Skip to content

After The Crown, step forward Roald Amundsen

November 27, 2020

What does the British Royal Family have in common with a famous polar explorer?

The other day I wrote about The Crown, and how I was avoiding it because it appears to portray certain members of the British royal family in an unflattering light based on hearsay at worst, and one-sided reporting at best.

None of us were privy to conversations between Prince Charles and Earl Mountbatten. And none of us, as far as I’m aware, shared a bedroom with Charles and Diana. What’s more, the surviving protagonists feel unable to respond to what they might see as falsehoods because they feel that it would be beneath their dignity to do so.

Instead, the veracity of their portrayal becomes a subject of debate between proxies: courtiers, journalists and politicians who have an axe to grind. But our tendency to believe what we see on TV extends far and wide. An example of this comes from the United States. I recently started following a guy in Twitter called Michael Cohen. No, not that Michael Cohen, but another one who happens to be a journalist with the Boston Globe. He has this to say about The Crown:

This week I started watching “The Crown” and I’m pleased to see that it has confirmed my life-long loathing of the British Royal Family … so (no?) self-respecting democracy should have a monarchy. I also find it really odd that the most sympathetic character is Prince Philip, which also says a lot about the competition.

Also, I know it’s a bit of a caricature but I didn’t quite realize how awful Maggie Thatcher was in general .. it’s a pretty good show considering all the characters have virtually no redeeming qualities.

Then someone else chimes in with:

I agree. The way they treated Dianna who was obviously unwell and it was so depressing to watch that. Cruel institution and cruel people.

And so on. At least the series serves the purpose of confirming a few prejudices.

And isn’t that what historians do with dead people all the time? Balancing accounts from the time, believing some and not others and coming to a view, not just based on contemporary sources but spiced with the benefit of hindsight.

Which brings us to Roald Amundsen, who is definitely a dead person. The other night, BBC4 showed a Norwegian biopic of the man who led the first successful expedition to the South Pole. We British don’t come over very well in this movie, and neither does Amundsen, which perhaps is a tribute to the self-effacing Norwegian character.

Those who are familiar with the story will know of the rivalry between Amundsen and Captain Robert Scott, both of whom led expeditions to the South Pole at roughly the same time. Scott and his team were not only beaten to the Pole by Amundsen, but died on the journey back. Amundsen succeeded because he emulated the Arctic Inuit and used sleigh dogs, whereas Scott used ponies and mechanised transport, neither of which was well-adapted to the conditions. This left Scott and his team to drag their own sleighs, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

There’s a striking scene in the movie in which Amundsen, after his return from the South Pole, is invited to a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society in London. There he has to listen to an appallingly rude address by the chairman, Lord Curzon, who in effect argues that Amundsen didn’t play the game, that Scott was a shining example of British fortitude, and that the heroes of Amundsen’s expedition were not the explorers themselves, but their dogs, many of which were good enough to allow themselves to be eaten so that Amundsen could succeed.

I’m not sure where that story came from. Perhaps from his autobiography, which the movie suggests was full of score-settling. But I find it hard to believe that the chairman of a seemingly reputable society of scientists and explorers would behave in such a discourteous and appallingly bombastic way.

Maybe it happened. Maybe it didn’t. But my instinctive reaction was to be offended by the suggestion that my countrymen could have openly displayed the kind of sour grapes attitude that we so often pin on other countries.

Amundsen himself didn’t come over particularly well from the movie. Undoubtedly courageous and determined, he also appeared vain, ruthless and uncaring for the welfare of his team. His treatment of his elder brother, who supported him through thick and thin until he finally despaired of having to go into debt in order to fund Roald’s expensive expeditions was, if true, petty and vindictive.

Evidence both from The Crown and Amundsen does suggest, though, that there are plenty of people around the world willing to believe bad things about my country, whether or not they’re grounded in truth.

Nothing new in this. Hollywood has long portrayed a species of Brits as buttoned-up, treacherous cads, George Sanders and a plethora of Bond villains being prime examples.

But what a shame that in so many ways our bungling, amoral government, screwing up the COVID response, awarding fat PPE supply contracts to cronies and threatening to break international law as they push us towards the Brexit cliff face in the middle of an unprecedented financial crisis, provides evidence on a daily basis that serves to strengthen those prejudices.

Oh well. I supposed I must be prejudiced too. All lies, right?

From → Film, History, Politics, UK

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: