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Scene from Vigil

Scene from Vigil, BBC

Vigil, the BBC’s prime time submarine thriller, has a crude propaganda purpose argues John Rees

Nadine Dorries, the new Tory Culture Secretary, has called for more right wing comedy on TV. The BBC has faithfully responded by screening Vigil, it’s prime time thriller set aboard one of the UK’s four nuclear submarines. 

The humour may be unintentional, but it’s definitely there for any viewer with a sense of irony.

The plot is a conventional country house whodunit transferred from the rolling hills to the rolling seas. Someone is killing members of the submarine crew and detective Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) is helicoptered on to HMS Vigil to discover the murderer. Instead of Colonel Mustard in the study we have the sonar operator in the galley.

The plot is twisty enough and the action compelling enough to keep you watching. The production values fluctuate: the submarine interiors are well done but does the rear admiral of the fleet really operate out of what looks like the neighbourhood DSS office and communicate with his US counterpart on a clapped out laptop? Off-submarine the technology looks more Flintstones than Batcave.

But these are secondary matters compared to the overt politics of Vigil. The series is a deliberately political thriller, so what is its message?

The most immediately obvious political aspects, and those that appear uppermost in the early episodes, concern the identity of the leading characters. The two main detectives are lesbians, and there’s a substantial subplot about the trials and tribulations of their relationship. Another main character, Captain Newsome (Paterson Joseph) of the Vigil, is black. The Lieutenant Commander assisting the rear admiral of the fleet is an Asian woman (Lolita Chakrabarti). The crew contain a number ethnic minority characters. At the peace camp outside the submarine base at least one of the protestors is semi-positively portrayed.

But as the series wears on, and particularly in it’s final two episodes, it becomes blatantly obvious that the rainbow nation characters are being recruited to serve in the New Cold War. The murderer on the sub turns out to be a ‘Russian asset’, assisted by other Russian assets on land. 

From this moment on the lesbian detectives, the black captain, the rough and ready working class Jack Tars in the crew all unite to stop the dastardly Russian plan. 

No establishment talking point is omitted from the script. Trident submarines are, it is made clear, clapped out and in need of replacement. The Americans may be untrustworthy (to the point that a secret US submarine mission drags a Scottish trawler to its doom, killing the crew) but ultimately they are called on in the name of the Nato alliance to save the day. MI6 are thought to be spying on the peace camp but this, it transpires, is just ‘light touch’ and its really Russian agents that kill a peace protester. 

The peace protesters themselves are either new age caravan dwelling anarchists, naive dupes of the Russians, or accomplices of the Russians. Except the anti-Trident MP, who sees the light of national security and decides to remain silent on the scandal that might have swung a parliamentary vote against Trident renewal. When the police pursue one of the protesters, he tries to take refuge in the Chinese consulate. Why? Because the Chinese have to be in it somewhere. 

Here the modern ideology of empire is fully displayed. The diverse ethnic, LBGTQ nation is all united in a new nationalist crusade against the state’s foes, foreign and domestic.

Just how great an ideological fraud this is can gauged by comparing the TV drama with the real time drama in the news headlines in recent days.

The police are not a woman-friendly outfit of crusading lesbian detectives, they are the institution which provided a conducive environment for Sarah Everard’s killer, including a WhatsApp group of fellow officers (one of whom was from the Civil Nuclear Constabulary) in which misogyny was rife. Even leading woman police officers have come forward to describe their fear of being physically attacked by other officers. The situation is now so serious that the Metropolitan Police are advising women to shout out to passers by or run away if they feel threatened by a police officer!

The police are not protecting protesters from infiltration by Russian agents, they are themselves infiltrating protest movements, forming abusive relationships with women protesters, and, as this weeks court finding in the Kate Wilson case proved, undermining the democratic right to protest. 

The navy is not populated with black officers. Indeed, in 2013 out of 260 captains in the navy, there were zero black captains. So it's pretty much a certainty that no black captain has ever been in charge of a nuclear submarine.

Nuclear submarines are not safe except for Russian interference. They are frequently the site of the most dangerous accidents. Since 2000, HMS Trafalgar has run aground causing £5 million worth of damage, an explosion on HMS Tireless killed three crew, HMS Superb was decommissioned early after an underwater collision, HMS Vanguard collided underwater with a French nuclear submarine, HMS Talent limped into Plymouth with fins damaged by an underwater collision, and HMS Ambush collided with a merchant ship off Gibraltar.

Opposition to Trident is not limited to a few crusties in caravans. In many polls, a majority of the whole population opposes Trident.

There are, however, two lessons that the left can learn from Vigil. The first is that the establishment can always use identity politics to pink-wash or red-wash chauvinist politics. This, after all, is the guiding thought behind ‘humanitarian’ imperialism. But the ‘lesbians for imperialism’ is a deliberate sleight of hand that needs to be unmasked as the attempt at co-option that it represents.

The second lesson is that the establishment love a left that allies itself to a foreign competitor state. It makes the accusation that all radical politics is essentially treachery so much easier to make. 

Now exactly why anyone on the left would imagine that the authoritarian capitalism of ex-KGB colonel Vladimir Putin and his gangster plutocrats is an admirable state is beyond comprehension. But some do, presumably on the flawed logic that one’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friend. But this is a logical fallacy and poor politics. 

It is also unnecessary. We do not need to fictionalise a happy land elsewhere to show that our own rulers and the US empire to which they are allied is the bloodiest, war-addicted regime the world has ever seen. Its cost to humanity in lives and treasure is incalculable. That is reason enough to oppose it in the name of the majority of people in this county, and their counterparts around the globe.

Vigil is available to watch on BBC iPlayer

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John Rees

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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