I was working as a production designer on a show in Lithuania when Nico Hoffman, the producer of The Sinking Of The Laconia, came to visit.

He told me about the idea for a new TV drama: the true story of the WWII English ocean-liner, RMS Laconia being bombed by a German submarine 600 miles off the West African coast.

Once Werner Hartenstein, the commander of the German U-boat realised that the Laconia was carrying British civilians as well as Allied soldiers and Italian prisoners of war, he went against orders to organise the rescue of as many passengers as possible.

You can imagine that my imagination immediately went all over the place. Even though I was standing in the middle of 300 extras and some 100 horse-drawn carriages near the Baltic Sea, I said "Yes, yes, when do we start?"

When I first thought about design aspects on Laconia, nobody really had any idea how to do this.

I mean, in the beginning it seemed like Pearl Harbor meets Titanic with Das Boot as the icing on the cake.

The only difference was, we had much less money - a fraction of what those big American movies had.

The entire project was a challenge. Just imagine, we needed to sink a 600-foot ocean-liner on screen and both the interior and exterior of a 200-foot submarine needed to be constructed from scratch as our primary filming location.

The exterior submarine used in the movie Das Boot no longer exists. The interior sits prettily in Munich as part of the Bavaria Film studio tour.

No way we would ever be able to shoot anything there, and besides, it was way too small.

The submarine required for this show was a type IX-C, which was the biggest German submarine at the time. I would say our biggest challenge was to be historically as accurate as possible.

The set I'm most proud of would be the Laconia exterior. Since it wasn't feasible to work with an existing ship, the producers asked me to come up with a proposal.

I took the script apart and allocated each scene to a specific area on board.

Then I proposed that we build at least five different sets for the Laconia exterior and make it look like one: The first class deck, the bridge, the aft deck, the straight hull in the harbour, a tilted hull for the sinking and a second class promenade for the sinking.

To build all these would cost less in the end than the towing of a real ship without mooring and insurance costs.

Only then did I get my budget approved for construction in South Africa. Please note that was four years after I started to think about possibilities! (Yes, I worked on other films in the meantime.)

Over these four years I went through so many stages of the design as the script changed, as locations were found and debated and rejected.

I did feasibility studies - can you believe - for England, Germany, Malta, Spain, Australia and South Africa.

Truthfully, I have almost lost track of which design approach I liked best.

Once we'd decided to shoot everything in South Africa, I pretty much started from scratch. So what you see in the finished film are the designs I did in Cape Town at the beginning of 2009.

I had so many favourite moments making this film. The most exciting one of course, was the launch of the steel submarine we had constructed ourselves for the open-water scenes.

Other great moments are always when the actors appear on set for the first time in their period costumes (by costume designer Monika Jacobs).

It makes my heart beat faster to see Lindsay Duncan with her great outfits, along with the first class promenade we constructed with that horrible rust and patina.

Knut Loewe is the production designer on The Sinking Of The Laconia.

The Sinking Of The Laconia is on BBC Two at 9pm on Thursday, 6 January. It's repeated on BBC HD at 9pm on Thursday, 12 January.

For further programme times, please see the upcoming episodes page.

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  • Comment number 65. Posted by Mandrake

    on 26 Jan 2011 11:20

    I agree with many of the earlier criticisms about the accuracy of this production but also acknowledge that dramatic licence is necessary and sometimes desirable to present a story within time and budget constraints. So while I have reservations about some aspects of the story-telling, in particular the inter-personal relationships and social attitudes, criticising them on the grounds of accuracy is fruitless because of the counter-argument that these are merely subjective opinions.

    But the producer's response (#63) to the criticisms about uniforms is blood-boilingly patronising. It is simply not good enough to say that these were "things we were unaware of at the time" and then hope to move on: since this is a BBC joint production, it seems reasonable to assume that licence-payers' money was involved in making it, and some of that has clearly not been well spent. Hilary Norrish herself makes the point that the producers had a duty to get the detail right, and says that they consulted experts, including a retired Admiral, in order to do so. On the basis of what was broadcast, it appears as if at least some of these were decidely inexpert so far as the British uniforms are concerned. This raises serious questions of professional competence and of the BBC's quality assurance processes. I think we should be told who these experts were, what advice they gave, and how much they were paid.

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  • Comment number 64. Posted by Chouan93

    on 25 Jan 2011 12:59

    A pretty comprehensive response. On the other hand, to what extents were these "experts" expert, if so many errors were allowed to be shown and why have a retired Admiral on hand whilst shooting? What could he advise you about the running of a merchant ship?

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  • Comment number 63. Posted by Fiona Wickham - BBC TV blog editor

    on 20 Jan 2011 11:46

    Hello again everyone,
    Hilary Norrish, the producer of The Sinking Of The Laconia wanted to respond to all your feedback here. Hilary's asked me to post this on her behalf:

    Thanks to Chris (3) for drawing attention to Frederick Grossmith’s wonderful book ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’. I have Alan Bleasdale’s copy of it in front of me right now and there are hundreds of yellow sticky markers liberally lettered through the text. It was credited on both parts of our drama but I think you may have missed it on the end roller! Grossmith’s book was one of many that Alan used in researching the story but for anyone who is interested in diving into the background I cannot recommend it highly enough: it’s a detailed, gripping account of the Laconia incident.

    Martin, Britinoregon, Emma, Andy C, Peter, Vicky and Sally at comments 2, 4, 6, 10, 11, 15 and 31 - It’s been wonderful to hear from – and talk to - survivors of the Laconia and their relatives. I’ve been incredibly moved by their understated accounts of enormous courage and endurance. And by the impact that the Laconia incident had on the rest of their lives. All recounted with humility and great good humour. Sally’s husband Captain Ben Coutts was very close to Alan’s heart. Sir Max Hastings wrote a very touching obituary when he died in 2004 that Alan pinned on the wall above his typewriter throughout the five years that he worked on the show – next to a picture of Werner Hartenstein - a constant reminder of people whose lives were profoundly affected by the events of the 12th of September, 1942.

    Now – of course – I have to respond to the criticism over the accuracy of the costumes which has clearly been at best distracting and at worst infuriating to many contributors to this blog. And for this I first must just apologise wholeheartedly. It was our intention to serve this story, one that had become so close to our hearts, with as much accuracy and authenticity as possible. To this end, we consulted a number of experts and used lots of reference books and photographs. There was even, remarkably, a small amount of cine footage shot on German submarine U 156 at the time! We also had a retired Admiral on set while we were shooting. And – of course and crucially – we used eye witness reports and spoke to survivors.

    Certainly, there were details that we knew were not quite right for the period. Keir and I_Claudius have rightly noticed the bulbous bow in the dry dock which is a little anachronistic. We shot this scene in Simonstown - the naval base in South Africa - and that was the ship that was there! In truth, I think we felt that the image of our U Boat Commanders walking through such an arresting location was worth it. But these are always debatable judgement calls.

    And then there were the lifejackets. I asked Josephine Pratchett (one of the survivors featured in the documentary) if she had any comments on the accuracy of our portrayal and the only thing she picked up on were the lifejackets. And she was quite right. But we had a practical problem: we were shooting on the open water in Capetown – the Cape of Good Hope - with hundreds of actors and crew crammed onto the deck of our home made U-156. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 1942 lifejackets just didn’t pass any criteria of Health and Safety in 2009! So we had to compromise. I discovered that the Cape of Good Hope was previously known as the Cape of Storms and during the shoot we all found out why! We decided to keep our company safe – if a little inaccurate.

    But from the very detailed comments from Bobhinton, Chouan93, Jimbo and others it becomes clear that our best efforts at accuracy didn’t cut the mustard. And that there were things that we were unaware of at the time. All I can say is that we were very mindful of the imperative – actually our duty - to get the detail right. We were very aware of the distinction between the Merchant Navy (who made up most of the Laconia’s crew) and the Royal Navy. And we tried to underline these distinctions on screen. Where we failed for some of you I feel I should simply apologise that it distracted from your enjoyment of the drama.

    Finally, I’d just like to thank all of you for your feedback about The Sinking of the Laconia. It has been a labour of love – lasting almost as long as the Second World War itself! But above all, it has been a privilege to work on such a remarkable story of courage and humanity in the fog of war.

  • Comment number 62. Posted by Chouan93

    on 19 Jan 2011 12:00

    Also in fairness, this seems to be the only place that the BBC accepted comments on the programme. I did look! If this is the only place where comments can be made, then comments are going to made about areas of production beyond Mr.Loewe's area of expertise.
    However, if he is responsible for set design, then he is also responsible for getting set design wrong. Examples mentioned above include the incongruous bulbous bow, the ridiculous wheelhouse clutter, crew in the wrong area, and the rubbish lying around. Even if a photo showed rubbish, or unidentified things on deck, in port on a ship engaged in working cargo, that material would be removed, and the ship tidied up once it got to sea. Cargo and Cargo/passenger ships ALWAYS look scruffy in port. That doesn't mean that they stay scruffy once they're settled into a voyage. These things were Mr Loewe's responsibility to get right, and he didn't do so.

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  • Comment number 61. Posted by Kath

    on 18 Jan 2011 21:49

    I just wanted to say thankyou to all of the team involved. This is the most powerful piece of television drama I have ever seen.
    Beautifully made, and a story which really moved and inspired me

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  • Comment number 60. Posted by wadinga

    on 15 Jan 2011 20:45


    As I pointed out earlier, it is quite clear from Hartenstein's actual signal and his Commander's response that both were more concerned about the political impact on German-Italian relations than pure humanitarian considerations.

    Those who have commented "I thought it was fantastic in that it didn't try and make either side the "good guys" and "constant stereotypical portrayal of Germans" should not lose track of a larger truth. On the very day of Laconia's sinking, German soldiers who took the same personal oath of obedience to Hitler as Hartenstein and his crew did, completed the transport of 265,000 Warsaw Jews to the extermination camps at Treblinka. They had only started on July 22nd.

    These are things that happened in the real world. If a backdrop for a Mills & Boon style romance is required, it might be best to stay clear of identifiable events.

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  • Comment number 59. Posted by Fiona Wickham - BBC TV blog editor

    on 14 Jan 2011 18:19

    Hi Chouan93 #58 - thanks, all comments are welcome on the blog, positive and critical. In fairness to Knut, some of the (very interesting) comments here are about aspects which are outside his particular area of work - which was set design. So I should probably be clear, in posting Knut's response, that the set designer wouldn't be in a position to completely answer some of the points about uniforms etc. I do agree with you that the comments here are most relevant to discussion of the overall programme, so thanks again for posting your feedback.

  • Comment number 58. Posted by Chouan93

    on 14 Jan 2011 15:34

    Having been a seaman myself, I do, of course "get" the tragedy. It is just a pity that it was so badly done.
    The comment "I worked with dozens of vintage reference photographs during pre-production. They depict a mix of uniforms that is just unbelievable." is curious. Just because you've seen a mix of uniforms doesn't mean that you can mix them all up on one person! Merchant Navy people did not wear Royal Navy uniforms. Not sometimes, or rarely, but never. It was a criminal offence to do so. Different ranks wore different rank badges. They weren't mixed up, or changed. A Master wore 4 stripes, a Mate/Chief Officer wore 3 stripes, not two and a half. A Third Officer wore one stripe. No cuff buttons, no upper arm badges or chevrons. Never, ever. Radio Officers were officers, not RN ratings.
    Saying that the uniforms worn were mixed does not excuse the ridiculous mixture that makes no sense. It looks, to me, like an excuse to explain the fancy dress that was being shown.
    No response to the comments on the lack of understanding of Merchant Navy operations either.
    A disappointing response to some valid comments.

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  • Comment number 57. Posted by Fiona Wickham - BBC TV blog editor

    on 14 Jan 2011 15:02

    Hello everyone, thanks for your interesting feedback here. Knut has asked me to post this comment in response to you:

    britnoregon #4, Emma #6, Andy C #10, Peter #11 and Vicky #15 - thank you - I am so moved by your comments. I would never have thought that our interpretation of the real event would trigger such family discussions. That after 70 years, stories are being told that never have been told before.

    To keir88 #23 - first of all I would like to thank you for your detailed response. In reply, I would say there is a major difference between documentary and TV drama, like The Sinking Of The Laconia.

    Hilda, for example, is a creation made out of several characters. The same thing applies to the ship itself. Deliberately we told the story of a ship that has not been serviced for several years. The captain says that it is a disgrace to use prisoners of war as ballast and that he would prefer pink Martinis in the sunset. He has given up! That is drama.

    Same thing applies to the guy in Sierra Leone. He is arrogant enough to think of himself to be an ambassador, but he is more interested in girls and alcohol then in military action. Please note the beaten Rolls Royce; he would never get a new, black and chauffeur-driven car.

    As you might have noticed there is an ambivalence in every detail, character and dialogue of this movie. The BBC itself is not doing the research as such. The artistic interpretation is carried out by the people who physically shoot the film such as the director, producer, designer, DOP etc.

    To Chris Power #20 - I could not agree more. I worked with dozens of vintage reference photographs during pre-production. They depict a mix of uniforms that is just unbelievable. The state the Laconia was in, when it arrived in Cape Town in 1942, could easily be described as scrap-ship.

    For me/ the production team, the main point of what the Laconia rule really meant was this: Dönitz was in a terrible situation and in essence ruled that seamen are not allowed to recue shipwrecked seamen.

    camilleclaudelle #7 and Peter-Dean #8, thank you for your appreciation of the programme. I would hope that all of us, including those who have been seamen themselves, recognise this tragedy.

  • Comment number 56. Posted by scomac

    on 13 Jan 2011 16:14

    I believe that for the vast majority of viewers with no personal link to the sinking that the uniforms and technical anomalies were of no consequence. The point was the humanity shown by Hartenstein and his crew, as also testified by survivors in 'Survivor's Stories' most of whom think highly the U-boat captain.

    The constant stereotypical portrayal of Germans in movies like Indianna Jones who deserve everything they get has become a bit tired. As Robyn, above wrote, the death of Hartenstein and 'his humanity' was affecting because 'he was' like you or what you would wish to be - a heroic and decent figure, not how we have become accustomed to think of all Germans during the war with all of the allies as being whiter than white.

    Surely being a good human is at least giving the benefit of the doubt to each other human until proved otherwise. Someone has to be the first.


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