Vigil 2 – taking on the cover up

A new season of Vigil on iPlayer uncovers the links between the British security state, oil rich Middle Eastern countries and arms manufacturing in the deadly operations of contemporary imperialism. Dave Kellaway reviews why it is worth your time. Photograph: Jamie Simpson/BBC/World Productions


A military control room staked with computers facing massive multiple screens… soldiers in full combat gear on a ridge overlooking a stationary military vehicle… a viewing platform with Arab military and civilians… then we see drones flying in formation… we move to inside a closed room somewhere else; a single uniformed man is controlling a laptop screen with a joystick and a lighted red lever… calm orders are issued full of jargon and code… it becomes clear it is a training exercise or demonstration… the attack order is given… we see drones approach, release their missiles and bullets… one of the isolated drone operators is suddenly concerned that he is no longer in control… five soldiers are shot… panic ensues.

This is the gripping opening scene of Vigil series two. The arms demonstration has gone horribly wrong. We soon discover that the operation is being coordinated from a military base in Scotland, where the casualties take place, and in a British Air Base in an allied Middle Eastern country.

There are drone controllers in both places. Since the deaths took place on Scottish soil they have to call in the police to investigate. Amy Silva (Suzanne Jones) and Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie) are summoned to uncover what happened. Was it an accident, an enemy hack or something else?

Vigil series one saw Silva stranded in a nuclear sub and the action mostly took place in that confined space. With 13 million viewers it was a huge success, bagging an Emmy award and BAFTA nomination. It raised issues about the security of the British nuclear deterrent and the way the armed forces often try to obstruct any transparency about their actions.

After Vigil 2’s brilliant opening we have the classic six part series with each episode pursuing and then eliminating possible explanations. Each one ends on a cliffhanger, pushing us to hit the iPlayer button to binge watch. As a backstory we have Amy and Kirsten in a loving relationship awaiting their first child. Kirsten is pregnant throughout but still plays a key role in getting to the truth. We are kept entertained guessing until the end, but additionally the programme created by Tom Edge manages to raise important political issues.

Why applaud this TV drama blockbuster?

  1. It shows the close links between arms dealers/manufacturers, the armed forces and the British (mostly secret) state

The revolving jobs door between military personnel, ministers, top civil servants and the arms industry is well documented. What is more effective for an arms dealer than to have an ex-minister with all the right contacts on your books? Arms companies pay a lot more than a minister gets, and that is just the over the counter salaries for less hours in the week. Corruption is endemic with both freebies and brown envelopes. A new variation that the programme highlights is the use of anonymous crypto currency accounts for the bungs.

The British arms industry is one of the few highly profitable manufacturing sectors left standing. Both Labour and Tory politicians always big up the number of jobs reliant on the making of killing machines. Air Marshall Grainger raises this fact several times in the series. Surely one reason Corbyn was so mercilessly attacked by the establishment and the Labour right was that he challenged the consensus that kept this military industrial complex protected.

  • The show reveals how the British state has strategic relations with corrupt, repressive Middle Eastern oil rich regimes and will hide its actions to sustain such relations

David Cameron, the British foreign secretary, has just flown out to attend the funeral of the Emir of Kuwait, which expresses how carefully the British state cultivates its close relations with these states. Indeed, it gave direct military support during the very formation of these states. The RAF helped the Sultan of Oman destroy a national liberation front fighting against it in the south of the country in the 1970s.

Given the strategic importance to fossil fuel-driven capitalism for controlling the oil supply, Britain helps the US, its senior partner, maintain what they call ‘stability’ in the region. Today that obviously means backing Israeli genocidal action against the Palestinians and opposing a ceasefire in Gaza.

Squadron leader Eliza Russell (Romola Garai)

Apart from the oil the Middle East is a lucrative market for arms exports and other goods, particularly luxury items for the elites. Such close collaboration also involves military advice and intelligence as well as direct support using special or irregular contracted forces to put down any movement of democratic rebellion against these autocracies.

Vigil shows this is detail. When certain operations go wrong and there are civilian casualties this is hidden as far as possible from the British media or politicians. The media is largely complicit in the cover up – how much effort has been made to expose the military support currently given to Israel from the British bases in Cyprus?

  • It explains how the British state will bend legality, bypass parliamentary scrutiny, commit secret operations, set up dirty tricks and create a media narrative that smears opposition to their friends as terrorism

A key element in the drama is how the armed forces and arms industry have an interest in defining opposition to the repressive Arab regimes as fully organised by jihadist, terrorist groups. How much easier it is to justify selling weapons to be used against people if you say they are the same groups letting up bombs in the tube in London? In practice some of the imported weapons can be used against protesters.

These regimes are more likely to buy your weapons if you are a strategic ally who echoes the narrative and ideology of the regime. In the drama there is a pending vote in parliament about military support for the Middle Eastern regime’s war against its opposition. Silva and Longacre’s dogged search for the truth is a threat to securing that vote.

There are internal oppositions in these countries who are not all jihadists and are fighting for their right to live free – there is a rousing and pertinent speech by Firas Zaman, a representative of such a current, in the final episode

  • We see the brutal reality of asymmetrical warfare where the rudimentary arms of the liberation movements or the unarmed oppositions confront the might of Western software and technology

We see this in Gaza today where Israel has the capacity to use high tech options to lessen its own casualties and monitor the enemy in ways Hamas cannot. On several occasions in the drama we see how the remote drone operations supposedly use sophisticated targeting methods. If the target looks up the sky cameras can cross check the ‘terrorist’ suspect with a database using facial recognition.

This is supposed to reassure public opinion that imperialist warfare is now much cleaner and has less ‘collateral damage’. In practice as the drama shows such targeting is not always effective or even used and incidents take place where civilians are massacred. So US intelligence sources have estimated at least 45% of Israeli bombing is using ‘dumb’ artillery.

A few days ago we saw that if the Israeli army wants to kill Palestinians indiscriminately it will – the bare-chested three men waving the white flag were clearly seen not as Israeli hostages but Palestinians whom you could shoot dead whether armed or not. Public opinion in the West is sensitive to the level of casualties among its own citizens as we eventually saw with Vietnam. Drone or robot weaponry is another way of dealing with that problem.

  • Thankfully no state is all-powerful, a few brave people will blow the whistle if they see injustice or a terrible wrong and will try and get to the truth

In this series our female detective couple are our heroines. They refuse to accept a series of official versions of what happened and use their brains and bravery to seek the truth. We should never become too pessimistic. In real life people have stood up to the secret state like Assange or Katherine Gun at GCHQ when she exposed how the US were spying on the UN.

  • Female and gay characters have a prominence in the lead roles that is unusual in a mainstream drama

Their gayness is not overlaid with any psychological trauma or conflict. Their relationship is treated as normal with all the stress of combining work, private life and a pregnancy. Both the detectives and the squadron leaders have the main roles. They hold their own in the actions scenes with the main characters. Suzanne Jones as Silva just does not take bullshit from the authorities and gradually, with the help of her colleague and lover, Kirsten, she triumphs.

Tommy Zim’aan plays Firas Zaman and makes a great speech

Nobody’s perfect as the old guy says to Jack Lemmon at the end of Some Like it Hot (also currently on iPlayer) and there are limits to what you can get from a mainstream TV drama.

Tom Edge himself focuses on the individual dilemmas around loyalty rather than a more rounded political analysis, but it is true that individual action can make a difference in these situations:

“As with the first series, the meaning of ‘loyalty’ is a major theme. To whom or what do we owe our loyalty? Our loved ones, our conscience, the institution we serve, our country? How do we approach the duties that derive from these loyalties? And which legal and ethical boundaries might we have to transgress in order to fulfil them? (Radio Times)

Moreover, as with the first series, the scenario is slanted towards the ‘rotten apples’ excuse. I don’t know if Edge is a Scots Nationalist but the Scottish police come out once again as a principled ‘clean’ force. Ultimately, it is just individuals or bits of the state that are free-lancing in alliance with the repressive regime and the arms makers rather than being a structural part of the imperialist state.

However the critique of the state’s operations is stronger in series 2 – listen to Firas Zaman in one of the final speeches. Furthermore the series does emphasise that however much the secret service can dump the blame on people it had collaborated with days before, the main concern when the shit hits the fan is to keep everything from the general public or politicians.

The right wing Telegraph was dismissive of Vigil 2. They were happier with the first series where the critique of the secret state and nuclear weapons security was combined with the reality of Russian aggression. Their reviewer said it should have stopped at series 1 and unsurprisingly gave series 2 a two star out of 5 rating. Bizarrely the Daily Mail coverage first focused on the questions of accuracy regarding the uniforms and other details.

What we really need now is a Vigil series 3 that deals with British state’s collusion with the Israeli occupation. We won’t hold our breath on that one.

Vigil 2 finishes on the 19th December on BBC 1 but is now available on iPlayer.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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