You might think a story like the one told in The Sinking of the Laconia (BBC Two) shouldn’t need a great writer, certainly not one as great as Alan Bleasdale – because the story is perfect as it stands. Action, heroism, tragedy – the elements of drama are already there; you don’t need to make it up because it all really happened. In 1942, off the coast of West Africa, RMS Laconia was torpedoed by a German U-boat. But when the U-boat’s commander, Werner Hartenstein, saw that many of the survivors were women and children, he decided to rescue them. It is, essentially, the story of a nice Nazi.
Yet The Sinking of the Laconia isn’t quite as enthralling as you’d expect from such a subject, or such a writer. It’s well shot and well acted, in particular by the bristly Ken Duken as Hartenstein, but perhaps its main problem is one of comparison. It was written by the man who wrote Boys from the Blackstuff and GBH. And after you’ve written two masterpieces like those, anything merely decent tends to look like a letdown.
Maybe it’s because the world of the Laconia isn’t Bleasdale’s; he’s having to write from research rather than from experience. Bleasdale’s world is the one we see in Boys from the Blackstuff and GBH: a Liverpool of drizzle, the dole and desperation in the Eighties and Nineties. Both those series have a savage, pungent vividness that The Sinking of the Laconia lacks; they’re as real and painful as a poke in the eye. If it weren't for Billy the sarky Scouser (“There’s a f---ing brownie in this coffee”) you might not guess The Sinking was by Bleasdale; at times it feels almost like a generic war film, with its gruff captain, straight-backed officers and sweet brunettes.
Another difference between it and Bleasdale’s best lies in their respective heroes. Hartenstein is upstanding and brave. By contrast, Yosser Hughes (the unemployed tarmac layer in Boys from the Blackstuff) is a spiteful sociopath, and Michael Murray (the Labour councillor in GBH) a venal megalomaniac. Yet Bleasdale makes us care about both of them. And it takes a lot more skill to make viewers care about a brute than it does to make them applaud a saint.
Still, The Sinking does have some familiar Bleasdale traits. Bleasdale is a writer of harsh realities, a kind of Scouse Steinbeck: his characters, even when they act with good intentions, invariably end up getting kicked in the crotch by fate or authority. They are born victims. So it proved last night, with Mortimer (Andrew Buchan), the Laconia’s honourable Third Officer, giving up his evening to babysit for a widow, only to learn hours later that his own wife and children had been killed in a bombing raid at home. Watch tonight’s concluding part to find out what fate and authority have in store for Hartenstein and his survivors.
Some of the plotting last night was clever, such as the parallels between Fiedler on the U-boat (Frederick Lau) and William on the Laconia (Matthew Aubrey), both of whom are gawky youths bullied by colleagues – one of several ways Bleasdale aims to show that the British and the Germans have more in common than either would like to allow. Less well handled was the scene of Hollywoodish weepiness in which a woman, treading water amid the Laconia’s wreckage, handed a fellow passenger her wedding ring, begged her to deliver it to her husband in Scotland, then promptly died. I half expected Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On to strike up on the soundtrack.
The Sinking is Bleasdale’s first TV drama in 11 years. I wish he’d do more. He wrote some of the finest TV drama of the 20th century. He may yet write some of the finest of the 21st. I just hope his next one feels more like him.