Trouble at Sea: The perilous journey of The Voyage of Charles Darwin (1978)

Mark Fryers, University of East Anglia

12 September 2017


The seven-part drama series The Voyage of Charles Darwin was the BBC’s flagship production in 1978 (released on DVD 2014), tracing the scientist’s rise from youth to old age and centring on his voyage of discovery on the HMS Beagle, during which he formulated his theory of natural selection Produced by Christopher Ralling, written by scientist Robert Reid and directed by Martyn Friend it also featured sequences filmed by Ned Kelly of the natural history unit. It therefore offered the perfect combination of the BBC’s greatest virtues- the costume drama and the wildlife documentary. Indeed, it was universally praised by critics who commended it as a rare example of licence payer’s money being put to good use.  Chris Dunkley of the Financial Times summed up the view of critics suggesting that the series was ‘quite probably the best television production in the world in 1978’ and furthermore one which reflected the BBC charter: ‘it was “disseminating information, education and entertainment” all at once’ (20th December 1978). However, as the production files reveal, it was a long, expensive and onerous journey to find a suitable ship to replicate Darwin’s famous voyage in The Beagle, which despite the series’ critical adulation, perhaps suggests why maritime dramas featuring sailing ships were a scarce commodity on British screens in the following 30 years.

Figure 1: The opening titles offered a Darwinian view of the natural world

In the 1970s, the BBC was no stranger to the age of sail, with the series The Onedin Line, concerning a Victorian shipping Empire, running for nine popular seasons between 1971- 1980. It also produced a series about Cook’s voyages, The  Explorers, in 1975 and coverage of the annual tall ships race was always a popular fixture. Despite this, producers faced real challenges attempting to source authentic ships to replicate 19th Century sea travel. When it came to finding a ship to not only resemble the HMS Beagle but also seaworthy enough to replicate its journey along the coast of South America, it proved so difficult that there were genuine misgivings whether the programme could indeed be made.

Research was conducted at maritime museums and it was suggested to Ralling that Onedin’s flagship, ‘The Charlotte Rhodes’ be borrowed, but it proved too unlike the Beagle (noted as an ‘oddity’ in its construction according to the curator of the maritime museum in Newport, Rhode Island).  Indeed, all potentially available ships proved so unlike the Beagle that a drastic and costly solution was eventually decided upon. A ship, the Brigantine The Marques, was found and it was to be retrofitted in order to resemble The Beagle (a 10 gun Barque) which included converting the mast to a square rig, fitting false rigging, windows and cannon ports and building up the poop deck to include a cabin, to be completed in time for June 1977 (whilst fitting a suitable engine to make time on the voyage). This was a costly solution in that not only would the requisite craftsman be employed to ensure the ship was aesthetically accurate, but also it had to be seaworthy enough to make the sailing schedule, which began in Cornwall in July 1977, moved on to Salvador in Brazil, then onto Punta Arenas & Puerta Williams in Chile and finally the Galapagos Islands, before sailing home. Aligned to this was the necessity of employing experienced crew to pilot the vessel throughout (and suitable insurance costs for such an unusual venture).  In this, the BBC had been fortunate in forging a beneficial working relationship with the Admiralty for the contemporary Royal Naval drama series Warship (1973-77), for which ships, equipment and personnel were loaned on an industrial scale. The Navy certainly lent their assistance, but it came at a cost. A Navigation Officer and ordinary seamen were required and the Chief Sailmaker was employed from the Royal Naval Seamanship School in Portsmouth, yet as he would be away from the school for so long, he had to be suitably remunerated. Indeed, early correspondence in 1977 between the BBC and the Admiralty shows the former expressing surprise that they were being charged for the hire of items such as charts, inflatables and a radio transmitter. This is despite the suggestions of Robin Cecil-Wright (owner of The Marques) that they offer it as a training exercise for the Admiralty and an opportunity for publicity and promotion of its hydrography department- one of its ‘less glamorous branches’. In a letter to Ralling dated as far back 29th September 1976, Wright declared, ‘It has been extremely difficult and the costs involved are to me quite horrifying’.

These were not the only challenges the production faced, with the instability of the political climate also a consideration (Argentina in particular, for which northern Norway was considered as an alternative filming location). As Ralling concedes in a memo dated February 28th 1977. ‘It should be stressed that the dates [for schedule] are approximate, and may be subject to considerable alteration for unforeseen political, climatic or financial reasons’, also conceding that the venture may yet ‘prove impossible’. Technical Delays indeed did hit the expedition, with The Marques arriving late at both South American locations,  pushing the cost of conversion and extras for filming to a dangerous level, leading Rallings to concede that the production had ‘severely overspent’. There were continuing telegrams and letters flying back between South America and Television Centre contesting costing and budgetary issues. Indeed, the knock on-effect was felt on other productions such as Poldark losing money on lost filming as a result. This delayed the expedition by days at a time, which meant spending more money on the production, which increased the already generous budget.

In the end, as with any successful sea voyage, the challenges were overcome, and although the budget increased, it was still not extortionate for a flagship costume drama (no pun intended).  As we have seen, the critical reception confirmed this. Indeed, the ship itself became the central metaphor for the series. It is present in the very beginning as the prow of the boat dissolves into the punt young Charles is sailing on in Cambridge, as he drifts throughout his aimless younger years. In episode three, when Darwin is formulating his theory of evolution, he uses the Beagle as a metaphor for the natural order:

An activity as complex as sailing the Beagle clearly requires skill and coordination on the part of her crew. Yet I was observing activities in the natural world requiring an equal measure of skill, some indeed of infinitely greater complexity. Unless some other species were of equal intelligence to man [sic], then the only way they could perform such tasks must be through inherited instinct

When Darwin first encounters the Beagle in person he declares, “The vessel looked so beautiful, even a landsman would have had to admire her…the Beagle seemed to me to represent the very essence of excitement and adventure”. This attitude was also not lost on the critics, with Christopher Nicholson summing up the attitude, ‘The voyage was the magnificent centre- piece of the whole production. We got to know that little ship as none other that has sailed across the TV screen’ (Daily Mail, 13th December 1978).


Figures 2 and 3: In episode 1, the prow of the Beagle segues into an image of young Charles punting in Cambridge, enmeshing their respective destiny’s

The Voyage of Charles Darwin represented a bold and calculated risk on behalf of the BBC and one which not only thrilled audiences of the time, continues to stand up as an example of imaginative broadcasting. Others were not so fortunate. In 1980, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Sir Francis Drake’s 1577-80 circumnavigation of the globe, Westward Television put together a drama series, Drake’s Venture, which similarly retraced his voyage. For this production, a costly replica of Drake’s ship, ‘The Golden Hind’, was built from scratch. Although well-received, it was shown only once in the UK and on PBS in the United States and the drama remains unreleased, stuck in licensing disputes, whilst Westward lost their ITV licence the same year and folded. It was not until 1998, and ITV’s ambitious resurrection of Hornblower that a similar feat was attempted. This production also required a boat to be re-constructed, but by this time, CGI had begun to eliminate some of the general rigours associated with filming at sea. Thus, almost twenty years later, nautical TV dramas abound, undoubtedly buoyed by the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean films series, from The Last Ship (2014- ), through Black Sails (2014- ) to the recent BBC series Taboo (2017- ). However, one wonders whether current producers are faced with the same obstacles as Ralling & Friend faced whilst tracing Darwin’s steps, on their literal and metaphorical voyage of discovery.

Figure 4: The closing credits attested to the romance of the age of sail and the importance of The Beagle to both the production and in the genesis of Darwin’s iconoclastic theories

The trailer for The Voyage of Charles Darwin:

Newspaper sources courtesy of the BFI (page numbers unspecified). All other sources courtesy of the BBC Written Archives, Caversham: The Voyage of Charles Darwin production files, T64/472, with thanks to archivist Louise North for her expertise and assistance.

Dr Mark Fryers completed his AHRC-funded PhD in 2015 on British National Identity and maritime film and television and has since published articles and book chapters on, amongst others, The Onedin Line, Howards’ Way, To the Ends of the Earth, global maritime animation and the nautical spaces of gothic and horror film and television.

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  1. Thanks for drawing attention to this largely forgotten series, Mark, which I remember from your excellent PhD thesis.

  2. The very adventurous adventure film The Darwin Adventure [’71-72] is worth mentioning as a stablemate to the Darwin series. It was aired on BBC 2 in October 1982 and The Observer’s Philip French described it as ‘breathtaking’ in 2009. Directed by US naturalist Jack Couffer who filmed 60000 feet of nature scenes in pastoral and organic colours, it starred young handsome English actor Nicholas Clay, Ian Richardson, Tony Robinson and Rollo Gamble. Filmed in diverse and scattered locations from Spain to the Falkland Islands it epitomises the adventurism and manifold originality of early-’70s cinema. There was also series on the topic of Cook’s explorations in the ’80s starring Keith Michell.

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