Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was a polar explorer who made three eventful expeditions to the Antarctic between 1902 and 1917. His story has been tackled several times (for example, the 2002 mini-series starring Kenneth Branagh) but this 1983 BBC2 drama-documentary has long been regarded as one of the most authentic retellings of his exploits.
There are several reasons why this production is noteworthy. Shackleton covered all of his Antarctic expeditions, not just the most well-known one (aboard the ship Endurance). And since events are allowed to unfold over a number of years, this gives time for his relationships with other characters, such as Scott (Neil Stacey), to be explored in detail. Also, it doesn’t shy away from the harsher aspects of life in the polar region (the toe amputation scene is authentically grisly).
Screenwriter Christopher Railing (who won an Emmy in 1971 for The Search for the Nile) worked from Shackleton’s journals to craft as accurate a picture as possible. With location filming in Greenland, shot by BAFTA-award winner David Whitson, no expense was spared.
Although this ensured a visual treat for the audience, some at the BBC were less than impressed. Will Wyatt, at the time the head of Documentary Features, recalls that “most years there was some sort of crisis. The worst was a four-part drama documentary about the Antarctic explorer Shackleton, shot on location in Greenland, around London, and at the BBC’s Ealing studios. The producer, an experienced drama production manager [John Harris], was unable to say ‘no’ to the director [Martyn Friend]. Shackleton went a disastrous record-breaking 50 per cent over budget. I told the producer he was finished with us and should return to drama, and I abandoned plans for all further drama docs.”
Whilst it’s a pity that this overspend seemed to have put paid to future productions (the same team had previously mounted the well-received Voyages of Charles Darwin) at least the money spent was put up on the screen for the viewers to enjoy.
David Schofield played Shackleton. He made his television debut in a 1972 episode of Z Cars and worked steadily in television during the remainder of the seventies and early eighties. After appearing in Shackleton his career continued to grow (later he chalked up appearances in Hollywood films such as Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean).
Schofield is given strong support from an impressive supporting cast, which includes Michael Hayward, David Rodigan, Geoffrey Chater, Robert James, Robert Lang, Victoria Fairbrother, Stephen Tate, Michael Sheard, Kevin Whately and Anthony Bate.
Episode one, A Merchant Navy Man, opens with Scott’s Antarctic expedition of 1902. Shackleton was a member of his party but due to ill health found himself sent home early. These opening scenes sets up the tension that always existed between the pair. Shackleton later discloses to his fiancé Emily (Victoria Fairbrother) that he found Scott to be a “button-up sort of fellow. Never manages to let his hair down.” Shackleton, on the other hand, was approachable and friendly and seemed to be popular with the other members of Scott’s crew (there are some who contended that this was the real reason why Scott sent him home).
When Shackleton returns to London he’s invited to give several talks on their achievements and it’s here that Schofield really starts to make his mark, as Shackleton paints a vivid picture of life on the ice. “I cannot leave you tonight without trying to convey to you something of the vast magnificence of the south polar regions. The immense forces of those contending elements – rock. wind, ice and water. The stillness of the Antarctic night. And the comradeship. The intensified feeling of life, of being alive, which men feel in those frozen wastes and which draws them back as if their souls belong there.”
With Shackleton now married to Emily and ensconced in Edinburgh, life for both of them is settled, but he regards the Antarctic as unfinished business. With the backing of William Beardmore, a wealthy Clydeside industrialist, Shackleton mounts his own expedition, but finds that various obstacles – most notably Scott – have to be overcome first. Scott insists he has a prior claim on the McMurdo Sound area and Shackleton agrees not to use it as his base of operations. But when the heavy pack ice forces him into McMurdo, Scott – back in England – regards it as a personal betrayal.
The ominously titled Our Dead Bodies Must Tell The Tale sees Shackleton and his three companions, Frank Wild (David Rodigan), Jameson Adams (Kevin Whately) and Eric Marshall (Andrew Seear) set out for the South Pole. Between late 1908 and early 1909 they made a trip of sixteen hundred miles, ending up just ninety seven miles away from the pole. This feat turned Shackleton into a national hero and earned him a knighthood.
Rodigan is excellent throughout the series as Wild, one of Shackleton’s firmest friends and supporters whilst Seear adds a discordant note here as Marshall, a man who dislikes Shackleton intensely (he refers to him as “a moody vacillating boaster”). A young Kevin Whately has a decent role as Adams. There’s a nicely observed sense of desperation as the months tick by – they may have started sprightly enough (with plenty of supplies and horses to pull the sledges) but all four would have been well aware that the return trip would be the real test.
By then the horses have passed their usefulness, leaving the men to pull the sledges. With dwindling supplies there’s a sense of anxiety that the others may have already left. Will they return to base just to find an empty hut? The stark beauty of the barren wastes, with Shackleton’s words in voice-over provided by Schofield, make the first half of this episode a memorable one.
Although not directly connected to Shackleton, Scott’s ultimately doomed attempt to reach the South Pole first was a key moment from this era of exploration and closes the second episode on something of a sombre note.
With the South Pole conquered by Amundsen, Shackleton needs a new challenge. He announces that he will mount a Trans-Antarctic Expedition to cover the entire continent – from a landing in the Weddell Sea, via the South Pole to McMurdo Sound.
This journey, which begins in the boat Endurance, is by far the most compelling part of Shackleton’s exploits. Episode three, Men Wanted for Hazardous Journey, starts with Shackleton’s recruiting drive and shortly afterwards his hand-picked crew (and the odd stowaway) are making good progress after departing from South Georgia.
But it doesn’t take long before the ice pack traps Endurance solid. It’s an awe-inspiring sight and if Shackleton did go as far over budget as Will Wyatt claims, then it was worth every penny. Trapped fast in the ice, the crew have to find ways to while away the time (and this they certainly do – with a variety of light-hearted jinks, including dog racing and a spot of cross-dressing).
When the Endurance is lost, Shackleton and the others are left stranded on a large ice floe which they hope might drift towards civilisation. Even in such a desperate situation, Shackleton continues to be an inspired leader and David Schofield continues to impress in the title role.
The desperate plight of Shackleton and his men continues during the fourth and final episode, Cape Horn – Or South Georgia? It covers an especially memorable part of the Shackleton story – which begins with a hellish 800 mile journey made by himself and five others in the open-lifeboat James Caird. But when they reach their destination – South Georgia – that’s not the end of the story as Shackleton and several others have to make a land crossing over the island (through previously unchartered territory) in order to reach the Norwegian whaling stations and safety.
With the stakes so high – if Shackleton doesn’t succeed then the rest of his crew – (stranded on Elephant Island) – are sure to die, Cape Horn – Or South Georgia? engages the attention right from the start. It’s a suitably dramatic conclusion to the series, leaving the fate of the men stranded on Elephant Island unresolved until right before the end.
The series is split between Shackleton’s Antarctic explorations and his life back in the UK. The first instalment has the least Antarctic footage (it tops and tails the episode) but the scenes in Britain are integral to understanding Shackleton the man, so they shouldn’t be regarded as mere filler.
Not only do they document his relationship with his wife (with hints that his restless spirit has placed a burden on their marriage) but his clashes with the establishment are also key to understanding his character. And it doesn’t hurt that the establishment is represented by character actors as good as Geoffrey Chater, Robert James and Anthony Bate – all of whom excelled at playing precisely these types of stuffy, patrician mandarins.
The contrast between Shackleton’s comfortable life in Britain and the hardships endured by himself and the others in the Antarctic is teased out in several unspoken ways. Firstly, the members of the Royal Geographical Society are shown to be frequently dismissive of Shackleton – even going so far as to suggest (not to his face, at least) – that his claims of nearly reaching the South Pole were exaggerated. How can they, stuck in their comfortable existence, even begin to understand the hazards and joys of Antarctic exploration? And when we see Shackleton on his lecture tours, it again highlights how his audience (smartly dressed, affluent) live in a totally different world from the one he’s describing so vividly.
One of the ways you know if a real-life drama or documentary has engaged your attention is if it inspires you to seek out more information about the subject. That’s certainly the case for me here, as I get the feeling that – even with four hours to play with – the surface of Ernest Shackleton had only been scratched. David Schofield deftly brings to life all of his key characteristics though – his anti-authoritarian streak, the way he inspired trust and loyalty amongst his crew, etc – and the fact that Shackleton’s words, via Schofield’s voice-overs, are heard throughout the four episodes also helps to bring us closer to the man.
Shot on 16mm film, it’s a pity that the print looks rather tired-looking and faded in places. Restoration or a new print struck from the negative would have been welcome, but – as so often with niche archive releases – had this been done then it’s doubtful the title would have been economically viable. What we have is certainly watchable though – and no worse than other material of the same vintage – so once the story begins to grip, it shouldn’t be much of an issue.
Classed as a drama-documentary, Shackleton is much more drama than documentary. Although we hear a voice-over at key points, since they’re Shackleton’s words (delivered by Schofield) it doesn’t break the drama feel of the programme.
Shackleton is an engrossing tale of old-fashioned heroism and friendship. David Schofield excels as Shackleton, but in many ways the real star is the unforgiving, forbidding Antarctic (there’s no doubt that without the Greenland material it would be much the poorer). A quality production, it grips from beginning to end. Warmly recommended.
Shackleton consists of four 60 minute episodes across two discs. It’s released by Simply Media on the 13th of March 2017. RRP £19.99.