On Location in the Arctic for 'The Last Place on Earth'
Authenticity was a key word to the makers of Central Television's 'The Last Place on Earth' and in search of a realistic setting for the dramatic and harrowing events of Scott's and Amundensen's [ sic ] journey's across Antarctica to the South Pole, they headed for the Canadian Arctic. Except for the absence of penguins, conditions here exactly mirror those in the South.
At Frobisher Bay, a small township so cold and desolate it is many hundreds of miles north of the nearest tree, the cast and crew were to spend two long, freezing months in the spring of 1984.
To find an unbroken expanse of snow and ice, filming had to take place on the surface of the Bay itself, a 25-mile wide stretch of frozen sea-ice which extended 112 miles to the open ocean, pierced here and there by small islands and giant icebergs.
But to get out onto the middle of the bay, the film unit had to build their own road. Says producer Tim Van Rellim, "The local Eskimo population was astounded by the sight of us crazy Englishmen driving our bulldozer out to sea to clear a way through several feet of loose surface snow, down to the ice itself which was over six feet thick."
The road eventually stretched for 10 miles out into the middle of nowhere and along its bumpy surface, in the early hours of the morning, drove the strange line of film vehicles carrying men, women and equipment to work.
For producer Van Rellim and director Ferdinand Fairfax the task of keeping the cameras turning in sub-zero temperatures presented a majot challenge. When Scott reached the South Pole, the temperature recorded there was minus 30°. During filming on Frobisher Bay it dropped as low as minus 50°.
Frostbite was a real danger and cast and crew were instructed in the telltale signs of dead tissue. Director Fairfax succumbed to an attack that will permanently mark a small patch of his face, turning dead-white in cold weather. Paradoxically, sunburn was just as much a danger with exposed faces catching the brilliant glare from the sun reflected off the endless snow.
It was perhaps hardest for the English actors who had to recreate Scott's party's self-imposed struggle to manhaul sledge-loads of 200 lbs per man across the hundresd of miles of crevasses, glaciers and mountains that led to their goal.
"I found it very tough going", admits actor and fitness expert Pat Roach, who plays Petty Officer Evans, one of Scott's ill-fated polar team. "I kept thinking about the extraordinary effort of will that got Scott and his men all the way there and most of the way back, especially when you consider that they were not even on a sound diet."
The make-up department simulated the effects of scurvy and frostbite in impressive detail, while costume designer Louise Frogley had some of Amundsen's original garments, borrow from Norway's Fram museum , copied in caribou hide and seal skin by Eskimo seamstresses.
A cold weather expert, John Dawson, a Yorkshireman now living in Canada, stood by at all times. It was at his insistence that eye-catching red tape was always used to run from Base campout to the spot chosen for the day's filming so that crew members could find their way back to the vehicles in the event of a blizzard.
The only creatures not to feel the cold were the local huskies. Although Captain Scott used very few dogs, Amundsen relied on them utterly and 70 working dogs were required for filming. They were collected, with their owners, from Eskimo settlements in and around Frobisher Bay.
Ponies, too, were required for the British team. Scott had insisted on taking only white ponies to the South Pole so white ones had to be brought to Frobisher Bay. They were flown up from the US nad stabled in a hangar next to the tiny airport, to the delight and astonishment of the Eskimos, many of whom had never seen a horse before.
For director Ferdinand Fairfax, filming in the snowscapes was a novel experience.
"On a conventional set you have walls or streets or objects around which you can place your actors, but in the snow there is nothing. It's very disorientating [sic] not to have any edges to your frames, but once I was used it I learned to use the space itself. It's very pure."
One obvious problem posed by the snow was the impossibility of rehearsing a scene without leaving footprints in the virgin snow. Complicated sequences were therefore filmed without benefit of practice and it was nerve-racking [sic] for the actors who were under pressure to get it right first time.
At the mercy of the elements, director Fairfax had to be prepared to use every change in the conditions to his own advantage. During filming on the sea-ice one day, a 4-foot wide crevasse suddenly opened up at the foot of the camera. A quick alteration to the plan created a dramatic shot of one of the polar travellers plunging into the water. When stunt arranger Bronco McLoughlin was pulled from the sea, his clothes froze instantly into solid boards from which he had to ne extricated at high speed and with much difficulty.
It was a tough time for everybody. The fiercer the weather, the more the unit filmed on, getting on camera shots of extreme conditions that will make the viewer gasp in admiration for the polar explorers - not to mention the actors and technicians who made the series possible.
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