BBC Radio 4, 26 February - 4 March 2012
Forget one's memories of Charles Frend's famous 1953 film version
of this tale starring Jack Hawkins as Captain Ericson. John Fletcher's adaptation was a passionate yet honest account of the
experiences of a group of men from different socio-economic backgrounds having to come to terms with their experiences during
the longest battle in the Second World War - the battle for the Atlantic.
The story is narrated by Lockhart (Gwılym Lee), who gradually discovers the
realities of active service - spending lengthy periods away from loved ones, while learning to live in a confined
space with the crew of the Compass Rose. Initially the experience proves a difficult one: seasickness,
injury and disease are commonplace in a ship with very little space to move. After a while, however, a unique spirit
of camaraderie emerges: Lockhart learns to communicate on equal terms with crew members from different regions of Great
Britain. This is one of the advantages of war service: men who before the war had ensured long periods of unemployment now
have the chance to serve their country, and hopefully strive towards creating a better world once the conflict ends. Fletcher's
adaptation stressed the connection between life on board ship and the socialist spirit that prevailed in the post-war era,
that led to the creation of the Welfare State.
However the crew also had to endure harrowing experiences on an almost daily basis
- for example, the sight of wounded soldiers and/or corpses being brought on board ship. Sometimes there was nothing they
could do to save their fellow-men, in one sequence the Compass Rose ploughed into a group of men swimming
in the sea (refugees from the Rose's sister ship, which had just been sunk), to attack a U-Boat. The crew watched
in horror as they saw men being mutilated in front of their eyes. Director Marc Beeby staged this scene brilliantly, with
Lockhart's narration becoming more and more emotional - even though he did his best to keep himself under control - while
the sound of the men's despairing cries could be heard in the background. The clanging of the ship's depth-charges - part
of Caleb Knightley's brilliant sound-design - kept punctuating Lockhart's words as he described the grisly sight in front
The second episode showed just how difficult a task the seagoing forces faced, as
they tried to carry out their duties in hellish conditions. Both Lockhart and Ericson grew accustomed to suppressing their
emotions - to such an extent that they found it difficult to adjust to life back home, once their tours of duty had finished.
Lockart's narration of the entire tale was sometimes devoid of emotion, as if he could no longer contemplate the horrors of
On other occasions, however, life at sea offered "armour" and "protection" - especially
during periods of bereavement. Lockhart understood this, as he tried to make sense of a personal tragedy.In the end the war finished, but left its emotional scars: the adaptation ended with Lockhart and Ericson
talking in dull, flat voices about a future in which "death stared back" at them. They could never suppress the memory of
the sea full of "flesh and bones and gobbets of the dead" lurking just below the waters. All they could do was to try and
cope as best they could.
Ultimately what Fletcher's adaptation was most interested in was the ways in which
the men responded to the extreme situation of the Atlantic conflict. Captain Ericson (Jonathan Coy) strove to sustain a facade
of discipline, threatening to put anyone on a charge who dared to disobey his orders; but the strain proved too much for him.
Lockhart discovered him in his cabin whimpering slightly, trying to find sustenance in a bottle of whisky. Gregg (Harry Livingstone),
an ostensbly reliable crew member, goes AWOL for sixteen days, in a vain attempt to save his marriage. Lockhart himself learns
that there is a great deal of difference between writing about experiences and actually living them; his journey in The
Cruel Sea is as much an emotional as well as a physical one.
Marc Beeby's production was quite simply wonderful - a vivid recreation of life during
one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War Two, which drew much of its power from its focus on the human element.
As I listened to it, I understood why Nicholas Monsarrat's novel has never been out of print since it first appeared in 1951;
it is above all a story about human beings.