Things are ‘all at sea’ in The North Water

Friday: The North Water; (BBC2, 9.30pm)
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If you like maritime dramas, you’re in luck – no sooner has BBC1 launched its nuclear-submarine thriller Vigil, then BBC2 comes along with its own ship-set series, The North Water.

Of course, the two dramas are very different. While Vigil is contemporary, The North Water is set in the late 1850s. But it’s equally highly anticipated, not least because of its amazing cast, which includes Colin Farrell, Jack O’Connell, Stephen Graham and Tom Courtenay.

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Then there’s the source material. The series has been adapted by director Andrew Haigh from the acclaimed novel by Ian McGuire.

Webster, Joseph Hannah , Mckendrick, Otto, Henry Drax, Cavendish, Jones, Patrick Sumner and Captain BrownleeWebster, Joseph Hannah , Mckendrick, Otto, Henry Drax, Cavendish, Jones, Patrick Sumner and Captain Brownlee
Webster, Joseph Hannah , Mckendrick, Otto, Henry Drax, Cavendish, Jones, Patrick Sumner and Captain Brownlee

The story follows Patrick Sumner (O’Connell), a disgraced ex-army surgeon who signs up as a ship’s doctor on a whaling expedition to the Arctic. As you’d expect, the conditions are tough as Patrick finds himself battling the elements. But his crewmates are equally ferocious, in particular harpooner Drax (Farrell).

If you’re used to seeing Farrell in Hollywood movies – his CV includes everything from Minority Report and Miami Vice to the live-action remake of Dumbo – then his physical appearance in The North Water may initially come as something of a surprise.

However, the actor has downplayed his transformation. He says: “It was fairly clear on reading the book that Drax was an explicitly described character, physically, there was a power to his body… a certain brute strength that he has, and the confidence of a man who carries himself with a keen awareness of that brute strength.

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“I just put on weight – I ate and ate that’s all. Anyone could do it really, although I wouldn’t advise it.”

He does admit though that filming The North Water was a life-changing experience, largely because it was shot on location in the Arctic, on the frozen seas north of the Svalbard Archipelago. The cast and production team sailed as far as 81 degrees north to film sequences in the pack ice – it’s believed to be the furthest point north a drama series has ever filmed.

Farrell compares it to making Alexander, the 2004 Oliver Stone film about the life of Alexander the Great in which he took the lead role. He says: “Alexander was a very extreme experience, not just in terms of how brutally it was ravaged by the critics. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to have [the experience] in film where you go through the fire enough with people that you know that if you see them in 10 or 30 years… you’ll have a look and within that look you’ll share the acknowledgement that you went through something that was really significant, really profound and really changed you.

“I would say without hesitation that [The North Water] was one of those very few and rare experiences.”

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He puts this down to the Arctic. The actor says: “Just the space, the vastness of it, the beauty of it and the silence… When we talk about humans’ insignificance in the face of nature – it was very much that every single day.”

But while that may have bonded the cast of The North Water, the opening episode suggests it will have a very different effect on the characters.

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