The Curmudgeon


Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Last Place on Earth

Ferdinand Fairfax 1985

Central Television's lavish seven-part series was based on Roland Huntford's 1979 book Scott and Amundsen, which sought to redress the imbalance implied in the DVD tagline: "Scott and Amundsen both wanted to be first to the Pole. One of them was. The other became a hero". Huntford put forward the then wildly controversial idea that the England team lost the race to the South Pole mainly because Amundsen was better at his job than Scott was at his.

The series gives equal time to both expeditions, neither of which sets sail for the Antarctic until episode three. Amundsen (Sverre Anker Ousdal) is really interested in the Arctic, but Frederick Cook's claim to have reached the North Pole first means that the funding for exploration dries up. Amundsen responds in style, by doubling the equipment for his own expedition and secretly plotting a "minor diversion" to take the South Pole as a publicity stunt to raise money for his more serious work in the North.

Meanwhile, Scott (Martin Shaw) is introduced in the process of being carpeted by his Navy bosses for sitting in his quarters dictating a birthday telegram when he should have been on the bridge of his ship - a foreshadowing of the confused sense of priority which will dog his expedition to its ignominious if brilliantly propagandised finish. Scott's fiancée, Kathleen Bruce (Susan Wooldridge), an artist and a liberated New Woman, initially appears as a potentially relaxing and humanising influence on the morose and uptight captain; but her frustration at her inferior position as a female in Edwardian England means that she uses her superior strength of character to push her vacillating husband into fulfilling her own dreams of reflected glory.

Both before and during his expedition, Amundsen maintains good and productive relations with the people he needs. Fridtjof Nansen (Max von Sydow) provides his ship, the Fram, and much important support, although he later has occasion to feel that he has been rather shabbily treated. The resentful and hot-tempered Hjalmar Johansen (Touralv Maurstad) is skilfully tempted aboard and later, when he becomes a source of dissent, put firmly in his place. Amundsen also has a couple of touching scenes with Cook (Brian Dennehy), whose friendship he retains despite Cook's prior claim to the North Pole and his later trouble with the law in America. Scott, by contrast, alienates Ernest Shackleton (James Aubrey) with high-handed demands that he not use McMurdo Sound as a base; drives his engineer, Skelton (Cliff Burnett) off in a huff when it becomes necessary to give his promised position as second-in-command to Teddy Evans (Michael Maloney), the potential leader of a rival expedition; and arbitrarily overrules, bullies and variously irritates Evans, Oates, Meares and a number of others. Later on, Scott's personal inadequacies as a leader are summarised in a delightful rant by the snow-blinded Meares, who observes that this most British of Antarctic explorers spends most of his time "sitting in his tent whining about the weather".

Amundsen's expedition is meticulously planned and compactly staffed with hand-picked men on whom he knows he can rely. Scott's expedition is multifarious and unwieldy, and seems to pick up people on no better grounds than that Scott likes the cut of their jib. Scott sends Cecil Meares (Bill Nighy) to buy ponies, even though Meares tells him he only knows about dogs, because he wishes to spare the expense of sending Oates (Richard Morant) from South Africa. The ponies are a disaster; as are the motor sledges, on which Scott spends £1,000 apiece only to leave the engineer in England and lose one of the machines down a hole in the ice. In Antarctica, Meares' repeated demonstrations of the superiority of dog-hauling over human and pony labour result only in the bruising of Scott's fragile ego. The British leave their main food and fuel depot eleven miles short of its intended location because of Scott's refusal to use a couple of doomed ponies for meat; at the end, the polar party starves, eleven miles from the depot in the opposite direction, partly because Scott insists on taking a fifth man along despite there being rations for only four.

The series is beautifully shot by John Coquillon, who made several films with Sam Peckinpah, including Straw Dogs, Cross of Iron and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, as well as Michael Reeves' masterpiece Witchfinder General. The acting is also very fine, with Shaw's self-divided Scott, Ousdal's charming and calculating Amundsen, Stephen Moore's faithful and kindly Dr Wilson and Morant's easy-going but quietly seething Oates merely the most memorable among a large and distinguished cast. Sylvester McCoy puts in an unexpectedly good turn as Birdie Bowers; Ståle Bjørnhaug makes an endearingly gung-ho Olav Bjaaland, and von Sydow is a dignified and intelligent Nansen. Though slightly marred by a brief but unnecessary premonition of death, and by the perhaps rather broad characterisation of Kathleen Scott, Trevor Griffiths' script is superbly paced, leaving plenty of room for the characters to develop - most obviously in the pre-embarkation episodes, which nowadays would undoubtedly be relegated to flashbacks in order to verify the structural Tarantinosity of the creative personnel.

The Norwegians reach the Pole before the end of episode six, and Scott's party die well before the end of episode seven, which is largely devoted to the start of the Scott legend and the sidelining of Amundsen's reputation. One of the first people to see the bodies of Scott's party diagnoses scurvy, and is immediately told to keep his opinion to himself as it would reflect badly on the organisation of the expedition. A little later, a committee of higher-ups is shown expurgating Scott's notes, with the willing if not actually cheerful connivance of his widow. Perhaps the most biting sequence is the one in which Lord Curzon (Peter Jeffrey), in the course of a speech ostensibly thanking Amundsen for a lecture on his own expedition, gives so thoroughgoing a demonstration of British fair play and grace in defeat that Amundsen decides such hospitality is a blessing he can comfortably forego. The last scene of all movingly contrasts Scott's slickly elegiac, portentous Last Words to Posterity with Amundsen's simple speech to his men on attaining the Pole.

I trust it is not merely my personal weakness for the bashing of patriotic icons (it occurred to me while watching that it would be wonderful to see this sort of treatment given to Clive Ponting's biography of Churchill) that kept me glued to this series for the entirety of its six-and-a-half-hour running time. Whatever the justice or otherwise of Huntford's view of Scott, it makes an outstanding drama, as well as an astringent antidote to the likes of John Mills' notorious Ealing comedy.


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