Last week, a submarine; this week, a whaler. Thanks to the BBC’s current drama output, my skin, metaphorically speaking, is all puckered from being in the water. Is it possible, I wonder, to put pills for seasickness on expenses? But never mind.
Though I’m not enjoying The North Water as much as Vigil, and I don’t like it half so much as The Terror, which the BBC also screened not so long ago (Jared Harris and Ciarán Hinds star as the ill-fated captains of two Victorian naval explorer ships searching for the Northwest Passage), it’s pretty good, I think. Unlike a lot of BBC drama, this one is uncompromising. Its producers seem not to care for ticking boxes. So grim is it, in fact, that they’re putting it out after the 9pm watershed.
The series, which begins in Hull in 1859, where the crew of the whaling ship, the Volunteer, is about to set sail, is adapted from Ian McGuire’s novel of the same name, and stars Colin Farrell and Stephen Graham. Some of the interior shots were filmed, as these things often are, in Budapest (to which I once travelled to see a reconstructed Titanic, made for ITV, floating in a giant indoor lake).
But its writer-director, Andrew Haigh, was after authenticity, and miraculously his budget stretched to enable him to commandeer an ice-breaker, an accommodation ship, and a wooden schooner to sail his cast and crew deep inside the Arctic Circle. I’ve read that this is the furthest north a drama has ever been filmed.
Whaling was an exceptionally hard and brutal business, and by McGuire’s telling, only exceptionally hard and brutal men were likely to do it. On the Volunteer, the hardest and most brutal of them all is Henry Drax (Farrell), a harpooner whose average sentence comprises three grunts and a belch. Drax, like all the crew, believes he’s heading north in search of blubber. But the ship’s captain, Arthur Brownlee (Graham), is less interested in killing fish – “She’s a timid fish,” the men say, not understanding whales to be mammals – than in some kind of insurance scam, an arrangement between him and the Volunteer’s owner, Baxter (Tom Courtenay). Thickening this ugly soup is Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell), a laudanum addict who’s also the ship’s surgeon. He’s on the run from guilt and bad dreams, having been a British soldier in the siege of Delhi, and thus is a morally ambiguous character. In India, he did bad things, but in the context of the Volunteer, he is an innocent of sorts.
Supporters of Pen Farthing and Geronimo the alpaca might want to avoid this series. Having left the crepuscular drinking dens of Lerwick in the Shetlands far behind – a pit-stop for whisky and casual fighting – the boat arrives at the ice, its Persil-white expanses inducing in the men a kind of madness. If a whale is the plat du jour in the killing stakes, then the seals that are all around will make for a satisfyingly delicious hors d’oeuvre. I found this scene, at the end of the first episode, hard to watch, but extraordinary, too. The men’s beastly exhilaration; the seals’ rotund innocence. So much red on white.
If it was bloody – the sailors bludgeon the seals with clubs before removing their much-prized skins with a knife – it was also balletic, their moves efficient and muscular, but laboured, too. Like dancers, close up you could hear their breathlessness, the cold impaling their lungs like a knife. Drax was in sun goggles, and at one point blood trickled down his forehead on to them. Farrell and O’Connell are both excellent – something about the extremity of their location, I imagine, having pushed them, and all the actors, on. Their performances manage to be both highly physical and deeply, silently inward.
What is it going to take to survive out here? What heinous crimes must a man commit in order to take his bounty – or even his body – safely home? This first orgy on the ice surely foreshadows what lies ahead: a murderous festival that will doubtless be unimaginably worse.
Haigh is just softening us up, though he also, helpfully, thought to give his series an epigraph from Arthur Schopenhauer: “The world is hell, and men are both the tormented souls and the devils within it.”
The North Water
9.30pm, 10 September
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire