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The Secrets of Scott's Hut, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Secrets of Scott's Hut, BBC Two

The Secrets of Scott's Hut, BBC Two

Ben Fogle explores the deep-frozen legacy of Captain Scott

In the footsteps of Captain Scott: Ben Fogle hits the hut

Captain Scott's doomed 1910-1913 expedition to the South Pole has become one of the enduring myths of the later British Empire, a paradigm of pluck, grit and a refusal to surrender in the teeth of hideous odds. Subsequently, some historical revisionists have reached a different conclusion, that Scott was in fact an ill-prepared amateur who committed a string of fatal errors.

A new generation of splendid chaps has been revisiting the bitter, haunted wastes once trudged over and sometimes died in by our great explorers. Jasper Rees wrote majestically about James Cracknell's programme The Great White Silence, which was built around the films and photographs shot by Scott's embedded lensman, Herbert Ponting. Now here's Ben Fogle, top chum of Harry and Wills, getting terribly excited about being granted special visitation rights to Scott's hut at Cape Evans in Antarctica, which formed the base camp for the effort to reach the South Pole in 1911.

We might call Fogle a re-revisionist. He admits to having idolised Scott since his childhood, and came not to bury the ill-fated explorer but to thaw him out and present him in fresh, rose-tinted, 360-degree light. To give him his due, Fogle has earned respect in matters of endurance against hostile elements, having rowed across the Atlantic and crossed Antarctica on foot. His cheerful, enthusiastic demeanour suggests that he would find it difficult to think badly of anybody.

scott_in_hutEven just watching it on TV, it was obvious that the Cape Evans hut is an extraordinarily complete time capsule, preserving all kinds of data and artefacts about the expedition and the kind of society it came from. Walking through the front door for the first time, Fogle was struck with almost physical force by the layers of compressed history still locked within its wooden walls. He was virtually speechless for the first few moments (Captain Scott in his hut, pictured above).

But he quickly recovered, and was soon babbling eagerly about the 10,000 original items which have survived remarkably intact thanks to the freezing temperatures and lack of light inside the building. These range from clothing, reindeer sleeping bags and harnesses for ponies and dogs to foul-smelling cheeses, Heinz baked beans, tinned veal, and copious quantities of biscuits specially made for Scott's trip by Huntley & Palmers. The explorers' clothing was supplied by the likes of Burberry and Jaeger, and was made from natural fibres which were apparently remarkably effective at keeping out the cold (the team had devised what Fogle termed a "willy-hole", a trouserial protuberance through which the wearer could urinate without having his member ravaged by frostbite).

Fogle_smallThis plethora of famous brand names was all part of Scott's pioneering plan to exploit the then largely untapped goldmine of commercial sponsorship. One of photographer Ponting's major tasks was to make sure Scott's men were pictured in close proximity to well-known commercial products - a large portion of the hut was walled off to serve as Ponting's darkroom - and Scott was well aware of the publicity he could leverage from the burgeoning newspaper industry back home.

If Scott was forward-thinking or even mercenary in some respects, he was reactionary in others. The rigidly hierarchical structure of the expedition was revealed in the way Scott built walls in the hut to separate the officers and scientists from the "unranked" men, who also had to use their own toilets. Captain Oates was of the opinion that if a fellow "broke down", he shouldn't hesitate to avail himself of a revolver and avoid becoming a burden to his comrades. It still beggars belief that so many sons of the Edwardian era were prepared to submit to months of pitch blackness and temperatures of minus-40 degrees, and would stoically march themselves to death across glaciers through howling blizzards. These were attitudes about to be tested to destruction by the First World War (Scott's team promote Fry's chocolate, pictured below).

Frys_ChocFogle's trip unearthed plenty of fascinating fragments of information, though the programme struggled to fill its 90-minute slot convincingly. As for his efforts to put Scott back on his pedestal, they emitted a whiff of special pleading. We saw Fogle telling a Royal Geographical Society audience that it was time to allow Scott to "be a man... a man with faults, but also with qualities that made other men want to follow him to the end of the earth". But perhaps a better leader could have brought them all back again (Scott's men reach the South Pole, pictured below).

Scott_at_poleParticularly unconvincing was his attempt to argue that Scott wasn't merely trying to be the first to reach the South Pole, but was engaged in serious scientific endeavour, as betokened by equipment left in the hut. This conspicuously failed to square with what he'd already told us about Scott's eye for commercial exploitation and his rivalries with both Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen. The latter beat him to the Pole by being better organised and unswervingly focused on that single task.

"This is where the science of climate study began, in Antarctica," Fogle ventured hopefully. Captain Scott as the original crusader against global warming? Under the circumstances, he'd probably have welcomed it.

It still beggars belief that so many sons of the Edwardian era were prepared to march themselves to death across glaciers through howling blizzards

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It was a fascinating documentary, even if as you say struggling to fill its alloted time slot. Nevertheless, If you found this interesting I've just finished working on my latest short film about Polar Explorer Tom Crean: bit.ly/tom_crean and would love to know your thoughts! Thanks x

Adam, respectfully, it's a shame you don't know more about this before judging. Susan Solomon in her book The Coldest March has conclusively proved that ferocious and unseasonable weather, which no-one could have foreseen, killed the party. Scott can hardly be blamed for navy traditions - he was a naval officer, and it was a naval expedition. He campaigned for years to raise money for the expedition (which was constantly in debt, even when they set off) shilling by shilling. The suggestion that he was exploitative for his own ends is fatuous. The idea of a 'Race to the Pole' was at least partly cooked up as a way of raising the finance, because races, then as now, are more saleable than scientific research. And one reason why Amundsen got there first was because he didn't tell anyone - not his crew, not Nansen from whom he had borrowed the boat he was using, and certainly not Scott - that he was going to South Pole, until he was more than halfway there. How can it be a race if Scott didn't know the other guy was even running? And the scientific achievements of the expedition speak for themselves - look it up? But for just one example, their research was the basis of current knowledge of plate tectonics. Yes, they were different times. That's the nature of history.

I agree with Louisa Young above. We simply cannot judge Scott by today's standards. I am copying below a response I gave elsewhere to this programme. I have been fascinated with Scott for longer than I care to admit and have studied him intently. This was a great programme and covered both sides of the Scott debate fairly before Ben Fogle arrived at a slightly generalised but appropriate conclusion: that the expedition was as much a scientific one as a quest for the Pole. As such, it required a hut and a regime that suited that. Scott was a highly complex, sensitive man who had the shackles of leadership and greatness forced on him by the expectations of others. It did not sit easy with him although he lacked the strength or self-awareness to question it. No, he was not the easiest person to get on with, especially amongst the highly rational, somewhat one-track minds of his scientists and experts, but there are very few chronicled instances of major fallings-out, certainly no more than would be expected from spending two years in the Antarctic with the same group of people. The fact that he ran a class system, or rather a naval system, was done to ease the tensions that might have arisen between groups of people with very separate identities when together. It was a sign of respect for the men's needs as much as for the officers'. Shackleton did not do this. Fair enough. Why should one be seen as 'greater' than the other? They were two very different people - let them remain like that rather than one being elevated to a higher pedestal. And as far as Scott's teams were concerned, there were certainly no class distinctions when out on the ice - in his diaries there is as great an affection for the ranks as for anyone else, if not more (as in the case of PO Evans). Did Scott make mistakes with planning and leadership? Of course. Do most expeditions suffer setbacks and problems due to issues which with hindsight would have been done differently? Of course. Scott, unfortunately, did not have the fallback of relief expeditions, telecommunications or helicopters to help him out. At the end of the day, he was in the most inhospitable place on earth in 1912. And he did, admittedly, have extremely bad luck, especially with the weather. When he was planning his expedition, it was to be a full, extensive scientific trip as much as anything. The Pole was clearly a priority, but not the only one, and certainly not one which had to be reached as fast as was possible - he could take his time, as much as the Antarctic seasons allowed. To be told when en route to his destination that he had what essentially turned out to be a race on his hands, must have been the most crushing blow imaginable. Yet he carried on as he only could: it would have been impossible to replan at that stage. Amundsen had only one goal in mind - his entire expedition was planned around getting to the Pole as fast as possible and back again. How could anyone on a scientific expedition compete at short notice with that? Scott remains in my mind a great inspiration, a sensitive and passionate man, a compelling writer and a flawed but respected leader. Long may he continue to inspire the generations to come.

As you scholars of the subject will already know, Scott wrote in his prospectus that "the main objective of this expedition is to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of that achievement." But he also wrote that he had scientific aims that made "bagging the Pole merely an item in these results," which muddies the waters slightly about what his priorities were. I don't feel able to judge whether Amundsen "cheated" by concealing his intentions, but Scott was surely guilty of complacency at the least if he thought he had unlimited time in which to get to the Pole. Amundsen had one aim and he stuck to it, even if he was pilloried for it afterwards. But as you point out Louisa, I'm no expert. Thanks for these very interesting and erudite commentaries anyway.

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