Darwin docudrama debuts this week

Ferns Productions, the Canadian prodco behind 2007's Australian/Canadian coproduction Captain Cook: Obsession and Discovery has teamed up with Screen Australia for a new project, this time lending the docudrama treatment to Charles Darwin.
October 28, 2009

Ferns Productions, the Canadian prodco behind 2007′s Australian/Canadian coproduction Captain Cook: Obsession and Discovery has teamed up with Screen Australia for a new project, this time lending the docudrama treatment to Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s Brave New World is a coproduction between the Victoria, B.C.-based Ferns, Artarmon-based Screenworld, and Screen Australia in association with ABC, CBC and ZDF-Arte, with the support of BC Film, the Canadian Television Fund and Screen New South Wales. It’s more than a mouthful to say, but according to Ferns exec producer Andrew Ferns, putting the three-part series together was a relatively smooth process. Ferns Productions’ president/EP Pat Ferns brought what was then Film Australia an idea concerning Darwin’s voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, developed by EP Rupert Macnee. As it happened, the Australian body had just optioned the book Darwin’s Armada by Professor Iain McCalman. ‘We basically did a mash-up of the two projects to improve on the model we started with Cook,’ says Ferns.

After 67 days of shooting both dramatic footage and interviews with scholars around the world, the process of melding the dramatic elements with the documentary aspect began. ‘It was a matter of trying to take advantage of the environments and bring those into the story because it is very much a journey through exotic parts of the world that Darwin had only dreamed about at that point,’ says Ferns. ‘So we tried to bring that into it and use it to segue to the present day. We also used a fair amount of CGI and created a graphical language for trying to explain things like the changing of species and variation and collection.’ Ferns estimates the ratio of drama to documentary for the series to be 70/30.

Indeed, the main challenge for the producers came when ARTE and ZDF asked for more episodes than the three that were planned for. ‘Fortunately, we shot an absolute wealth of material dramatically and on the doc side,’ says Ferns. ‘I have to say that while the three-parter is a ripping yarn and really has a great pace to it, I think the five-part version is the enhanced, or definitive story we wanted to tell.’

With 2009 being effectively the Year of Darwin (it being the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species), the amount of material produced about the Father of Evolution this year has been staggering, including Nat Geo’s recent entrance into the scripted realm via a Darwin project, Darwin’s Darkest Hour. Ferns says Darwin’s Brave New World (starring Australian actor Socratis Otto as Darwin, pictured) stands apart from the pack as it examines the origins of Darwin’s ‘dangerous idea’ – specifically, the impact his time in the Southern Hemisphere had upon him and the impact of fellow scientists Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace, all of who had important experiences in the region, upon the dissemination of his controversial, earth-shaking theory.

The three-part series, narrated by David Suzuki, receives a theatrical premiere in Vancouver this evening (Oct. 28) and then premieres on CBC’s The Nature of Things on Sunday, Nov. 1. Ferns says it’s expected to air next in Australia on ABC on Nov. 8, and then the UK on the 24th. Air dates in France and Germany are to be announced.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news editor at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joined the RS team in 2015 with experience in journalism following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and with communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.