A wonderful trend is developing in the world of TV drama commissioning. Someone at the top is saying, “I like things cold and I like things wet.” No sooner had the first season of the superlative nautical drama The Terror ended on the BBC (after being broadcast by AMC several years earlier) than the same channel announced The North Water, another superlative nautical drama, would also be coming to UK screens. If you like superlative nautical dramas, it’s very good news indeed.
The premises of the two programmes are so close it’s almost absurd. Based on novels set in the middle of the 19th century, the shows, both with essentially all-male casts, follow ships sailing doomed into frozen northern waters and ripped apart by ice and malevolent crew. The North Water is the story of Patrick Sumner (a fantastic Jack O’Connell), a surgeon court-martialled from the army and carrying a laudanum addiction. On board the whaling ship The Volunteer – which, unbeknown to him, is due to be scuttled by Captain Brownlee (Stephen Graham) for the insurance money – Sumner must reckon with a different crime, unheard of in the close confines of a whaling ship: a murder.
Chuckling, punching and looming over proceedings is the extremely hairy and extremely evil Henry Drax, a role that Colin Farrell embodies with a chilling authenticity. As Drax learns more of Sumner’s past, and Sumner realises that Drax will destroy anyone who gets in his way, The Volunteer becomes an even more terrifying place to be.
More unflinching than even The Terror in its portrayal of the details of a life at sea, The North Water horrifies as much as it engrosses you. We see seals clubbed to death and slit open, see men clubbed to death and slit open, and watch as the Arctic cold consumes the majority of the unfortunate crew. There is little hope here, and in Sumner we are given a narrator with Dr John Watson’s medical background and Sherlock Holmes’ rationalism: a man who resents the idea that everything must happen for a reason, and who feels almost as though he is warning the viewer not to take any moral from his godawful story.
As in The Terror, something jars ever so slightly when the characters are removed from their boats and either discover native communities or simply return to civilian life. Really what we want as viewers is for everyone to stay aboard the ship as things go from awful to sodding awful. The confines, as with so many shows set in a single location, are exactly what make the drama sing. But this is less a fault of the show than the novel on which it is based, whose success may not have relied so heavily on the sense of physical confinement.
For the most part, though its episodes are each an hour long, The North Water is wonderfully terrible and terribly wonderful. Its superb cast are testament to the quality of its script and cinematography. You won’t regret devoting five hours to this beauty. Let’s raise a glass to shows getting a great deal colder and a great deal wetter.
‘The North Water’ debuts on BBC Two this Friday September 10 at 9.30pm. All episodes will stream on BBC iPlayer from the same date