By Johanna Ross
(September 25) – The scene: a British nuclear submarine. A detective has been sent to investigate the death of a sailor. When she asks the Naval Commander why there needs to be so much secrecy, as Britain is not at war, he responds “That is an illusion. We have always been at war.”
The series, entitled Vigil is the BBC’s most watched drama of the year, and has been well publicised, attracting an audience of 10.2 million over its first week. It depicts a fight with an illusive, ruthless adversary that successfully manages to infiltrate a UK submarine to “knock out Britain’s nuclear deterrent”, killing British citizens in the process. The murder weapon of choice is a nerve agent; can you guess who the enemy is yet?
Of course it’s Russia. Nuclear submarines, nerve agent, a treacherous opponent; from the opening sequence with video footage of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev projected onto a submarine, the audience is under no illusion as to who this adversary is. Nowadays, the British public almost expects it to be Russia.
For years now the UK population has been schooled on “evil Russia” across all media platforms – from the news to TV dramas to films – with the line between fiction and reality becoming increasingly blurred. One of the most Googled questions about the Vigil drama series is ‘is it real?’ This is hardly surprising given the sheer volume of anti-Russian content, with cinema often dramatising real life events and vice versa.
Take the Skripal case, for instance. The apparent poisoning with “Novichok” of the former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter took place just a few months after a British/American TV series Strike Back was released, in which a “rogue Russian biochemist” was working on a substance of the very same name. That was probably the first time that western audiences had ever heard the word “Novichok”, and yet, by extraordinary coincidence, it was to appear on our TV screens just a few months later, in the news. The finger of blame was immediately pointed at Moscow, just as preparations were being made for Russia to host the 2018 world cup. The timing could not have been worse for the Kremlin, and yet it helped Britain considerably in its bid to discredit Russia in its hosting of the sporting event.
TV and cinema being used by governments as instruments to sway and foster public opinion is nothing new. In the book Propaganda and empire: the manipulation of British public opinion, 1880-1960 John M MacKenzie explores the plethora of ways the British government promoted imperialism throughout the empire’s existence, not only through cinema, but using everything from cigarette cards to school textbooks. During the war, the British Ministry of Information also pumped out films with instructive government messaging under the direction of Humphrey Jennings. These documentaries were more about what to do and what not to do, promoting slogans such as “grow your own” and “make do and mend” to aid the war effort on the home front.
The Vigil drama obviously had a considerable budget. And its political function is twofold; it highlights the “threat” from Russia, and the question of the Trident’s future in an independent Scotland. By playing up the idea of a real, imminent danger from Russia, it persuades the viewer of the importance of retaining Britain’s nuclear deterrent. As tensions grow between East and West, and Boris Johnson pursues his “Global Britain” strategy, we will no doubt see more programmes emphasising Britain’s military strength countering Russia and let’s not forget, China. Sadly, such manipulation of the population doesn’t encourage understanding between peoples and instead, fosters division and discrimination. At best it is Britain using Russia as a scapegoat to bolster its sense of national pride; at worse, it is laying the groundwork for a future conflict with Russia.
Johanna Ross is a journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland.