VIGIL is not that all-night exercise of prayer and fasting with which lives in religion are familiar: rather, it is the current Sunday-night crime thriller on BBC1, set on one of our four nuclear submarines that constantly traverse the oceans, threatening mass destruction. Here, the meltdown is as much internal as worldwide: each episode (three so far) reveals shadier depths of on-board antagonism, violence, and disaster only just averted.
I find it far superior to much of the genre: the setting is as limiting as the classic snow-bound country house; so the killer must still be among us. The detective who is dropped in to investigate — to the Navy’s irritation — a crewman’s death is terrific: sharp, determined, haunted (of course), and female. Her colleagues on land are uncovering parallel layers of related crime, corruption, cover-up, and now international political intrigue.
It has entered an irritating pattern of setting up a villain who, by the end of the episode, turns out to be innocent after all. If it jumps out of that groove, then it will be very classy indeed, the stuff of nightmares; for, on a submarine, there is nowhere to hide.
Much of 9/11: Inside the President’s war room (BBC1, Tuesday of last week) was set in a similar metal tube, but cruising in exactly the opposite element; for this was Air Force One, whisking President Bush to safety in the air as the terrorist attacks on the United States unfolded below. By that terrible evening, we knew that only four planes were involved — at the time, they couldn’t tell whether this was a nationwide attack — and seeing the tragedy unfold, minute by minute, brought us back to the reality of the moment, with all its confusion and dread.
It enlarged our sympathy, as those actually present — there was an astonishing line-up of contributors, with President Bush himself the chief narrator — relived the day, admitting how little they understood about what was going on, and how completely unprepared they were.
But it ended terribly: President Bush is unrepentant today about the resolve on which he determined then: diplomacy was a wholly inadequate response — only bloody force could avenge this outrage. In the week of US retreat from Afghanistan, and the Taliban reinstated in power, with more than 130,000 deaths over 20 years, a more sober reflection would have maintained our sympathy.
Channel 4 covers the Paralympics, and I find its nightly The Last Leg a far more satisfying reflection on the day’s triumphs than the BBC’s sober analysis. It undermines our amazement at athletic achievement with that essential human virtue: humour. The disabled presenters undercut themselves and their starry guests, clutching the glittering medals won that day, laughing through their impairments. This builds real fellow feeling, destroying prejudice. What is clear to all is not the disability, but the person.