Interview: Writer-director Charles Sturridge talks about his new production for Channel 4...

By Quentin Falk, 15 February 2001

Like the real-life - if sometimes unlikely - heroes he clearly relishes portraying, there's something distinctly dauntless about writer-director Charles Sturridge as he prepares to rise to his latest creative challenge.

In Longitude, Channel 4's remarkable millennium epic for 2000, Sturridge told the parallel true stories of two men - a bluff Yorkshire clockmaker and a highly-strung naval officer - who, though living centuries apart, became literally linked by time.

Now he's back with the network, preparing another ambitious four-hour C4 docudrama for production in April, about the explorer Ernest Shackleton (to be played by Kenneth Branagh), which Sturridge suggests, with a slightly nervous laugh, could prove very hazardous to health.

Sturridge, who turns 50 this year, is planning to concentrate on Shackleton's second Antarctic expedition: "That's the one where they failed to reach land, their ship Endurance sank on the ice and they spent two years trying to get home."

"This was all happening in the same year that a million and a quarter men were being killed in France during the Great War," he adds, ever keen to pitch the bigger picture.

Unfazed by the fact that other filmmakers - including David Puttnam and Wolfgang Petersen - have tried and failed to bring the same tale to the screen, he admits it's a story of enormous technical difficulty.

"It mostly takes place on the ice and we are planning to live for six weeks on an icebreaker, hoping that global warming doesn't play a part - otherwise the entire cast and crew will sink."

Weighing anchor

The Endurance journey is an authentic and thoroughly well-documented epic on the grand scale simply crying out for screen adaptation.

No such glaringly obvious promise attended the gripping but resolutely low-key narrative in the unlikely bestseller by science writer Dava Sobel.

Longitude began life as a magazine article before being developed into a slim volume in 1996, tracing the 40-year-obsession of 18th-century clockmaker John Harrison, with building the perfect timepiece.

The story is a simple one. In Harrison's day, thousands of mariners were being stranded or killed as they had no way of measuring their exact position on seemingly infinite oceans.

In 1714, a Government-appointed board offered 20,000 to any man who could solve the knottiest nautical poser extant - a means to measure longitude at sea, accurately and practicably.

While others looked for answers in the stars, Harrison thought he could make a clock that would be able to keep time accurately on board a ship - something that most deemed impossible - thus allowing sailors to chart their exact position and avoid tragedy.

Fascinating but hardly cinematic. When he first read the book, Sturridge recalls feeling: "It had none of the ingredients of the conventional film.

"It took place over 40 years, the central character aged from 40 to 80 and it was essentially a repetitive series of events - invention, discussion, trial and then all that over and over again. It was unwieldy in every respect."

When Granada Films first approached Sturridge, they told him they were desperate to turn Sobel's book into film - they just knew it was a good story but simply didn't know how to crack it. If he could find a way of telling the story, Channel 4 would definitely get behind it.

"It was like having a green-lit film without a film," says Sturridge. "At the time, the concept was immensely attractive - if I could solve the intellectual and dramatic problem, the financial problem was already solved."

He had just three months to come up with two two-hour scripts for what C4 was determined should be its cornerstone millennium drama.

"I simply didn't know what I was going to write, so I had to research it first. I hadn't, like most other people, ever heard of Harrison before reading Dava's book. It's a documentary novel and I needed to know much more about what happened in order to make it dramatic."

The key to unlocking it proved to be the character of Lieutenant Commander Rupert Gould, who in fact appeared almost as a footnote towards the end of Sobel's book.

It was Gould, a British naval officer who, in the 1920s, began the mammoth task of restoring Harrison's clockmaking legacy.

One phrase in the book - "his unhappy marriage and separation" - particularly fascinated Sturridge, who somehow felt that Gould was absolutely crucial to the successful telling of the whole time-leaping story.

"I went to the National Maritime Museum and spoke to the curator Jonathan Betts who confirmed my own thoughts," he recalls. "Gould then became an intrinsic part of the narrative.

"His obsession in the 20th-century mirrored Harrison's two centuries earlier, his own personal fight between sanity and clock-making created a whole new line of thought which became the spiritual underbelly of the film. The two stories managed to dovetail in the most extraordinary way."

After research - which included his exciting discovery of important new documentation that advanced Harrison's already amazing story well beyond what Sobel had herself managed to uncover - Sturridge was finally left with about five weeks actually to write the scripts.

Setting sail

With Michael Gambon (himself a keen amateur engineer with an interest in horology) as Harrison and Jeremy Irons as Gould, Sturridge eventually embarked on his 5.5 million production.

"In effect, we made two big costume films for the price of one small feature," he says, proudly. "We had almost one whole film with Jeremy which took three and a half weeks, set through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, going on through the Second World War and well beyond.

"Then, for another two weeks, there was a whole section set in London, in different states of 18th-century preservation. As well as that, we had a courtroom drama - featuring the Board of Longitude - which we shot in Oxford."

Not to mention the recreation of six different voyages on six different ships - thanks to the ingenuity of set design and ingenious hydraulics at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire. Finally, there were five days of location shooting in Antigua (doubling for Jamaica).

Sturridge, whose career encompasses film (A Handful of Dust, Fairytale: A True Story) and TV (Brideshead Revisited, Gulliver's Travels), positively revels in the research, a habit he has continued with his latest project.

As he explains: "In one sense, it's an incredibly over-documented story. Nine of the expeditions wrote diaries, others wrote accounts afterwards, some of which weren't published but which we've still managed to uncover.

"For Shackleton, as with Longitude, my instinct is always to go back to source and try and see what original documentation can offer. I find - and I know this might be seen, by some, as a contradiction of drama - the closer one gets to the truth, the more dramatic it becomes.

"History can sometimes sit back, fold its arms and just say 'we never knew what happened' but as a dramatist, you have to find out why Harrison did this or what Shackleton meant when he did that - and actually finding out why is always more interesting than just construing why."

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