All3Media Group-owned producer Lion Television joined an expedition to find a famous shipwreck: a discovery that had eluded five previous expeditions. Here, Lion managing director Richard Bradley describes the thrill, and the potential risks, in making the factual history special Franklin’s Lost Ships.
It is always a challenge for broadcasters to describe the ideas they are looking for. Understandably they often fall back on adjectives: big, fresh, appointment-to-view – as if anyone wanted to make small, stale and take-it-or-leave-it TV. But another word that often comes up is “risky.” It has a frisson – in risk lies possibility. But is that really what they want?
Risk involves possible failure. And failure in television is very expensive and very public. That’s one reason formats became so irresistible: guaranteed outcomes, guaranteed – if often manufactured – drama. Over years of production, I’ve learned that when broadcasters say this, what they really mean is the appearance of risk but with the guarantee of success. Occasionally, we see real, jaw-dropping risk – Nick Wallenda walking blindfolded between skyscrapers, the world record space jump, crashing a plane in the desert. I take my hat off to everyone involved for their collective cojones but it is very rare.
We used to take real risks all the time. Every fly-on-the-wall documentary maker was taking a risk entering into the unknown. Commissioners would quiz you about what was going to happen – and of course you didn’t really know, because it hadn’t happened yet. But you couldn’t blame them. We have all have seen them – the investigative programs promising to reveal a tomb to rival King Tut’s, or the legendary Sodom and Gomorrah – with the tense build-up that eventually evaporates when nothing has been found, the narrator says that time has run out and then offers the disappointing promise that they “will be back.”
Thus, when our development team discovered last summer that the biggest search to date for the lost ships of Sir John Franklin was about to set off, we had some serious risk assessment to do. We could get on board but we would need to decide immediately. Were we in or out?
Aficionados of maritime mysteries (and most Canadians) will need no introduction to the story – two state-of-the-art ships set sail to the Arctic in 1845 with 129 men on board under Captain Franklin, in search of the Northwest Passage and never to return. It is a mystery with everything – enigmatic grave stones, frozen exhumed bodies, rumors of lead poisoning and madness, evidence of cannibalism – but in 170 years, no sign of the ships.
Five previous expeditions had yielded almost nothing, so this was pretty high on the Richter risk scale. On the other hand, this foray was part of the sixth year of a massive multi-agency search led by the Canadian government, Parks Canada, and the Canadian Royal Geographical Society involving ice-breakers, helicopters, state-of-the-art underwater subs scanning every inch of the sea floor – if anyone might succeed it was this team. They had the knowledge, the kit and the motivation. So were we in or out?
Even a trimmed down team would take us into the tens of thousands of pounds. In the end, the tale was so strong and iconic – and the Arctic expedition sounded so thrilling – we decided to gamble.
We moved to have our ace PD Ben Finney and cameraman Liam Ayres embedded on an ice-breaker moving through the Arctic ice and fog, while in London we sat by our phones and computers and waited. Bar a polar bear sighting and the rescue of a small sailing vessel dangerously adrift, there was little to report. The ice was perilous and when it was safe to get the sub in the water the scans were revealing nothing.
Day after day of waiting became weeks. Costs were mounting. Back in London it began to feel like a rather expensive and unwise punt. The thick sea ice had foiled one part of the search, but a second team had been searching a site further south based on Inuit evidence of a sighting.
And then it came, a day or two after the scheduled end of the expedition – an enigmatic email saying: “It looks like there is some good news.” And then another shortly after that, promising very good news indeed.
Amid great secrecy, we gleaned that the search team had first found a large piece of metal from a ship’s crane and shortly afterward, in just 11 meters of water, they’d found the astonishingly well-preserved wreck of Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus.
In a flurry of excitement, the prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, announced the find. The news flashed around the world. And the next day, the phone rang off the hook with broadcasters who’d heard about the find, and then discovered Lion TV were the only team on board. What a pleasant change to have the broadcasters pursuing us! Very soon we had a fantastic international line-up of broadcasters – C4, PBS ‘Nova,’ CBC and Radio Canada – with All3Media International picking up the rest of the world.
So what have we learned from this? Well, it’s not going to turn us overnight into hardcore gamblers. The stakes are too high and the costs too great. But sometimes, if it feels right and the consequences of failure won’t bring the bailiffs around, it’s worth taking a flutter. You never know – you might dig up a king in a car park, or find a ship under the ice….
Franklin’s Lost Ships is a copro with 90th Parallel Productions, Channel 4, CBC, Radio Canada, PBS ‘Nova’ and All3Media International.
- This viewpoint feature first appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.