Did we like it?
After a ponderous trek through the numbing raging blizzards of how Apsley Cherry-Garrard was selected to accompany Scott on his ill-fated journey to Antarctica, we found the going far easier in the second half and were rewarded by an uplifting tale of the triumph of the human spirit.
What was good about it?
• Mark Gatiss as the shy ‘hero’ Apsley Cherry-Garrard (“my friends call me Cherry”). Gatiss also wrote this adaptation of the true story of how Cherry went on Scott’s expedition after making a generous donation, but who was not part of the team who trekked to the South Pole. Instead, he journeyed out to a depot and would have continued on to meet the returning Scott if the depot had contained dog food. But alas, he refused to disobey Scott’s orders and kill some dogs to feed the others which would have enabled him to rescue the stricken Scott who was camped just 11 miles away.
• This guilt that he could have saved Scott, and his two friends Birdie and Bill, was at the root of Cherry’s anguish and was what made Gatiss so compelling in the role.
• With an evidently limited budget, the resourcefulness of the production team and scriptwriters must be applauded for creating a convincing, claustrophobic environment. Film of BBC programmes of penguins flocked together was intercut with a central scene of a dinner party at which Cherry is recounting the tale of his torturous trip undertaken as a dry run for Scott’s main mission, while the expedition itself was realised by placing Cherry, Bill and Birdie in thick snowstorms thus dispensing with the need for expensive Antarctic sets.
• The dialogue, too, helped forge at atmosphere of bleak hopelessness. At the dinner party, Cherry recalled how “there’s a purity out there in the snow. It’s just you and the ice.” While a young upstart mocked Cherry for the fact that the mission to bring back penguin eggs to test a now-discredited scientific theory was utterly pointless. Cherry conceded this to be true, but his almost delirious retort explained how the three of them trudging across inhospitable terrain had somehow been far more valuable as it affirmed to all three of their own humanity; how despite the most appalling conditions they had kept their dignity and their friendship had been strengthened.
• And again perhaps caused by the limited budget, the manner in which the little details (from Cherry’s own factual account of the trip he published about 30 years later) made apparent in the crippling horror of the journey had added potency such as when the blisters on Cherry’s frostbitten hands cannot be lanced because the liquid beneath the skin has frozen solid, the plunging temperatures causing the trio to close all the breathing holes in their sleeping bags thus making the interiors rigid with their own frozen breath, and when the frostbite spreads to Cherry’s jaw causing him to disgorge a good amount of blood and most of his teeth.
• When Cherry returns home after Scott, Birdie, Bill and the rest of the team have perished, he takes a penguin egg to the museum to be examined. The apathetic curator blithely deposits the egg in a drawer, but this egg has come to represent so much in Cherry’s life that he demands a receipt as a token of his, and his friends’, sacrifice.
What was bad about it?
• Some of the dialogue tried a little too hard to set the scene of Edwardian Britain with lines such as: “Listen. Blackcap, or I’m a Dutchman!” as Bill listened to birdsong in his garden.
• The splintering of the narrative into at least four separate shards did become confusing, as there seemed little reason why the whole story could not have been recounted by Cherry at the dinner party rather than by also including a sequence of him telling the story from within a dream while dressed in his pyjamas while in the grip of some debilitating ailment as he was tended to by his wife.