I touched history in November 2016, on the kind of joyful, fairly last minute, random bit of work that sometimes pops up, in my (full-of-surprises) freelance life.
I was asked to conduct two days of interviews with the descendants of Sir Ernest Shackleton....and employed by London fixers, a Paris-based production company and a Korean director and advertising agency, making it something of a global, multi-lingual operation, with differing approaches to storytelling, language, syntax and methodology, and rather-more-interesting-than-usual crew lunches (I can recommend Yoshi Sushi in Hammersmith!).
Ernest Shackleton one of the greatest explorers of all time. A man obsessed with Antarctica, who’s become known in the century since as a benchmark for exceptional leadership, and whose bravery and determination meant that, despite huge disappointment and infinitesimally low chances of survival, his entire crew returned from the Endurance expedition alive.
The story is almost unbelievable.
After Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole, a disappointed Shackleton found himself a new challenge….to be the first to cross the continent of Antarctica.
The expedition set off in 1914, but his ship The Endurance, got stuck in pack ice, and, 10 months later, broke up and sank. In April 1916, Shackleton and his crew made it, first on foot across shifting ice, then in lifeboats, to Elephant Island - an inhospitable place, but land mass at least - and set up camp. But no help was ever going to find them there, so, with options and rations fast running out, Shackleton set off with five crew members in a small boat for South Georgia, the nearest inhabited place, 800 miles away, across the stormiest and most treacherous stretch of ocean in the world.
After a terrifying two week journey, and against all the odds, they managed to land at South Georgia…..but still had to cross 22 miles of uncharted mountains to reach the relative civilisation of the Stromness whaling station, across glaciers and snow fields, sometimes throwing themselves and their equipment down icy slopes to keep moving forwards.
They walked into the whaling station on South Georgia nearly two years after they’d sailed from the UK, and it was another few months before conditions would allow them to rescue their crew mates on Elephant Island. All 28 crew members returned home safely.
My job was to meet and interview Shackleton’s granddaughter Alexandra and great-grandson Patrick, who was about to set out on an expedition of his own - to complete his great grandfather’s journey across Antarctica, 100 years on. As a self-confessed ‘indoor enthusiast’, this was way outside his comfort zone. But he did it, in December 2016, and in doing so made history himself becoming the first person to cross the continent by car, in a Hyundai Santa Fe.
The following day I met descendants of five Endurance crew members, many of whom simply wouldn’t be here if Shackleton hadn’t got their ancestors back safely.
So my role was to interview them all. Sitting off camera. Facilitating rather than presenting (with the excellent additional result for me of no need for lots of make up or to keep my hair looking the same for two days). They’ve all grown up with the stories of their family members, and are, justifiably, so proud of what they endured and survived, and incredibly grateful to Shackleton. Inevitably you only get a glimpse of them all in the final film, but enough to see and feel their pride and their thanks.
So I touched history….as I held Shackleton’s cooking pot, dented from being flung down an icy slope on South Georgia a century ago, shuffled a pack of cards that helped keep the crew’s spirits up and maintain morale during those long months on the ice, and felt the weight of a lump of rock brought back from Elephant Island.
And I touched history as I heard about Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and saw the love and pride in the eyes of the relatives who tell their story, determined to preserve the legacy of one of the greatest adventure stories of the 20th century.