The North Water: Colin Farrell and Jack O'Connell star in trailer
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When Stephen Graham was offered a starring role in the BBC’s new hit drama, The North Water, about a doomed 1859 whaling voyage to the Arctic, he knew he was in for an adventure ‑ even if he misunderstood the brief. Graham, 48, who plays Captain Brownlee of the whaling boat Volunteer, explained: “They said, ‘Three weeks filming in the Arctic’, and I was like, ‘Well, not really the Arctic, not the Arctic Arctic’, but they said, ‘It’s three weeks in the Arctic on a ship, sailing.’
“We ended up 22 miles away from the North Pole. We pulled into this massive glacier and there was this feeling of being on another planet. It was unbelievable.”
Indeed, much of the filming for the five-part 19th century drama ‑ based on a novel by Ian McGuire and also starring Colin Farrell, 45, as harpooner Henry Drax, Jack O’Connell, 31, as Patrick Sumner the ship’s laudanum-addicted doctor and Sir Tom Courtenay as the Volunteer’s owner ‑ took place north of the Svalbard archipelago, an icy, windswept terrain inhabited by polar bears, walruses and little else.
While the characters grapple with murder, morality and chaos, cast and crew faced constant peril. Graham narrowly escaped injury while filming a boat scene in open water.
“I’m there being Brownlee, all serious, then all of a sudden, a massive bit of ice just fell, and you can see it falling,” he remembers.
“I was looking at it and thinking, ‘Oh my God.’ The lads are rowing, then you heard shouting and we had to stop, all of a sudden, because there’s a massive wave on its way to us in this little boat, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to die in the middle of the Arctic in a fake fur coat’.”
Thankfully, adrenaline kicked in to avert disaster. “The lads are paddling as fast as they can to get away from it, and everyone’s a bit worried and a bit panicked, and we just missed it.”
Of course, you can’t recreate the rugged beauty of the frozen wilderness with a water tank in a car park, or even the Irish Sea, which is why British writer-director Andrew Haigh previously dismissed cheaper filming alternatives.
“I wanted us to feel the biting wind, the bitter cold,” he says. “I wanted to capture that fear that comes from being so far from civilisation.”
But although travelling to 81 degrees north provided real pack ice and galumphing seals ‑ Drax goes on a brutal rampage of the furry mammals in episode one ‑ it also created myriad psychological burdens for everyone.
Farrell said he spent much of filming in “survival mode”. He refused to wear gloves to stay true to his character and the freezing conditions left his hands cracked and bleeding. To achieve Drax’s monstrous bulk, he scoffed down food and lifted weights, basing his physique on photographs of Victorian dockers and prizefighters.
After the cameras stopped rolling for the day, the Irish actor isolated himself away from others to embody the mindset of a man who “lives without compunction”.
“It feels like a very honest character, albeit one raised in cruelty, and thereby exists in a world where he acknowledges the cruelty all around him and doesn’t even see it as cruelty, just that there is a natural order to things,” Farrell explains. “He would be – without declaration of it – Darwinian, someone who believes in the survival of the fittest and of that being the natural order by which the world exists.”
The days were long and filming often went beyond the last light. Graham formed close bonds through the intense experience. Chess became a favourite pastime in the absence of any Wi-Fi signal to browse the internet or message loved ones.
“We played a good few games of Uno, we’d sit and have little chats, it was nice, there was a real feeling of solidarity which in certain aspects would overspill onto the screen,” he says.
He sported a bushy beard like the other actors, undoubtedly providing some welcome relief against the glacial temperatures. Much of his preparation involved trawling through archives and reading poems written by whalers.
Whaling was big business in the early 19th century. Hull had the biggest fleet in Britain between 1815 and 1825, employing some 2,000 men across more than 60 whaling boats.
Harpooners would target the whales from small boats and track the mammals for hours until they tired, at which point they were speared again and towed back to port. Their blubber was used for oil and food, while baleen created the hard framework for corsets and skirts.
Demand for whale products fell with the rise of fossil fuels and petroleum used to light lamps. By the mid-19th century, when The NorthWater is set, profits were in freefall.
“It was the end of an era in many respects, that new age of machinery and steam engines that are about to take over from the manual labour of what it was like back in those days to be a whaler,” Graham says.
It was also a brutal, bleak, masculine world populated by working-class men who were exploited and paid low wages. They were considered expendable and death was all too common. Sometimes ships became trapped in the ice and workers would freeze to death or starve. They also faced poor sanitary conditions. Scurvy was rife.
“This is a story about the world in chaos,” says Haigh. “It is about men fighting, struggling, controlling, exerting their dominance over nature, over each other, all the things that create chaos in the world.
‘I felt was just the corner…mistake someone into the “We only have to look around us today to see that we haven’t changed that much since the 1850s. Telling a story like this almost allows us to reflect on what is happening today through those themes of the past.”
The Activ, an old sailing ship with an engine, doubled as the Volunteer. The crew rose early and searched every day for shifting ice on which to film. Others stood on silent watch, armed with rifles to fire warning shots in case of polar bear attacks.
Farrell felt the fear keenly. “I did feel that death was just around the corner at any given time, that we were just one mistake away from someone falling into the Arctic sea and either very quickly getting hypothermia thermia eight or sinking under the weight of the waterlogged costume,” he admits. “There were also polar bears around, that are beautiful and elegant and majestic but also apex predators.”
“The physical constraints left little room for rehearsal. Once the Arctic filming wrapped, everyone moved to Budapest where the dim-lit back streets of Hull were recreated alongside sets for the docks, taverns and cabins.
But before they left the North Pole, cast and crew stripped to their pants to jump into the Arctic and brave the so-called polar plunge.
“It is the most exhilarating thing I have ever done in my life, and I have done skydiving, I’ve snorkel dived really deep and seen some magical things, but that was absolutely unbelievable,” Graham says.
“A few wimped out but most of us did it and, believe it or not, there was a massive Jacuzzi on the boat, and it was boiling hot, so we ended up with almost third-degree burns after jumping in there and then going into a big hot Jacuzzi.”
Haigh realises the drama may be a challenging watch for viewers but believes it is also “filled with moments of compassion” and is relatable to modern audiences.
“It is a different version of stories that have been told before, a more complex version, and it says a lot about where we are right now, how we exist in the world, how we live in the world, how we are destroying the world around us, how we are letting greed overtake us,” he explains.
“This is a story about the few and the privileged exerting their power and dominance over everyone else for their own gain. It is a very contemporary story as well as being a thriller and a drama and a character study.
“Those things together, something that has a political resonance and has something to say about the way we live today, but also is still a fantastic story, are what sets it apart.”
The North Water is on Saturdays at 9.30pm on BBC Two
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