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The Building of a Myth

On 12 November 1912, a search party combing the Antarctic for the missing British polar team found what they dreaded most - a small tent covered with drifted snow. Inside lay the frozen bodies of the British explorer Captian Robert Falcon Scott and his colleagues Wilson and Bowers, huddled together against the cold that had finally killed them on their return journey a mere 11 miles from safety. Close at hand were their last diaries and letters to loved ones.

"These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale," wrote Scott in his dying message to the public.

News of the tragedy resounded round the world, and out of those last writings was born a myth. Despite the failure of his expedition to the South Pole, Scott had achieved in death the heroism that he desired in life.

"He personified," says Roland Huntford, suthor of the book 'Scott and Amundsen' upon which Central's series is based, "the glorious failure which by now had become a British ideal. He was a suitable hero for a nation in decline."

Trevor Griffiths, writer of the series screenplay says, "We have all been gripped by the myth of Scott in one way or another. I remember my grandmother telling me, on the 25th anniversary of his death, that Scott was a great man who had had the bad luck and Amundsen was a liar and a cheat who ate his dogs. This is how the story was logged universally throughout the British Empire.

"I saw the 1948 John Mills film 'Scott of the Antarctic' which further reinfoced the myth. And all through school Scott was placed on a pedestal alongside other British heroes like Sir Walter Raleigh.

"Then in 1981 when I read Roland Huntford's book I realised that the accepted story of Scott and Oates and all the companions who died was based on the supression of a good deal of pertinent evidence.

"At the same time I realised that until now I had known virtually nothing about Amundsen because somehow he had been eliminated from the reckoning in the building of the myth."

When Roland Huntford was researching for his book he discovered that some sixty passages and references had been cut from Scott's original diaries before they were published. The cuts were made by an editorial committee chaired by Scott's wife.

"Those cuts," says Trevor Griffiths, "were in the main either brutal character attacks on other members of the expedition or tomrmented self-criticisms of his own part in the failure.

"Amundsen had steeped himself in the science of survival in the ice and snow. He knew dog and sledge and ski and men in a way that Scott never did. It is a little known fact that while five of the British expedition died of malnutrition, scurvy and exposure, the Norwegian five came back weighing several pounds heavier than when they set out.

"All I seek to do is to present the whole story again using the evidence that is now available. I think the treatment of Scott in my dramatic fiction is honest.

"I have absolutely no interest in knocking Scott as a man. I see him as very much a victim of his times, filled with inappropriate ambitions which went far beyond his competence as a human being. And I find his death as moving now as I did before. But I perceive it in a quite different way - not as evidence of imperial greatness, but more as an illustration of a sort of empty rhetoric."

Scott became an example to a generation of Englishmen. Two years after his expedition, the First World War broke out. As one writer put it in 'The Treasury' magazine in 1916, Scott had given his countrymen 'an example of endurance. We have so many heroes among us now, so many Scotts, holding sacrifice above gain, and we begin to understand what a splendor arises from the bloody fields of Flanders and Gallipoli."

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