In from the Cold

Kenneth Branagh, starring as Antarctic hero Shackleton, had to make do with the North Pole. In all other respects, he tells Quentin Falk, the 10m TV drama is authentic

The Scotsman, 22 December 2001
by James Rampton

It's one of those true stories that are just too strange for fiction, a towering tale of old-fashioned adventure and larger-than-life heroism that has been crying out to be immortalised on screen.

Up until now, the extraordinary story of Sir Ernest Shackleton's mission to become the first man to traverse the South Pole has always defeated film-makers, the logistical demands of filming at the frozen ends of the earth insurmountable. Even with Channel 4 's four-hour, 10.5 million dollars flagship festive drama safely in the can (the most expensive British television drama ever made), writer-director Charles Sturridge counts himself, and a sterling cast headed by Kenneth Branagh, lucky to have got home unfrozen.

"It was the most desolate place on earth," recalls Sturridge of his first reconnaissance trip for the programme when the helicopter he had chartered to take him to the farthest corner of Greenland had to put down to refuel on a glacier. "It was a flat ice plain that stretched for 600 miles, and we were 50 miles from any human habitation. When we stopped to refuel, the pilot handed me a gun and simply said, 'You 're on polar bear duty.' I had no idea how to use this gun. I thought, 'If a polar bear comes now, it will be completely safe, but God knows what will happen to us.'"

In the event, polar bears were the least of his worries during the hair-raising shoot on the Arctic wastelands of Greenland. The Polar Bird, the Norwegian ice-breaker that the team had hired, followed the fate of Shackleton's own ship rather too closely for comfort by getting stuck in the freezing ice floes on its way towards the coast. Using the boat as a base, the crew were forced to film on the most treacherous part of the ice pack: where its edge meets the open sea. The ice floe could crack up without warning, opening giant fissures through which unsuspecting crew members could fall. Even wrapped up in survival suits, the film-makers were extremely keen to avoid dipping so much as a boot-covered toe in the sea: if you plunge into the icy water here, it takes just 90 seconds before your heart stops.

Shackleton set out for the Pole in 1914, but 10 months later his ship, the Endurance, was sunk by the sheer force of the Antarctic pack ice. For the next six months, he and his 27 courageous sailors were compelled to haul three enormous lifeboats across the frozen Weddell Sea. They then went on a death-defying trip in the boats to the remote Elephant Island, surviving only on seal and penguin meat. Finding no help there, Shackleton proceeded to take five colleagues with him on the most dangerous small-boat voyage ever recorded 800 miles through the violent storm-swelled waters of the South Atlantic to South Georgia. Once there, Shackleton had then to cross an uncharted mountain range to a whaling station where he picked up a boat to rescue his crew, some two years after he had first left Britain. The word heroic hardly does this expedition justice.

In portraying Shackleton's boy's-own story, Kenneth Branagh, who takes the title role, says he was spurred on by the hardship he underwent during the five-week shoot. "I don't know anyone who didn't experience tremendous highs and lows on that trip, " he explains. "Over the course of a day, people went through so many emotions. We were all living in cramped quarters on a relatively small ship, and trying to work in this ever-changing environment. When it was windy, it was a nightmare; when you were wet, it was a nightmare. And even after you had just seen the most amazing, biblical sky, you knew you were still in this incredibly threatening, unearthly place where you were never likely to find yourself as a tourist."

Sturridge, who also directed 'Brideshead Revisited', 'Longitude' and 'Gulliver 's Travels', admits that he was worried about the safety of his team to such an extent, in fact, that he hired an Arctic survival expert for every eight crew members. In the end, they did their job perfectly: there was not a single casualty. But that didn't stop the director being concerned.

"I don't think it's possible to understand the terror of living on a surface that is disintegrating beneath you until you have actually done it," he shivers. "You have no idea how frightening it is to be standing in the middle of this floating jigsaw with two miles of freezing sea water beneath you." It certainly concentrated his mind. "Usually when you are working on a film about a dangerous environment, you do it in a safe environment and make it look dangerous," he continues. "We were physically experiencing the same problems that Shackleton and his crew would have experienced. It was like making a war film where the enemy starts shooting back with real bullets."

The shoot gave Branagh nothing but admiration for Shackleton 's survival and leadership skills (the expedition was a failure almost from the start) but extensive research also revealed a character more complex than any square-jawed, story-book hero. "Shackleton was undoubtedly a complicated man," he reflects. "He seemed fearless when it came to his expeditions, but at home in England he was criticised for being unreliable when it came to money especially other people's money and it was no secret that he had a number if mistresses."

The image of Shackleton as an anti-establishment figure particularly chimed with Branagh. "He was an outsider. He wasn't from a naval background in fact, he was from a poorer background than would at that time have necessarily allowed you to succeed. He needed this expedition as he wasn't very good at much else. He once said, 'I think I'm only any good when I'm out in the wild with men.'

"He really came into his own through adversity," the actor continues. "For a man who was capable of recklessness, he was never reckless with other people's lives. He knew when to turn back. When the expedition hadn't even really started and had already gone wrong, I think his motivation became to get his men home alive. 'Better a live donkey than a dead lion,' as he famously put it."

The difficulties the film-makers experienced in the Arctic this year certainly brought home to them just how much Shackleton's men must have struggled almost a century earlier at the opposite end of the planet. According to the drama 's producer, Selwyn Roberts, "We had modern cold-weather gear; they had none. We had rescue boats and satellite communications; they didn't even have a working radio. We had heated cabins at night; they only had small fires. We had hot food and drink whenever we needed it; they had to survive on a very restricted diet and maybe one or two hot drinks a day at the most."

And from the warmth, comfort and safety of his home in Britain, Branagh can now reflect on what Shackleton accomplished in some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth. "It's impossible not to be impressed by Shackleton's humanity and how he behaved in those circumstances" the actor concludes. "Being in an Arctic environment gave me a much greater understanding of his achievement and the sense of awe in which the men must have held him. They watched him endure everything they did and still, somehow, he then took responsibility for all of them. When I saw what he had to do and how he did it, and after we had tried to copy that, I could see how 27 men would follow him to the ends of the earth. "He was a great man. This film is like no other I've ever done. It has produced work and feelings that simply would not have been achieved in any other way."

Watching this re-enaction of one of the world 's most monumental expeditions, it becomes clear that, when Branagh talks about feelings, he's not just talking about the cold.
Shackleton is on Channel 4 on 2 and 3 January

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