Branagh Ice Pick

Epic two-part ice marathon Shackleton - hour for hour, Channel 4's most expensive drama ever - is a fascinating true story of a flawed but charismatic man who kept his followers alive on one of the most hazardous adventures ever recorded.

The Belfast Telegraph, 20 December 2001
by Graham Keal
*Thanks, Ngoc

Actors and film crews rarely encounter real danger when filming the most daring and death-defying deeds, but Channel 4's epic, GBP10m two-part drama Shackleton proved the exception.

And as writer/director Charles Sturridge, creator of last year's Bafta Award-winning drama Longitude put it: "It was like shooting a war film and the enemy shooting back with real bullets."

The snow was real, the shifting, cracking ice floes were real, the bitter cold was real. No wonder star Kenneth Branagh, along with all the location cast and crew, emerged from a five-week shoot across the frozen wastes of Greenland with a much deeper appreciation of what Shackleton and his 27 men achieved. Says Branagh: "When I saw what he had to do and how he did it, I could see how 27 men would follow him to the ends of the earth. I think he was a great, great man."

Many attempts have been made to film Shackleton's story before - Branagh was even approached to play him 12 years ago - but the grim logistics of filming Shackleton's astonishing story of survival against the odds have usually seen the projects shelved. This time Charles Sturridge and producer Selwyn Roberts were determined to tell the story of a great but for many years neglected hero, and Branagh was perfect for the part - both men were born in Belfast, and both were 40 when they embarked on their adventure. Shackleton was also a womaniser - I draw no comparisons on that score.

Sir Ernest Shackleton's self-imposed mission was to lead his Trans Imperial Antarctic Expedition from one side of the South Pole to the other. They set off from Margate on August 3 1914, the day Britain declared war on Germany. The irony was that, for all the great perils Shackleton led them through, they were far safer out on the ice with him than they would have been in the First World War trenches.

The four-hour feature starts with Shackleton's inspired, populist campaign to raise GBP60,000 to finance his expedition - an entertaining story in itself - but by the end of episode one he is on the icebreaker Endurance with his men, locked in by impenetrable frozen sea and waiting for the dread moment when the shifting icebergs puncture the toppling hull and send Endurance to the bottom.

The expedition became a two-year battle for survival, which Shackleton won against seemingly impossible odds. Says Branagh: "There was clearly a showman element to him and a recklessness, but there is also a genuine compassion his men ... He came into his own in adversity. "He was a man who was capable of recklessness but he was never reckless with other people's lives. He knew when to turn back and put it famously when he said 'Better a live donkey than a dead lion'."

But turning back this time was hardly an option, and there was no possibility of a rescue. So Shackleton and his men dragged their three lifeboats across the uneven, seemingly endless hardened ice of the Weddell Sea until, after six months, they could take to the ocean. After a terrifying voyage they reached desolate Elephant Island, but faced with slow starvation, Shackleton and five companions set off again in one of the boats, the James Caird (named after the Scottish jute magnate - played by Robert Hardy - who helped finance the expedition) to get help.

This was surely the most dangerous small boat journey in history - 800 miles across the South Atlantic to reach the nearest human outpost, South Georgia. The only thing on screen that is not authentic is that it was filmed in the Arctic, not the Antarctic, so the penguins which helped keep the men alive during their ordeal had to be artificially added, and the polar bears which don't live in the Antarctic had to be kept out of shot.

Shackleton did eventually lead his men all safely home where they found, to their astonishment, that the war they thought would be over by Christmas was still raging. Six weeks after they got back, the first crew member died in action.

Shackleton goes out in two feature-length episodes on January 2 and 3, 9 pm, C4

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