|cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jared Harris, J.J. Field, Sam Neill, and Charles Dance
director: David Attwood
270 minutes (15) 2005
|The BBC has its drama department is subject to consistent denigration but its millennial output has been as impressive as it has been over any other short period in its history. Gormenghast, Attachments, Bodies, Shooting The Past, The Long Firm, Births, Marriages And Deaths, Murder, Conviction, Home, Cops, Spooks… there is no shortage of exceedingly well written and equally well made drama. This is not even taking into account the embarrassment of good comedy, the splendid documentaries and competitive reality shows: Dragon’s Den, Restoration, The Apprentice, The Lost World Of Mitchell And Kenyon, Venice, Walking With Dinosaurs, Blue World, Spring Watch, anything presented by Adam Hart-Davies or Andrew Cruickshank, and with next to no reliance on bought in fare from America.
To The Ends Of The Earth is a faultless, intrinsically detailed high seas drama, an adaptation of the trilogy of novels by William Golding. The romanticism is excised, the seas roll, and so does the vomit across the bunkroom floors. The grime is there from the outset, even on the window of Edmund Talbot’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) horse-drawn carriage window as he gets his first sight of the ship on which he is about to set sail to Australia. He is descended from seafarers of some note, and is, as such, under some allusion that the skills will come naturally to him. In the three feature-length episodes he rarely accepts the degree to which he is out of his depth though the evidence is often readily apparent. His lineage stands him well enough that he is not flogged for lack of observance of the Captain’s standing orders when he steps upon the Captain’s deck of the former naval vessel the HMS Pandora without invite. Captain Anderson (Jared Harris), a stern and frightening figure is instead in awe of the young man by dint of the name alone and is subject to the same affected view of inherited abilities among the seafaring class. Parson Colley (Daniel Evans), seeing the welcome, steps onto the deck and is belittled; there is no place for religion on Captain Anderson’s craft.
Passengers no matter how affected by class or station must reside in the cramped spaces allotted below. The monied may live immediately below the deck while the crew and less fiscally blessed live in the horrible crush further below but it is no less pleasant. Nits are rife, seasickness is commonplace and the men spend a lot of time in the meal room downing ales, normally to a violent rocking on the waves. The camera refuses to stay still, generally mild, but when the seas are particularly tempestuous then the rocking of the room and its drunken occupants is stepped up in tandem. The timing of the actors and the props and one presumes the pistons that govern the swaying of the sets are synchronically exacting throughout. The passengers must learn to ride the ship, a steady shifting from leg to leg in line with the rocking of the vessel.
The Parson has a particularly rough ride of it, the Captain’s disfavour of the man picked up by the rough crew looking for a pet victim, unable to gauge what is going too far and mob-handed sexually abusing the man below deck in a drunken orgy. Unable to attend his injuries, repelled by their nature, unwilling to admit the trespass on his body, his bleeding rectum sours and his is a slow and painful death. Those dramas that don’t go the romanticised route tend to run to the other extreme. That other extreme is normally represented in great loss of life in the voyage. Golding’s voyagers are a hardier lot, the dread expectancy is that they will drop like flies but death is the easy way out and grim survival is the norm. It is a gruelling passage for all, but no more gruelling than everyday life in the 18th century is wherever you park your breakfast bowl.
William Golding took his original trilogy of books, Rites Of Passage, Close Quarters and Fire Down Below and combined them into the one epic tale that is To The Ends Of The Earth. The BBC split them up again for the respective episodes. The second episode Close Quarters sails the ship into calmer quarters and a potential love match when The Alcyone docks alongside, Captained by Charles Dance’s Sir Henry Somerset. His ward is the pretty Marion Chumley (Joanne Page), but his attentions are thwarted by a head injury. Edmund’s servant for the voyage, Wheeler, in a wonderful turn by Brian Pettifer, and hitherto seen as sound, is driven to a terrible end by his fears of drowning when part of the keel detaches, and Edmund is too enfeebled by his condition to be able to prevent it.
Fire Down Below provides the unpredictable conclusion.
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Unpredictable in that we may have already decided who our heroes are and whom we want to stumble and which characters we expect will die. In a lead character we are more often than not embarrassed by, it is First Lieutenant Summers (Jamie Sives) that we most admire and wish to see come on top. When he is set in competition against Lieutenant Benet (Niall McGregor), ‘drafted’ in from The Alcyone, in truth removed in disgrace, against his ‘insane’ idea for saving the main mast and the ship, you route for the team of Edmund and Summers and expect them to win. The episode also features the marriage of two of the most rewarding characters, Mr Prettiman (the ever reliable Sam Neill) and Miss Granham (Victoria Hamilton, who is popping up with dependable frequency of late). A sick bedridden groom, a betrothal in a tiny cabin, the floorboards removed from above to allow witness by a congregation. The docking in Australia is inevitably disappointing, and the occurrences that follow come across as a little drastic and unnecessary but it is not enough to ruin the grim wonder that has gone before. A highly recommendable viewing experience, the disc-set doesn’t particularly try, the only extra being a ‘making-of…’ The reason for so little supplementary work is preferably the acceptance that the series is the thing and not that there is a later intention for the ultimate on-disc coverage of the film. If you didn’t see this on its TV run, catch up with it now.