wed 19/06/2024

Words of Everest, ITV | reviews, news & interviews

Words of Everest, ITV

Words of Everest, ITV

The conquest of the world's highest place simply retold in words and pictures

Knocking the bastard off: actors reenact the conquest of Everest, possibly not on the mountain itself

In an average lifetime a human being sits in front of the television for around 29,035 hours. Why? Because it’s there. OK, so the precise statistic is a guess. The figure, like the answer, is more correctly associated with the great outdoors. George Mallory, explaining why he wanted to conquer a mountain nowadays measuring at 29,035 feet, responded with pithy insouciance.

If you happened to be parked in front of the gogglebox as his story was told in Words of Everest, this was one hour not wasted.

It’s a simple idea to take historic testimony written by the intrepid men of yesteryear, lob in a few actors in vaguely period kit, and marry them up with archive footage. Last year Captain Scott got the same treatment on the centenary of his death. It being 60 years since the conquest of Everest (and of course the coronation), it was the turn of Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay. But rather than confine itself to one iconic expedition, Words of Everest wove the story of 1953 together with that of 1924, when Mallory and the young toff Andrew Irvine very possibly summited, to use the modern verb-noun, before plunging thousands of feet to their deaths.

The two narratives came from very different directions – literally, given that Nepal was a closed kingdom in the Twenties, requiring a four-week trek through Tibet to the north side of the mountain. Three decades later they came at Everest from the south. The colour footage of the later expedition made a stark contrast with the much rarer black and white images (pictured above) from 1924. Equipment had come on a long way – Hillary unlike Mallory had better access to oxygen supplies, and was not required to clamber up into the so-called death zone clad in tweed.

But if pictures stressed the difference between pre- and post-war worlds, the words said even more. The expedition lexicon of 1924, still marinaded in Edwardian dilettanteism, was more what-ho than gung-ho. As the weather closed in, expedition leader Edward Norton talked of snatching “a fleeting chance in some fine interval”. “It’s 50 to one against us,” added Mallory in a letter to his widow-to-be, “but we’ll have a whack yet and do ourselves proud.” This is essentially Captain Scott at 8000 metres. Compare and contrast with the Kiwi beekeeper Hillary 30 years on (voiced by Jason Flemyng, pictured below): “We knocked the bastard off.” (Not that this famous phrase was quoted here.)

Words of Everest had much of the DNA of superb radio. Voiced by Toby Jones, James Morris, The Times correspondent who rushed the coded scoop home in time for the coronation, summoned a chilly vision of Everest base camp: “too dead and aloof for beauty, rather as if some dread disease had passed this way killing everything in sight to be followed by some giant instrument for hygiene.” (If you want more of Jan Morris on this, listen to Radio 3’s lovely recent interview in her home in North Wales.)

Not all the poets were Oxbridge-educated: Benedict Wong, recently seen playing Ai Weiwei at Hampstead Theatre, voiced Tensing: “The sky was the deepest blue I have ever seen,” he said at the top. The forbidding Chomolungma, as the mountain was better known to him, softened under his feet. “She was a mother hen, and the other mountains were chicks under her wings.”

Nowadays commercial climbing has turned Everest into the highest high street on the planet, home to countless frost-bitten corpses including Mallory's. Why do the less intrepid of us do our exploring on the sofa? Because it's here.


The expedition lexicon of 1924, still marinaded in Edwardian insouciance, was more what-ho than gung-ho


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters