PQ-17: the Aftermath
Director: Frank Cox
This is the VHS release (see more).
SummaryA TV play based upon Broome’s book Convoy is to Scatter of 1973, but not a dramatisation of it. See review below.
Type: Dramatisation of events and personalities following and surrounding the scattering of PQ-17 and its effect on Capt Broome and crew.
Pro: Rare, unique, effective dramatisation of character and personality.
Con: More explanation of campaigns, convoy escort, scattering, would aid accessibility.
Rating: 4.5 /5
PQ-17 the Aftermath is a unique document. This TV play was based upon Broome's book Convoy is to Scatter of 1973, but not a dramatisation of it. Writer Roger Milner, who also had a small part, and producer Innes Lloyd took an altogether more challenging and effective course. They worked with Broome and advisers to recreate the following months instead: the effect abandoning the convoy had on him and his crew, their shame and anger at whomever ordered them to scatter and leave the convoy, the criticism and accusations of other officers and the public alike. It is not entirely accessible, for to understand it fully requires some knowledge of Broome and his life and books. It was also transmitted in 1981, eight years after the 1972-73 court case and book it is based upon, which also does not aid comprehension by general viewers. Nevertheless the viewer is not left floundering: it gives enough of a picture of the wartime navy and its men. It is after all, about Broome and his personality, not about the Atlantic Campaign or the Arctic convoys. The ship and the navy are the setting for this personal, private account. It has little to do with war movies, and more in common with such contemporary series as the Onedin Line, and BBC historical drama adaptations and biographies: the spate of Dickens and Austen, the Pallisers, A Horseman Riding By, To Serve Them All My Days, the more recent Cambridge Spies. Due to its extreme rarity and the limited chance of its availability this review takes the form of a summary as well as an analysis. Before stumbling across it this author, who spent five years viewing and picking apart such materials for an MA thesis, had no idea it existed. There has been only one TV drama about convoys since 1945, a short-lived NBC serial in the 1960s.
Therefore, archive footage of warships, convoys, of the aircraft carrier Eagle sinking astern of the Pedestal convoy, is visible but not dominating: it explains and illustrates. It is intended not as action, instead of live footage of Broome’s ship (which of course no longer exists), but as backdrop to the human drama of the ship and the men. The effect is one of actually being there, of being among them, not of a false, staged, artificial recreation. Here there is drama but not melodrama, emotion - sentiment but not sentimentality - a restrained, actual sense of events instead of a dramatised, focussed play where every action is leading up to some climax, where all is explained and released. Real life is not like that, and rarely culminates in such a satisfying denoument. Here a master storyteller and solid scripting gives you the broken, uneven sense of real life and real events, not a smoothed, neat, arranged version. They also give you that lead-up, that climax, but not artificially.
After scattering PQ-17 and charging off to discover Tirpitz was back in her anchorage, Broome in his destroyer HMS Keppel returned to Scapa, then off to the Med to cover Pedestal, the vital convoy to relieve Malta, where he clashes with USN officers no longer under RN command, who ask if the escorts will again 'run away' if the 'going gets tough'. Keppel escorted the covering forces for the following arctic convoy PQ-18. He was kept well away from the convoy, in the usual mode of relieving such men with a run covering heavy ships after merchant vessels. This was followed by return to home base in Londonderry, refit, paying off and Broome leaving the ship after one last party.
Through these events we meet Broome, his Steward PO 'Jump' Jordan, signalman Jim Blood - the man who actually raised the signal flags to scatter (and what a name for a fighting sailor!), his officers, and a series of senior officers at Scapa, Londonderry, Liverpool, and culminating in the 1st Lord of the Admiralty, AV Alexander.
At every stage Broome encounters leaders and senior officers who call upon him to justify his actions - not for them, in truth, but for us - and himself. Upon return to Scapa Broome is grilled by CinC-Home Fleet Tovey, where they discuss why Broome did not disobey his orders and stay with the convoy. Tovey supported his joining the distant-covering force cruisers, as all thought they were leaving the convoy to attack Tirpitz. After Keppel's return to home base Londonderry, Broome has dinner at home with his wife Sybil, father-in law and officers, while his son’s dinghy is stuck on a sandbank in the bay, waiting four hours for the tide to turn. These reveal more of Broome’s independent spirit, and his character famous throughout the navy: effective, efficient, totally skillful, but with a sense of humour, verve, and a jaundiced eye of bunker-based superiors and their perspective. We see his loving and realistic service relationship with Sybil, his kindly but rigorous relationship with his son Simon, whom he raises (from a distance) to be strong, confident, self-assured and self-sufficient, devoid of self-pity, as Broome’s own mother raised him.
Broome won't pity himself, though he feels and shows the weariness of war and command, the weight of responsibility both for his ship and those he was forced to abandon. We see his young officers, themselves the cause of an argument with base commander, Londonderry (played with restraint and biting sarcasm by Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor Who) over tension-releasing behaviour. Broome alone takes responsibility for disciplining them, as he points out, in vain, that PQ-17 was not just another tough convoy, as other officers think. It really was something else.
At Western Approaches Command and the Admiralty too Broome runs up against men who are outwardly stern and suspicious (even though Broome was only obeying orders) but inwardly warm and supportive, men who have known Broome and his character for years or decades, who know under the breezy, satiric eye and insubordinate manner is a leader and captain of real experience, quality, and strength. Subtly done, for no-one says any of these things. They are merely pointed out by dialogue, looks, glances, attitudes: conveyed by the script, not in it.
In drydock in London, the 1st Lord comes aboard, exactly the man and the moment Broome wants to ask "who did it?" The politician tours the ship and addresses her company, who are being paid off and dispersed, as it is a long refit. He feebly attempts to pep up the crew after the disappointment (as he sees it) of leaving PQ-17, and attempts to smooth Broome’s ruffled feathers. Broome wants to know who scattered that convoy at the height of its danger, and when it was ready to go anywhere. Alexander explains that it was Admiral Pound, 1st Sea Lord and head of the RN, and that the convoy probably had little chance, unescorted or not. PQ-17 was political ploy as much as genuine supply convoy, and that ought to be good enough. Broome, not fooled by political explanations, gives Alexander both barrels, about backseat-driving admirals, the dangers of poor intelligence and staffwork (he had spent 6 months himself at Western Approaches Command HQ in Liverpool as a staff officer to the CinC), and why PQ-17 should not have been scattered. Or at least, that the decision should have been Broome’s and no-one else’s. Adm. Tovey and Rear-Adm Hamilton (who commanded the cruiser covering force) all support Broome’s decisions. Alexander can only bluster and bluff. Nothing can change what happened, and Broome knows it. He will regret it always.
Last of all we see the refitting and paying-off wardroom party, where Broome is his usual bluff and hearty self with the lady guests, and his officers. Secrets are revealed - Broome mistaking an Icelandic trawler for a U-Boat, his recommending his officers for commands and better things. There is a painful, forced sense behind the laughter and cheers. They have all been changed by their experiences.
Indeed for all his faults, for all his accusations and anger, Broome is to be promoted to command an escort carrier, building back where he was born, on the US West coast in Seattle Washington. As the play ends, he is leaving Keppel, unable to take Blood or 'Jump' Jordan, or any of the men he has known, worked with and relied on for two years of dark Atlantic campaigning. It makes a clear comparison and contrast to the first half of Monsarrat’s Cruel Sea, especially in cinema form, where the emphasis is upon relationships and personality, not action and suspense. Both, decades apart, and by very different authors working with different materials, strike exactly the right notes. It is not neat and tidy, it is still the middle of the war, and Broome, though now satisfied who was responsible, still carries the regret with him.
Review written by Ian Campbell, Launceston, Tasmania. The reviewer welcomes your comments on this review.