Words of Captain Scott
This year marks the centenary of Robert Scott’s expedition to the to the Antarctic. Ahead of a new TV programme on the expedition starring Dougray Scott, writer/director Paul Copeland explains how his team brought a new approach to a famous story.
Captain Scott’s Terra Nova expedition – and the expedition of his Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen – are stories of truly epic scale: stretching across more than three years, and a journey of many thousands of miles, encompassing the extremes of hope and despair, heroism and death. The challenge was: how to encompass all this to any use within a television programme, how to bring it to life – and how to say something new?
The format of Words of Captain Scott – using actors to voice diaries and original letters written from during the expedition – gave us an opportunity to try to bring the characters of Scott, Amundsen, and their men vividly to life. Reading the original texts, I quickly felt that these were men very different from some stiff upper-lipped Edwardian caricature. Scott comes across as passionate, almost poetic in the way he writes, in touch with his feelings and not afraid to write about them in a way actually feels quite ‘modern’. Amundsen is instantly impressive: icy cool, meticulously calculating. Other characters are equally vivid: be it Edward Wilson’s good nature or Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s tortured nerves.
Once we had a sense of the characters, we set about casting actors who might be appropriate to them – and who we thought could best bring them to life. For us it feels a fresh and very honest way to do history: honest, because we can tell the story in the original words and avoid getting in to any ‘interpretations’ of the original history – and fresh because instead of history taking place in black-and-white archive using solemn interviews with academics or old men – this gives authentically young, realistically emotional voices to our legendary cast of characters. We knew that we should tell this extraordinary story in such a way as to bring out its amazing twist and turns and extraordinary coincidences (for example, by the time Scott got to the Pole, Amundsen was just a week away from getting back to base – or on the day Amundsen announced his victory, Scott knew he was facing death). And if we did this, we knew it could not fail to be moving… and I think that’s the most important part of my job as a director!
Harder though was how to say something new – especially when there have been countless books and films already on the subject. Many of these have tried to break new ground through a new angle or interpretation of the subject – Scott particularly, having been held up as a ‘hero of the British Empire’ in the years after his death, was the subject of revisionist histories in the 1970s and 1980s, which appear to make him seem like a bungling idiot (there are still simmering arguments all around this subject – between those who see the two expeditions as a ‘race’ to the Pole, and those who point out the Scott’s expedition was primarily scientific, and between those who are fascinated by Scott and those who feel that Amundsen’s achievement hasn’t been celebrated as much as it should have been). Any of these interpretations struck me as generally unhelpful – and after all, our whole approach was to go with the texts and allow people to speak in their own words, and let the audience make up their minds.
This is where the science came in. Scott and Amundsen travelled into the heart of the world’s most hostile continent on a fraction of the medical knowledge we have today. But applying modern science to the story we can begin to offer answers to the two huge questions: how did they die, and what made the difference between life and death? In the end it boils down to inadequate nutrition – they just weren’t eating enough for the work they were doing – and also to the fact that they didn’t know about vitamins, with the result that they ate inadequate quantities of vitamin C so risked scurvy (there’s actually rather a telling report in Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s diary well he talks about a lecture from the expedition surgeon Dr Atkinson on the causes of scurvy: Atkinson thinks it is caused by an infection, and is made worse by dark and cold… we now know that lack of Vitamin C is the cause). All this – as well as the cold, of course – was exacerbated by the effects of high altitude, which they also did not fully understand. This deadly mix was enough to push Scott’s team beyond their physical limits, and turn their homeward journey into a death march.
My one great disappointment – which I knew was going to happen from early on – was that we weren’t going to make it to Antarctica. To get to Scott’s hut on the shore of the Ross Sea means either hiring a plane at the cost of several hundreds of thousands of pounds (more than the entire film’s budget) or travelling on an icebreaker cruise ship from New Zealand for a month at a cost of around 20,000 pounds per person (as it happens, the icebreaker was also in repair). Sometimes film crews can get a free ride with the US Antarctic Program or other government effort, but a rival production on Scott had already nabbed the one free trip going, for a film crew, to Scott’s hut. So we had to come up with other ways to illustrate the story, aside from the original archive and stills we’d make much use of.
Having initially been resistant, we decided we had to shoot some drama-reconstructions – there being no other way to illustrate the twists and turns of the story. To differentiate it clearly from the real archive we would label it on screen as ‘reconstruction’ so there wasn’t any chance of the audience getting confused (though in my opinion it’s highly unlikely that anyone would believe that Scott’s expedition produced colour, high-definition video footage of his journey to the Pole and subsequent death march!).
The best place to shoot seemed to be the glacier in Southern Norway best known as the location of the ice planet in Empire Strikes Back (sharp-eyed viewers might notice the remarkably Star Wars-like landscapes in the back of some of the shots… minus the Imperial Walkers). But seriously, our fixers – one of whom worked every year at a base in Antarctica – advised us that this glacier had exactly the same landscape and ice-formations as the Antarctic Plateau, and that our shots there would accurately represent the South Pole.
So we set off for this place just a day’s trip from London. On the morning of the shoot, we took part in some extreme skid-doo riding up the mountain onto the ice-plateau on the top of the glacier. This is where we got our best shots of our reconstruction of Scott’s party dragging their sledge, but it deepened my understanding of the story too. On the afternoon of filming, the temperature was about minus 25 degrees C with a force 6 wind, bringing it down to about minus 40 degrees C with the wind-chill. This was almost exactly the same temperature as Scott and his men experienced on the day they reached the South Pole and I can tell you it is a debilitating level of cold. After just a few seconds outside the gloves our fingers went numb, but it is not being possible to operate a finely tuned lens through thick gloves. The cameraman had to shoot in bursts before warming his fingers on hand warmers (while I and the skid-doo drivers formed a wind-break for him and the camera with our bodies). The thought of weeks spent marching in that kind of temperature is frankly awe-inspiring.
Together – with our format of actors and readings and with the benefit of new scientific research – we tried to tell this great story in a way that it had not been told before. It will be up to the audience to decide if we have done it justice.
Paul Copeland is writer and director of Words from Captain Scott. The programme airs on ITV1 on Friday 30 March 2012 at 10.35pm.
Words from Captain Scott is supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award.