Shackleton (Channel 4 2002 with Kenneth Branagh and Robert Hardy)


UK / Channel 4 / 2002

Writer/Director: Charles Sturridge / Producer: Selwyn Roberts

The story of the legendary British explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, who set sail in 1914 on his ship the Endurance for the South Pole. When the ship becomes trapped in ice and sinks the crew seem condemned to certain death.

The most expensive drama Channel 4 had ever made at that time. Filming SHACKLETON was an extraordinary and highly dangerous adventure but KENNETH BRANAGH jumped at the chance to portray the legendary explorer, as director CHARLES STURRIDGE explains.

“I’d never met Ken before but I managed to obtain his email address. I asked him if he wanted to come to lunch to discuss something. I didn’t tell him what it was because I thought he might just say no in the next email. We met in a Chinese restaurant where I told him I hadn’t written it yet but that it was going to be a bit like this and that I knew when I wanted to shoot it because the weather in the Arctic is very simple – it’s dark for half the year. So I knew when I wanted to start and that I couldn’t slide it back two weeks or anything. To my absolute amazement Ken said yes before we’d even ordered. The clarity of his commitment provided enormous energy by which the production then got made.”

Kenneth’s commitment, however, was not a product of uninformed folly. “I had ten minutes of Charles expressing his enthusiasm,” he explains. “His knowledge of the subject was vast but I had become familiar with the Shackleton story through my friendship with actor Brian Blessed. He’d been banging on about Sir Ernest for years. He made it clear from his own experiences of adventure that the physical effect of the Arctic or Antarctic environments is something that cannot be authentically portrayed unless you’re there. It isn’t just a question of seeing breath from the mouth but what it does to skin tone. You have to hear what it does to voices and how you are affected by shooting in the Arctic summer where you’re living in a kind of constant twilight. Your whole metabolism is thrown. Brian said that if I ever got involved in a project like that to make sure I went to the real place.”

But neither Kenneth nor Charles ever thought the project would be anything but difficult. “The scale of this project was the real point to it,” Kenneth says. “The difficulty of going to the Arctic, putting together this army of people, to physically be safe. It was important to physically engage in the environment so that there was a point to being there, rather than in a studio with a white background.”

“Usually when you recreate a historical event you’re pretending that the Norfolk coast is Dieppe and things like that,” adds Charles. “We found ourselves, extraordinarily, working in exactly the same conditions as the ones depicted, on the Greenland ice shelf, on a layer of ice sitting on top of two miles of sea, which was breaking up beneath our feet. A very stomach-churning thing to do when you’ve got 94 people to look after.”

Like Shackleton’s own journey, filming such a colossal piece involved incredible dangers, as Charles explains. “We were given three paramount instructions on how to survive shooting on the ice. One: keep away from the place where the sea and the ice join. It’s incredibly dangerous, ships will get smashed against the ice. It’s lethal. But we had to film everything on the edge of the ice as we never got through. What could we do, come back in tears and say ‘Sorry we couldn’t make your film because we couldn’t get through the ice’?. Two: stay out of the water and don’t go anywhere near it. You have approximately one minute 23 seconds to survive in it; but on the second day we had 42 people in the water. Three: don’t rely on helicopters because the weather is very difficult and they can’t take off, but we were totally reliant on helicopters. We couldn’t shoot the mountain sequence until the end and then had to do it on a high glacier and it took nine helicopter journeys to get us up there and nine to get us down.”

Despite all the potential dangers, Kenneth was keen to play the part of the great explorer from his very first meeting with Charles. “What was interesting in that first meeting,” says Kenneth, “was that I had a ‘Shakletonian’ model in front of me all the way through. Part of the story of the making of Shackleton is a constant struggle for money, a constant determination to persuade people of the value of what may have seemed like a folly. Of dealing with the kind of rejection and incomprehension that Shackleton himself had, with people asking why. This film is part of an attempt to ask why.”

The making of the film, in many other ways, reflected the actual experience of Shackleton’s expedition. “When we were filming the story of a ship that got stuck in the ice, we got stuck!” Charles laughs. “After months of planning we hired a Norwegian ice breaker and got stuck after our 22nd hour! The Norwegian captain said that we couldn’t go forward or backward.” But surely Shackleton himself must have had it a lot harder than this? Kenneth agrees: “We can only begin to imagine what it was like. We were all on this icebreaker that was built for servicing expeditions. What you did get though was a strong sense of community with people living in very close quarters and some incredible changes in landscape. We’d start shooting for a bit and then suddenly find two hours later that we’d drifted six miles because the ice flow we’d parked on was going in a different direction. Of course, there was constant concern about the weather and what you wore. There was an ongoing debate amongst the actors about how you kept your feet dry which was more or less impossible. One version was PVC lining. That does keep you warm but then you sweat and it freezes, so it’s worse.”

With people living in such close proximity under such harsh conditions, at times it was difficult to keep everyone under control. “I remember a near riot one afternoon,” Charles explains. “Though we were beautifully fed and looked after, it made you peculiarly hungry and potentially cranky in the way the expedition must have felt. Someone had just arrived after a long journey on a helicopter that came in. They brought over to the set a bag of Mars bars and asked people if they’d like one. When people realised there were Mars bars in the bag it was like a swarm of rats. The woman with the bag was practically savaged. The prospect of chocolate on a really freezing afternoon was too much.”

Working in such conditions was particularly hazardous for the crew who had to endure the temperatures as well as the fact that the land slowly melted away from under their feet. “We spent a long time agonising over how to take precautions,” says Charles, “and how to organise backup plans in the event of problems arising in a potentially lethal environment. We had a lot of difficulty finding a big enough sheet of ice on which to work because the ice was far more broken up than we’d expected. On June 8, by amazing good fortune, we found this huge piece of ice two miles long, which is what we thought we’d have a lot of and it allowed us to work on the surface. It was like working on land. We’d shot for two days and began to think it was land but the next afternoon the ice started to break up. These fissures began to reach across it. We had a great deal of equipment on the ice and it was falling apart in front of our eyes. We got close to two tons of equipment off in an hour and a half. No one wanted to go back onto it again. It is a very disquieting experience to feel the ground beneath your feet falling apart.”

Kenneth adds: “We had one scene where we had to walk up to the edge of the ice and look down and decide what to do. We got to the end of the morning and were deciding whether to do it before or after lunch when, across where we would have been walking, an enormous fissure was stretching which would have taken us off floating somewhere towards Greenland. It kept us on our toes. It meant you had to be continually vigilant.”

Kenneth does however feel that all the hardship was well worth the effort – even to the point of enjoying the experience. “I did enjoy it from an actor’s point of view although it wasn’t somewhere you’d go on holiday! Right across the crew there was an intense emotional bonding. Everyone who was lucky enough to have worked on this was inspired by this story where the sanctity of human life was so much of a premium, inside what some might feel was the absurdity of trying to walk from one side of a continent to another.”

KENNETH BRANAGH as Ernest Shackleton / LORCAN CRANITCH as Wild / MARK MCGANN as Crean / PHOEBE NICHOLLS as Emily / KEVIN MCNALLY as Worsley / CORIN REDGRAVE as Curzon / ELIZABETH SPRIGGS as Janet Stancombe Wills / ROBERT HARDY as Sir James Caird / MATT DAY as Hurley / JOHN GRILLO as Franks / EVE BEST as Eleanor / MARK TANDY as Frank / CICELY DELANEY as Cecily / CHRISTIAN YOUNG as Raymond / EMBETH DAVIDTZ as Rosalind / DANNY WEBB as Perris / MICHAEL CULKIN as Jack Morgan / ABBY FORD as Marcie / RON DONACHIE as Sir John Scott Keltie / ROBERT SWANN as Freshfield / CHRIS LARKIN as Marston / SHAUN DOOLEY as Hudson / NICHOLAS ROWE as Orde-Lees / BRUCE BYRON as Harbour / JOSEPH LONG as Oddenino