Secrets Of The Submarine: Here’s How The BBC’s Vigil Created Its Claustrophobic Underwater Setting

Aside from the mystery surrounding Craig Burke’s murder, there’s been one other thing fans of pulse-racing new Naval thriller Vigil can’t stop talking about – the sets. 

Suranne Jones’ new drama is set aboard the fictional HMS Vigil, a Trident nuclear submarine that is on a covert mission deep below the surface. 

The world the show inhabits is dark, claustrophobic and unsettling, and it took a hell of a lot of work to authentically represent life on a submarine, particularly as set designers were not allowed access to blueprints of real boats to work from due to the often secret nature of the Navy’s work.

Mark Mainz/BBC/World Productions

Suranne Jones during filming for Vigil

“You’re not allowed to have them,” reveals Suranne Jones, who plays DCI Amy Silva, who is sent on board the boat to investigate Burke’s untimely death. 

“[The designers] had to be talked through what was there by people who had first-hand knowledge of submarines, and then come up with their own design off the back of that,” she explains.

They constructed a huge version of a submarine on a soundstage, which took up the entirety of the space, according to Adam James, who plays Lieutenant Commander Mark Prentice. 

“The first couple of days on set were properly jaw dropping, as the scale and detail of the submarine set that had been built was very impressive. It was simply enormous,” he says. “It gave us such an immediate and accurate feeling of what it might be like to be on an actual sub.

“It left very little to the imagination, such was the detail of set, which in that kind of environment was so helpful to be able to perform and work in – all the excitement of being on a sub, but without any of the actual difficulty or discomfort of having to be on a real one.”

The sheer scale of the set was something all the actors agreed on, with Martin Compston, who plays Burke, recalling one particular scene he found amazing to shoot. 

Mark Mainz/BBC/World Productions

A behind-the-scenes shot of Martin Compston in action

“Where I get in trouble and am dismissed to my bunk, and that whole walk from the control room to the bed was one continuous walk for me, because they’d built so much of the submarine. It just kept going on and on,” he says. 

“As an actor it’s such a wonderful help when the sets are so good. When you just feel it’s all real and you can walk from different bits of the sub to the other and it’s all there for you – you really get a sense of the claustrophobia and how ‘close quarters’ it is aboard a submarine.”

Surranne especially found the bunk beds difficult to grapple with. 

She says: “There’s a great scene where Amy tries to get in her bunk bed. I’m quite tall and not of small build, and the director was like ‘can you get up there a little more gracefully?’ Because I just couldn’t do it, because they’re so small.”

She also reveals that the scene where she descends from a helicopter to board the submarine in episode one was filmed in a car park during the shoot in Scotland. 

Mark Mainz/BBC/World Productions

Suranne filmed the abseil from a helicopter in a car park

“With the technology we have now for FX, it’s amazing,” she says. “Some scenes, when we filmed them they didn’t look anything like the finished product.

“I was hung above a car park on a rope at one point, but it looks entirely different and much better in the show.”

BBC/World Productions

What the finished scene looked like

Production also had additional challenges to face when Covid closed down the shoot for six months, and then required social distancing between some of the actors and crew on an already cramped set. 

Shaun Evans, who plays Chief Petty Officer Elliot Glover, says: “By some miracle and a lot of hard work from the team we were still able to film on the set after filming resumed in a way that makes it look like we’re still confined to tiny corridors with a huge crew.”

Mark Mainz/BBC/World Productions

The Vigil submarine was built without any blueprints to a real Navy boat

The cast and crew had assistance from an ex-submariner advisor on set, who Connor Swindells – aka Lieutenant Simon Hadlow – says kept them “all in ship-shape, and was a tremendous help”.

However, Ryan Ramsey, who was the captain of the nuclear submarine HMS Turbulent between 2008 and 2011, has claimed real-life submarines are even more cramped than the imagined one you see in Vigil. 

He told BBC Breakfast: “What you can’t portray in many series is the claustrophobia, the sense of abnormal living and the submarines are the first and last line of defence for the United Kingdom, they operate in a void less explored than space.

“It’s an incredible experience very difficult to recreate in a drama.”

Noting what could be changed, he continued: “You could almost lower the ceilings to start with effectively, there’s just not as much space as you see there. You can’t hide a second with a space that small and a crew that size.”

Vigil continues on Sunday at 9pm on BBC One.

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