trauma and, above all, claustrophobic horror. The makers own sense of the meaning of the Vigil
experience is summed up in a single phrase – so brilliant it must have been Mercurio's own: 'The deeper you go the darker it gets'.
Watching each successive episode, this is exactly the viewer's experience. Life inside the submarine is squeezed tight, narrow and constricted. Passageways are scarcely wide enough to allow crew to pass each other. Bunks seem tiny. Increasingly, the sense grows that being onboard the submarine is to be imprisoned, or – given the fact that the only world outside is the dangerous depths of the surrounding sea – entombed.
All this sense of submarine claustrophobia is dramatically heightened by the skilful way the story is constantly moving between the life on board and life ashore. Deaths occur in both locations. and the two investigations parallel each other. DCI Amy Silva is dispatched to the submarine by helicopter to investigate a death which proves to be a murder. But soon her ex, also a police officer, is investigating what proves to be a related murder on shore. But their experiences are totally different. Amy, who happens to feel anxious in narrow spaces, finds herself struggling in the closed world of the submarine. She feels completely isolated, out of her depth, unsure of her status. Inevitably her investigation becomes increasingly tense, and difficult. She often seems on the verge of total emotional collapse.
All of this contrasts with the run-of-the-mill investigation in the open air of the world onshore, where all is routine and normal. The power and impact of Vigil
are fuelled above all by this stark contrast between the two worlds inside and outside the submarine. Freedom does exist out there in the world above the sea. But locked inside the submarine there is only the drama of potentially explosive pressure. The ultimate expression of the overarching, dramatic imagery of Vigil
is the possibly fatal scene in which the viewer watches a struggling Amy trapped inside a torpedo tube in the bow of the submarine as the rising water threatens to engulf her. Should it have done so? You decide.
Reading Frank Eardley's
recent cafe contribution about humans going 'Grr' to each other reminds me of one of our former vets, whose young daughter was being brought up in a house full of cats. Apparently, if she didn't want to do anything, she would simply emit a hiss – a typical cat 'bugger off' response. I often think that's a more useful way of communicating – no chance for any misunderstandings!
The mists and mellow fruitfulness are on the wane. They will shortly make way for the season of goodwill, comfort and great joy, jingle bells rocking. The wee swamp will be maridadied up in grand style: a few candles saved from the last three-day week; the telly unplugged from the wall socket; the ancient walls bedecked in sackcloth and ashes.
Why so? Well, assembled toadys braying in conference halls would have us believe that it will be, above all, a time to worry. Not of their doing, of course, but they are (subliminally) warning us at every possible opportunity that shortages will be a feature this coming season. Marketed as an adjustment, a preparatory step in the new economy, doing everything possible to avoid (further) tax increases... You know the script.
Toys, turkeys, tinsel and tat. Please God not toilet rolls again! Pigs in blankets!?! If I have any say in the matter, every blanket not being cosied into by the cat will be requisitioned for the sole comfort of yours truly, in anticipation of a less-than-reliable power supply (this latter being more of an unaffordable essential rather than an actual shortage).
Scarcity will be reflected, as night follows day, in the price of these last few items appearing briefly on supermarket shelves before being snapped up and added to the heaving trolley load. Eyes peeled for light fingers edging towards your lonely packet of chipolatas...
Additional demands on the wallet must, of course, be borne with good grace when it comes to making sure that there are carrots for the reindeer. And what of Santa? Here, hope springs eternal in the darkling gloom, for it does seem certain that Santa will be allowed to ho-ho-ho his merry way across the entire globe in a single night, allowing always for different time zones. He may need a passport, tests, vaccines, masks, but the promise of sleigh bells jingling in the snow sets hearts racing, does it not?
Talking of promise, which sounds a bit future-ish, that's a worry. Why bother to wait? Start now! After all, Christmas cards have been in the shops since July, so we might as well start getting used to shortages, intermittent supply chains, longer queues and higher prices, lists for Santa torn up. Thankfully, Black Friday, which now lasts for a week, will be an excellent opportunity to put in some serious practice.
Meanwhile, all is peaceful in the wee swamp: disconnected – dégagée – in every sense from the shouty people who are not to blame for anything. Nothing has anything to do with them, and I am delighted to report that I, too, have nothing to do with them. Bliss.
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