BBC's Vigil: Holding back secrets of submarine drama shows big TV moments can still be created – Brian Ferguson

I’m old enough to remember quite a few doom-laden predictions for popular culture.

Wednesday, 22nd September 2021, 4:55 am
Suranne Jones and Shaun Evans are starring in the gripping BBC submarine drama Vigil. Picture: Mark Mainz

I’ve lived through the demise of disco and heavy metal, bookshops, cinema-going and vinyl records, only to see them rise again to confound the experts.

A few years, it felt like the idea of big TV moments had been consigned to the dustbin of broadcasting history thanks to the surge in popularity of binge-watching shows.

But the last few months seems to have heralded a real revival for the idea of the whole country tuning in at the same time to see how their favourite show is going to unfold.

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I must admit I’d never actually heard the phrase ‘binge-watching’ until I saw Kevin Spacey speak at the Edinburgh TV Festival eight years ago and remember feeling depressed and horrified at the idea.

Before too long I found myself bingeing on series like House of Cards on overseas holidays. I was whizzed through the ten episodes which made up the first series of Succession in a few days.

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In the darkest weeks and months of lockdown, bingeing comedies like Schitt’s Creek and Call My Agent undoubtedly help brighten my mood every evening.

Why, then, does it seem to be so much more satisfying to be rationed on just one episode of the BBC’s gripping submarine drama Vigil each week?

Ironically, it was watching Line of the Duty from the start earlier this year, catching up with it just in time for its season six finale, that helped highlight the wisdom of a strategy of releasing one episode at a time.

It was hard to recall anything to match the levels of hype and expectation that had built up ahead of the show’s climax.

In fact, its audience of 12.8 million was said to be the biggest for any drama series on UK TV this century.

Perhaps almost as surprising was the fact that the show’s secrets were kept fully intact until the night.

The same trick has been pulled off with Vigil, which seems to be operating under even tighter security than the Royal Navy.

The actor playing one traitorous character revealed he was sworn to secrecy from disclosing anything about his role to his partner.

The rise of social media has meant it is difficult to avoid reading about the twists and turns of a show before you see it.

But this may also be boosting the audiences of shows which are released one episode at a time – because the audience has built up and will not be distracted by anything other than a nationwide watch party.

What Vigil has also demonstrated is that if a show, its cast and storyline are good enough, there will be more than enough to generate weeks of public and media interest, which social media is also helping to amplify.

Releasing one episode at a time is clearly not going to work for every show, particularly with the combination of the UK’s current boom in drama production and a limited supply of primetime slots on the main BBC and ITV networks.

But with the format clearly working a treat for Vigil, which will reach its finale on Sunday, it will be no surprise if it becomes an increasingly popular trend for the most high-profile drama series.

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