Alan Bleasdale, whose landmark television drama Boys from the Blackstuff brilliantly captured the pain of economic hardship during the downturn of the Eighties, is back at the BBC for the first time in a generation.
The Liverpudlian, one of Britain's most influential television writers and social commentators, has made a three-hour epic for BBC2 that examines man's responsibilities unto man. But whereas Blackstuff was set amid the backstreets and the dole queues of Merseyside, Laconia, like Bleasdale's other great Eighties production for the BBC, The Monocled Mutineer, is a war film. It is the writer's first television work since his adaptation of Oliver Twist for ITV 11 years ago, and it was described by a senior BBC executive as "a labour of love". Inevitably, there is a strong Liverpool connection to the drama, which will be told in two 90-minute films.
Bleasdale has for five years been dramatising the true story of the RMS Laconia, a Cunard liner on the Liverpool to New York route that was converted into a troop ship during the Second World War. "This is an astonishing tale of bravery, humanity, warmth, and near madness in the face of fascism and the cruelty of war," he said. "There have been nightmares along the way but every writer must dream of being given a story such as this." The RMS Laconia was sunk by the German U-boat 156 off the coast of West Africa on 12 September 1942. As well as carrying 268 British soldiers, 160 of their free Polish allies and 80 civilians – including families evacuated from Cairo and Palestine – the vessel was transporting 1,800 Italian prisoners of war.
Faced with the fear that he was responsible for an incident that might drive a wedge between the Axis of Germany and Italy, the U-boat commander Werner Hartenstein surfaced his submarine. As well as rescuing the Italians he also went about saving the British and the Poles.
Hartenstein (played by Ken Duken, who appeared in the Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds) packed the survivors onto the top of his vessel and, having draped the U-boat with Red Cross flags, sailed towards a rendezvous with Vichy French ships which had embarked from West African ports. En route they were spotted by an American B-24 bomber who took orders from his superiors to bomb his target. The resulting carnage led German Admiral Karl Dönitz to pass the Laconia Order, banning rescues from sunken ships.
Laconia, a joint production with the German television network ARD, was partly the idea of Peter Fincham – now the director of television at ITV – when he was chief executive of production company TalkbackThames. Johnathan Young, Talkback's executive producer, suggested his hero Bleasdale would be the perfect writer. "It's a story of real scale and humanity and needed someone who could understand both the British and the German side of a complex situation," said Young. "And the Laconia came from Liverpool and was crewed out of Liverpool." Bleasdale quickly agreed to write the piece after being sent Frederick Grossmith's book, The Sinking of the Laconia. Production of the drama will finish in November.
Yesterday BBC2 also revealed plans to dramatise the story of the Live Aid concerts of 1985, the music event that focused the world's attention on famine in Ethiopia. When Harvey Met Bob tells the story of the relationship between Bob Geldof, then the singer for Dublin punk group The Boomtown Rats, and the music promoter Harvey Goldsmith. Between them they created an event watched by a television audience of 2 billion which raised around £160m. Geldof will be played by little-known Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson and Goldsmith by Ian Hart.
Bleasdale's greatest hits
Alan Bleasdale first came to the public's attention with Scully, a young man from Liverpool who featured of several radio plays. Bleasdale's realistic portrayal of working-class life earned him critical acclaim, and he later wrote a stage play, two novels and a TV series based on the same character.
Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)
Bleasdale's iconic TV series about five former tarmac layers struggling to find employment in Liverpool established him as a key writer in the 1980s. His portrayal of the city under Margaret Thatcher, struck with recession, won him a BAFTA for best drama series.
No Surrender (1985)
Bleasdale's only feature film, this is a black comedy featuring a group of elderly Protestants and Catholics who have reserved the same bar for a party on the same night. It won the Best Film award at the Toronto film festival in 1985.
Described by the British Film Institute as "a topical, highly ambitious work that remains his longest, most complex and expansive project to date", the series is about a northern town under the leadership of a corrupt Labour politician.