Just how realistic is Vigil? Norfolk submariners give their verdicts

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 24/08/2021 - Programme Name: Vigil - TX: n/a -

Vigil has become one of the most-watched shows on TV this year - Credit: BBC/World Productions

Murder, espionage and forbidden relationships certainly makes for a great thriller. But how realistic is Vigil's depiction of life working as a submariner?

The secretive world of submarines has been brought to life through hit BBC drama Vigil and it's become the most-watched show this year. 

It follows the story of a Royal Navy nuclear submarine, as police detectives attempt to unravel the mysterious death of a crew member.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 17/08/2020 - Programme Name: Vigil - TX: n/a -

Suranne Jones stars as a police detective in the series - Credit: BBC/World Productions

Its final episode aired on Sunday, September 26, having ended on a nerve-wracking cliffhanger in the penultimate episode.

It's an intriguing plot, but one that's likely far from reality.

Commander Tom Herman OBE, 65, has over 40 years experience serving in the Royal Navy as a submariner, and was captain of the HMS Opossum and HMS Renown. He is now head of the Norfolk branch of the Submariners Association.

HMS Opposum submarine Royal Navy

Commander Herman served as captain on HMS Opposum - Credit: Provided by Richard Glover

"It's completely unrealistic. The disrespect and lack of camaraderie between crew members is the exact opposite of what it's actually like on a boat. 

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"When I think of the families of submariners who died in the service, I imagine Vigil's portrayal of the crew may be quite upsetting. 

"What sticks in my memory is how professional everyone was. It's very hard work to become a submariner and you undergo intense training to get there. Once at sea you don't see rank, instead it was paramount to earn the respect of your team, regardless of your position."

The plot of a Scottish police detective being airlifted onto a submarine is also very far-fetched for Commander Herman, who lives in Hoveton.

"If somebody had died in similar circumstances on board a boat, the navy's Special Investigation Branch would have investigated the incident. Also, if a submarine was on a deterrent patrol, they would not be sending messages to and fro."

Robert Glover Picture: Mim Howell

Robert Glover served as a submariner in the 1970s - Credit: supplied

Robert Glover OBE, 64, served on submarines in the 1970s, on vessels that were very different from the modern hunter-killer submarine class. His book, As Many as the Stars offers a great insight into the life of a submariner.

"It wasn't like the floating hotels they have today. Lots of people suffered from claustrophobia. It wasn't easy. I worked on smaller diesel submarines with 60-70 men. And at 6ft 2, it got very cramped.

"After two weeks at sea there was no more water for washing so it became a very dirty and smelly place. All you had was your bunk and sleeping bag, and the longer you were at sea the worse the food got.

"People were allowed to smoke on board then as well, so you had the diesel fumes mixing with cigarette smoke."

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The plot unravels both at sea and on land in Vigil - Credit: BBC/World Productions

While living conditions were different, there are some aspects that Mr Glover could relate to.

"The experience in the control room is quite similar. I served during the cold war, and there were some very tense times. If we picked up other vessels on sonar we'd have to stay very quiet and morale would drop. But once they moved on we'd crack open a beer."

When at sea, there are no lines of communication home.

According to Commander Herman, "you don't know what's going on back home and you can't speak to loved ones for months at a time. Submariners still face this, and with the ease of communication we take for granted today, it can be especially hard and isolating."

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 24/08/2021 - Programme Name: Vigil - TX: n/a -

The final episode of Vigil airs Sunday September 26 - Credit: BBC/World Productions

For Mr Glover, who lives in Aylsham, one important line of communication remained open.

"One tradition was that we'd head towards the surface at 5pm to periscope depth and raise the radio mast so we could get the BBC World Service for the football results without getting detected. With a crew from all over the UK, it was always great fun, depending on whether your team won of course."

While Vigil may have plot holes, Commander Herman makes an important point: "The show should be judged on its merit as a drama, rather than its accuracy." 

If you would like to support families of submariners who died at sea, you can do so via the Submariner Memorial Appeal here.

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