Captain Scott’s story survives the potential hazards of a BBC documentary treatment

TV Review by Tudor Rickards

The epic and tragic story of Scott’s Antarctic expedition was retold in a BBC documentary a hundred years later. Unlike Scott, the story just about survived a potential disaster.

A classic adventure story was retold on BBC2 [The Secrets of Scott's Hut, April 17th 2011]. It concerned the ill-fated ‘race to the pole’ by Captain Scott. Or I might have been watching the story of a contemporary preservation project at Scott’s base hut which now involves a team of scientists retrieving the hut and its contents in a multi-million pound rescue mission.

In any case, the programme was conceived as a vehicle for a celebrity treatment which involved Ben Fogle on his own journey of discovery. The documentary started badly for me, perhaps because it assumed that I knew the story of Mr Fogle better than I knew the story of Captain Scott.

Remorseless cheerful Ben

Remorselessly cheerful Ben began by explaining how he was privileged to visit the preserved relics of Captain Scott’s famous expedition. It reminded me of those Blue Peter adventurers setting off to thrill their audience of schoolchildren by abseiling down Blackpool Tower or whatever.

Mashed up story lines

Despite its uncomfortable start and mashed-up story lines, the programme contained much of interest. The contemporary story of the renovation of thousands of articles of historic interest was itself worth documenting. The older story of Scott retains enormous emotional appeal. It interests students of leadership at various levels. The dilemmas under uncertainties: the logistics of getting to the South Pole; the reactions to news of Amundsen’s approach recognised as superior almost immediately; even (in today’s terms mission creep). The beginnings of fund-raising through brand placements, and Scott’s flair for managing history by taking along the brilliant photographer Herbert Ponting.

Leadership style

Scott’s leadership style offers insights, particularly through comparisons with the styles of two competitor celebrity explorers Shackleton and Amundsen. The Telegraph gives a brief account for those unacquainted with the story

“The main objective of this expedition is to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement,” he said, in an appeal for sponsorship. As every schoolchild knows, he failed in his bid to be first. Arriving at the Pole on January 17 1912, after hauling a sledge more than 800 miles, he was greeted by the Norwegian flag. Roald Amundsen had beaten him by a month.

Leadership students will be more familiar with an earlier expedition led by Shackleton who faced with dangers to his men abandoned his mission for the promise of getting his men home safely. Over time, Shackleton’s leadership has become more admired; Scott’s more disputed. Even bouncing Ben was struck by Scott’s attempts to preserve the necessary distance between officers and men, symbolically captured by the physical barrier in the so-called hut and the gentleman and players toilet arrangements outside.

The heroic leaders of a century ago have mostly had their original status reappraised. I was not surprised to learn that Scott had been given the hero to zero treatment. The BBC and The Telegraph revisited the biography by Roland Huntford, The Last Place on Earth. .

Huntford accuses Scott of being temperamentally unfit for command, an ambitious but insecure man who alienated those under him; a bungler who failed to learn the lessons of previous polar expeditions, lessons that might have saved his men. Amundsen, says Huntford, was more professional than his opponent, who personified all that was worst in the British cult of amateurism.

Leadership lessons

Fogle reflects on the leadership lessons that had occurred to him through the trip. Had Scott’s leadership style contributed to the disaster? This implicitly suggests that the apparently more modern, less autocratic style on an Amundsen or a Shackleton would have been less likely to have contributed to a glorious failure. Does the drama show the increasing interaction between technology, heroism, and celebrity? If so, can we see the time line stretching back as far as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, who also were acutely aware of the importance of managing history on behalf of posterity? And is the BBC now locked into ways of spelling out to an audience the sort of emotions they are expected to feel regarding a story, using Ben Foden or some other celebrity presenter?

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One Response to Captain Scott’s story survives the potential hazards of a BBC documentary treatment

  1. Tudor says:

    Wanted to add:

    If I am critical of the BBC it is because it remains an institution of considerable worth risking its legacy in a changing world.

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