How Vigil broke records to become the biggest BBC drama of 2021

There’s a reason everyone’s talking about Vigil, aka Suranne Jones’ twisted new thriller series… 

Right from the very first episode of BBC One’s Vigil, we were hooked. Because the series – which stars Gentleman Jack’s Suranne Jones, Game Of Thrones’ Rose Leslie, and Line Of Duty’s Martin Compston – wasted no time in serving up the kind of brutal murder mystery that thriller fans couldn’t wait to sink their teeth into.

It began, as fans will already be aware, with the disappearance of a Scottish fishing boat out at sea – a disappearance which was followed up swiftly by a suspicious death aboard the nearby nuclear submarine HMS Vigil.

Come episode two, we had a murky conspiracy to unravel, not to mention a second murder to solve. And, in the most recent instalment of the BBC drama (episode three, for anyone counting), we were given a bevy of new suspects and motives, as well as a tense late-night showdown between Leslie’s character and the drivers of a super-shady black SUV. Phew.

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Some naysayers, of course, have criticised the show for its unrealistic submarine set, insisting it should feel more cramped. Others have expressed dismay over the drama’s less-than-glowing representation of the Royal Navy. The majority of viewers, though, are thoroughly obsessed with the show’s twisty-turny plot, and have piled praise upon Jones and Leslie in particular for their standout performances.

Is it any wonder, then, that the series has already broken records?

Vigil is officially the most popular new show on BBC One.

That’s right, everyone: the BBC has confirmed that Vigil is now the Beeb’s “most-watched new drama of the year so far” – which, considering we’re already well into September by this point, is no small feat.

“Episode one of Vigil has attracted an audience of 10.2 million viewers across its first seven days, making it the BBC’s most watched new drama of the year so far,” confirmed a celebratory tweet from the official Twitter account of the BBC Press Office.

When asked about the show’s success, Jones – who stars as the overwhelmingly complex DCI Amy Silva – suggested that it’s all down to Vigil’s refreshing approach to its female leads.

“I think what the team has tried to do is really modern,” she says. “Because we’ve got a real, old-fashioned boys-y thriller, in the fact it’s set on a submarine and it’s a police investigation. But they’ve put two female leads at the heart of it, which I think is brilliant and modern and refreshing.

“And there’s also a love story between these two leads that we’re uncovering at the same time, but it doesn’t clash in any way with the thriller elements of the plot.”

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The celebrated actor continues: “What’s brilliant is Vigil teaches you about what goes on under the water aboard a submarine, and also the plot is political enough without taking away from being an entertaining, mainstream TV show. So it touches on relevant and important subjects, but still keeps the entertainment value.”

Showrunner Tom Edge, meanwhile, says that the show’s success lies in its unexpected premise: it deals with the reality of Britain’s nuclear deterrent submarines, which have been operational for over 50 years – and yet remains shrouded in secrecy, even now.

“The promise of the premise was really clear. A locked-room mystery, in which the detective must work and sleep alongside the antagonist they’re pursuing,” he continues. “A detective who is forced to work without all the things that usually support them: colleagues, forensic tools, access to information and records. And the tensions created by an outsider disrupting the crew’s cohesion.

“But just as appealing was the mythic feel of these giant vessels. These are boats designed to vanish beneath the waves, to cross thresholds. I started to think about the kind of character who might need to be swallowed into the belly of a whale… and, in creating the show’s antagonist, I thought about these submarines – how they remain hidden, trying to evade detection, but always hold within them the capacity for sudden violence.”

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With another three episodes of Vigil still to air, there’s plenty of time to catch up with the series if you haven’t already via BBC iPlayer (and our incredibly detailed recaps, obviously).

Then, once you’ve completed your required viewing and reading, you’ll be pleased to know that Vigil continues Sunday 12 September at 9pm on BBC One.

Meet you down in the murky depths of the Scottish sea this weekend, OK?

Images: BBC

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