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The Secrets of Scott's Hut

Rachel Cooke is deeply bored by Ben Fogle’s endless enthusiasm.

Until a couple of hours ago, I would have said that it was impossible to make a dull film about Scott and his doomed Antarctic expedition of 1910-12. But how wrong a person can be! Ben Fogle, the astonishingly posh television presenter (he rose to fame via the reality show Castaway 2000), and his director, Tim Green, have made a film about the great explorer so boring I began hoping it would end only 15 minutes in (pretty bad news, given that it ran to an indulgent 90 when broadcast on 17 April on BBC2). Repetitive, meandering and mysteriously pointless, it exposed Fogle's limitations as a presenter in painful close-up. Yes, he is good at skiing and pulling sledges. Yes, he obviously owns more than one pair of salop­ettes. But when it comes to analysis, or even to asking the right questions, he is useless. "Wow!" he said, on arriving at Scott's base camp on Ross Island. There followed much witless rabbiting. By the time he entered the eerie shrine that is Scott's hut, my longing for a reverential silence to fall was so powerful that my fists were clenched.

Fogle had been "invited" to join the experts who are in the process of restoring both Scott's hut - the low wooden bungalow in which 25 men were housed during the long months before the final assault on the South Pole - and the 10,000 objects inside it. This project will last two years, cost £4m, and is something of a Sisyphean task, given that the building and its contents are to remain on Ross Island, where the process of decay will soon, presumably, begin all over again. Fogle was worried about this, too: why not just move the thing lock, stock and barrel to a museum? But when he asked the head of the conservation team if her work ­wasn't a little pointless, she had no good answer. Did this bother him? Nope. Off he bounded happily, like a Labrador that had been thrown an imaginary stick.

In the second half of the 20th century, it became fashionable to denigrate Scott's leadership style, in particular the way in which he separated the expedition's officers and gentlemen from the unranked chaps whose job it was to cook, clean and lift heavy objects. In the hut, there was visible evidence of this: a wall, built from packing crates that had previously contained such staples as cocoa powder and Huntley & Palmer biscuits, divided the room in two - and Fogle, for whom Scott was a boyhood hero, duly went through the motions of being perturbed by its implications. He works for the BBC, after all. But you sensed that his heart wasn't in it. Rather, he wanted to claim Scott the Edwardian as one of his own: a good chap, basically. Passing jauntily over how even the latrines were segregated, he explained that the explorer, though not class-blind, was at least able to recognise talent, even when it lurked in the lower orders. Wasn't Thomas Clissold, the expedition's baker, chosen to operate one of Scott's precious mechanical sleds?

The pointless shifting of condiments continued (alas, in a documentary that was thin on facts, we were never told how it is possible to restore Heinz Indian Relish, much less the hard cheeses that our presenter made such a show of sniffing). Naturally, the human Labrador helped out, humping crates with the best of them, but his main role was to supply his hosts with a geyser of unquestioning enthusiasm. One of the conservators found a tiny copy of The Merry Wives of Windsor. "That's Shakespeare!" yelped Fogle excitedly.

Some clothing was discovered which featured a special, er, tube through which a man might relieve himself without getting frostbite. "Is that a willy hole?" he giggled. A side trip to the hut of Scott's rival Ernest Shackleton produced the comment: "There are still name tags on some of these socks . . . Reminds me of school!" Happily, the others seemed not to find all this half so maddening as I did. No one locked him in the portable shed that stood service as the canteen. No one sabotaged his tent. How to explain it? I guess when you're stuck in the Antarctic for months on end, even the arrival of Ben Fogle can seem like a boon.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special