Going with the Floe

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.

Time Out London, 19 December 2001
by Selwyn Roberts
*Thanks, Bertilla

If Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to the Antarctic was the stuff of legend, the shoot for Channel 4’s expensive recreation of that journey – directed by Charles ‘Longitude’ Sturridge and starring Kenneth Branagh – was something of an epic feat in itself, as producer Selwyn Roberts recalls…

June 1999
Leaving Charlestown Harbour in Cornwall aboard the Kaskelot, a three-masted sailing ship, while filming the Television drama ‘Longitude’. Director-writer Charles Sturridge is already speculating on the feasibility of filming a polar drama about Sir Ernest Shackleton. The screenplay is commissioned by C$ in early 2000.

May-December 2000
Charles is keen for Kenneth Branagh to play the lead, and on their first meeting in a Chinese restaurant, Charles is pleasantly surprises when Ken accept before they’ve even ordered the prawn crackers! During this period, Charles writes and delivers the first-draft screenplays.

September 2000
Arrive at the small settlements of Kulusuk and Angmagssalik on the eastern coast of Greenland. After three days of scouting, it’s decided that the Angmagssalik area will be right visually; but because of the lack of infrastructure, we’ll have to service this film from a ship that is built to work in the ice. Almost constant budget reviews to Christmas, which is agreed at £10.3 million, and we get the green light!

January-March 2001
Pre-production starts at Shepperton Studios. Inspect the Russian MV Smorov, moored in Arkhangelsk. This proves to be a red and rusty herring. She is a dismal sight and in desperate need of a total refit. Commission the building of three replica lifeboats which Shackleton and his crew dragged across the frozen Weddell Sea, as well as converting the Kaskelot to Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance. Still desperately hunting for a vessel to serve as our production base in the ice. Then we learn of the Polar Bird, a Norwegian ice-strengthened ship that works in the South Pole. We begin negotiations. Charles and casting director Celestia Fox assembling a wonderful cast, who all enter into the spirit of the adventure much as Shackleton’s recruits did in 1914. They even look like them when the costume and the make-up departments weave their magic.

March 3, 2001
We’re in Greenland for a major location scout with heads of departments, plus Kenneth Branagh accompanying us in order to get some first-hand experience of the conditions. Everything snow-covered and the sea frozen solid. Charles, Ken and others all zoom about on skidoos looking like a ‘50s biker gang as we find good locations. Also try dog-sleighing: great, except the dogs fart a lot, and you sit downwind! Ken proves to be very adept at driving.

April 2001
Start filming on April 2 – London Location. Meant to leave for the ice within four weeks, but learn that the Polar Bird will be delayed in Antarctica. Then art department has to build seats in a hurry as the Polar Bird’s arrival is put back even further. Both Charles and I are worried that ice will be breaking up if we go too late, but are governed by the Polar Bird.

May-June 2001
Cast and crew fly to Iceland on May 19 after being delayed due to the late departure of the Polar Bird. We meet the Kaskelot, now converted to look like the Endurance. After three days of filming off Iceland, the Polar Bird arrives. She is like a floating studio, with everything from catering and dressing-rooms to props and pyrotechnics. We board on May 24 and sail for the ice with the Endurance following behind. The plan had been to sail straight through the ice, offload some of the crew in Angmagssalik to film mountain-climbing scenes while the Polar Bird returned to escort the Endurance to a safe place inside the frozen sea close to the coast. Within 24 hours, the 6,500-tonne Polar Bird - like the Endurance before her – is trapped in solid ice, with no chance of reaching the coast. Our first tentative steps on the ice are a success – three of the cast sing to imaginary penguins. The mountain shoot will have to be delayed and following morning we’re back on the ice edge. All the experts have said this is the one place you cannot film.. The replica boats are launched, and like their counterparts of 86 years ago, our intrepid band of actors rows through the freezing and broken ice, recreating that hazardous trip to Elephant Island. The Kaskelot/Endurance arrives, then a helicopter delivers 24 huskies from Angmagssalik. The Endurance stays for five days, and despite problems with getting her to penetrate the ice, we do manage to film 80 per cent of the material required. But we can’t get her to stay still in the ice. That will have to be done in the studios with new and expensive additional sets. We’re 60 to 65 miles from Angmagssalik. The ice is still fragmented, and like Shackleton, we constantly have to change our plans. Charles is forced to complete his rowing sequences during the next two days, but we need big solid floes to work on, or we’ll be going home with half a film. The following day, after hours of searching, we disembark on to a gigantic piece of ice measuring 15 by 10 kilometres, this could be it! Feverish activity during the next three days, with some major scenes accomplished. The art department even constructs three camps. Tomorrow is a rest day, so tonight it’s party time! Slightly muzzy heads at breakfast, but all looking forward to the lunch being prepared by production designer Michael Howells and his volunteer chefs. (Sunday is the caterers’ rest day too, so the crew cooks!) A superb meal, but just as we’re spooning down the claret jelly, DISASTER! Two enormous creaks appear on the floe, endangering camps and equipment. Our Ice-Minders and several other volunteers, including Charles, dash on to the ice. Within an hour they have managed to retrieve everything , but we have lost a wonderful location. We find a new floe, but everyone is wary of cracking the ice, so we film the famous game of football on ice, which requires no pops or dressing. Confidence is restored and we move on to filming a camp scene, finally completing it at 10.30 pm. Another day, another floe; unit films until lunch, but during the break there's another series of ice cracks and this floe has to be cleared of equipment, and another scene put back to the studio.

June 13
‘We’ll never finish’, remarks Charles as he gets back on to the Polar Bird after filming the penultimate day on the ice, but the reality is that we’re going to have to, and there is still the mountain climb on Greenland to come. Final day on the ice. Ken Branagh inspired as he (Shackleton) tells his crew that he will not let them down. This is his final speech on the ice, and everyone has been touched by his unselfish attitude and talent. That night, Polar Bird breaks though the ice and offloads the mountain crew in Angmagssalik . Next day, they begin to film the trek that Shackleton, Worsley and Crean made over uncharted South Georgia. The Polar Bird returns with the remainder or the cast and crew to Iceland. Fog and helicopter trouble almost thwart the climbing crew over the next three days. But now there is a determination to see the job done, and it is completed with Charles still filming Kenneth on a mountainside as they are lifted off the peaks by helicopter before they are enveloped in mist. I wouldn’t have expected anything else.

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