I’ve just finished watching this epic seven-part 1980s ITV mini-series about Scott and Amundsen’s race for the South Pole in 1911-12, starring Martin Shaw and Norwegian actor Sverre Anker Ousdal. It makes harrowing viewing at times, especially during the almost unbearable, drawn-out coverage of Scott and his men in the last desperate days of their lives. Directed by Ferdinand Fairfax, who also made Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years (1981), this comes from a period when TV companies seemed to keep making very expensive and long historical drama series – which sadly doesn’t often happen now!
I should say at the outset that I’m not any kind of expert on Scott or Amundsen and don’t know how accurate this account is. I believe it caused some controversy at the time, and it definitely portrays Scott as arrogant and largely responsible for equipping his expedition badly, taking ponies rather than enough dogs and skis – while Amundsen is seen as more competent and a better explorer, though he seems arrogant too at times. (I’d imagine some measure of arrogance is needed to mount an expedition like this in the first place.) Anyway, I’m hoping to read more about them both and find out more background. (I would imagine there might be new books and documentaries in 2011/12 to mark the centenary.) Just looking at this as a drama, I find it enthralling and moving to watch, even though, or indeed because, it portrays these famous explorer-heroes as flawed human beings. It does show how terrible the weather was during that Antarctic winter, and how the conditions contributed to the tragedy.
Martin Shaw in particular gives a fine performance as Captain Robert Falcon Scott, or “Con” as he is called by his friends, giving the character a blend of infuriating self-assurance and sudden vulnerability. He’s supported by an excellent British cast including Bill Nighy, Michael Maloney, Stephen Moore, Sylvester McCoy (best-known as a former Doctor Who) and a very young Hugh Grant in a small part as Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who wrote the famous account The Worst Journey in the World. Grant only really has one good scene, where he sets out with the dogs to try to find Scott and the group who went to the Pole, but he makes it tell, seeming young and nervous and overwhelmed. Writer Trevor Griffiths, adapting a book by Roland Huntford, has made the dialogue realistic and avoided the best-known noble phrases – I was surprised that “Titus” Oates (Richard Morant) didn’t say “I may be gone for some time”, but then realised that phrases like that, which everyone knows, often seem to be missed out of dramatisations, maybe because they are so difficult for an actor to say.
Susan Wooldridge plays Scott’s wife, Kathleen – I was delighted to see her in the cast list as I loved her performance in The Jewel in the Crown, but in this she portrays a rather unlikeable, self-dramatising woman. She is almost a Lady Macbeth figure, driving Scott on to his fate and insisting at one point: “It is my destiny to marry a great man and give birth to a great son!” I don’t know whether Kathleen Scott was really like this, but to me the scenes featuring her do feel slightly over the top and unbelievable.
Norwegian actor Sverre Anker Ousdal plays a quiet Amundsen, full of burning determination, leading a fine Norwegian cast – plus Swedish star Max von Sydow as the older explorer Nansen. It’s just such a shame that their scenes are all in English – surely it would have been so much better to have them speaking Norwegian with subtitles rather than speaking to each other with heavy accents. Because of this, I found these sections slightly less powerful than the ones following the English group, although the acting is excellent in these sections too.
Although the build-up at the start of the series is well done and helps to put the journeys in context, for me the real power of the drama lies in all the apparently endless footage of the men struggling through the snow and ice. I watched this straight after the more recent mini-series Shackleton (2002), starring Kenneth Branagh and at first thought The Last Place on Earth wasn’t quite as good – but, by the last episodes, I was completely gripped. I’ll write a short bit about the Branagh series on my blog too, as I really want to recommend them both, although this one is now fresher in my mind. I now think if anything The Last Place on Earth may be the greater series of the two – though they are both very good – partly because its sheer length, and the sheer number of scenes of actors staggering through the snow and wind, gives a feeling of what an epic journey this was, and how gradually everything was stripped away from the Antarctic explorers. Also, although Shackleton is now seen as a greater hero, and Scott as a bad organiser at least partly to blame for his own downfall, to me that doesn’t take away at all from the poignancy of Scott’s story.