The exploits of Oates and Shackleton and their ilk have been ripe comedy territory in the past, says Roger Cox. But this year’s shows are just as in awe of the intrepid explorers as amused by them
ON 16 MARCH 1912, Captain Oates sallied forth into the teeth of an Antarctic blizzard with the immortal words: “I am just going outside and may be some time,” deliberately ending his own life in the hope that his three freezing, starving companions might stand a better chance of surviving without him.
It was an incredible act of self-sacrifice – perhaps the most selfless act in the entire history of polar exploration. But what he couldn’t possibly have suspected as he plodded off into the icy darkness was that his solemn last words and subsequent demise would also be a boon to the comedians of the future – a gift that would keep on giving throughout the second half of the 20th century and well into the 21st.
Stewart Lee and Richard Herring famously made Oates a running joke in their 1990s TV series Fist of Fun. In one skit, having bravely stepped outside the tent, apparently for the last time, Oates keeps popping his head back inside, saying things such as: “You realise it’s really cold out here – if I stay out just a couple of minutes I’ll probably die and everything.”
In a similar vein, sketch troupe The Penny Dreadfuls performed a lip-bitingly good routine about Oates as part of their 2006 Fringe show, Aeneas Faversham, and his story has been played for laughs in a whole slew of sitcoms, from Are You Being Served? to Red Dwarf and Peep Show.
The fact is, from the ironic, post-postmodern standpoint of today, the bold, bearded heroes of the Age of Exploration appear hilariously outdated. Their high-minded patriotism seems ridiculous, their steely determination in the face of apparently insurmountable odds seems ridiculous and, yes, their willingness to embrace death unflinchingly – even cheerfully – just to help fill in a few blank spaces on the map seems ridiculous.
It should come as no surprise, then, to find a couple of acts on this year’s Fringe tapping into this rich seam of comedy; what is surprising, however, is the amount of respect with which they treat their subjects.
Tim FitzHigham and Tiernan Douieb’s family-friendly show The Adventurers Club – The Great Arctic Caper takes audiences back to the 18th century, telling the story of Sir John Franklin and his attempts to discover the elusive Northwest Passage. Given some of the more unsavoury rumours surrounding Franklin’s final expedition, you might expect a few references to cannibalism, but apparently there aren’t any.
“We didn’t really dare mention that,” says FitzHigham, “although that’s probably the thing about the story the kids would love the most. But what we do tell them, of course, is that John Franklin once survived by eating his own shoes.
When he got back to London, one of the newspapers had the headline: ‘Explorer survives by eating his own shoes,’ which is automatically funny: the word ‘shoes’ is funny, and the sheer desperation of the situation is funny. This was a guy who had lost all bar seven of his expedition. More than 140 men died, and Franklin and the other six survived by eating the only nutritional thing that was left.
“Comedy, they say, is just one stage removed from tragedy, and I think there’s a lot in that. Franklin’s story is a hideous and horrible tragedy, but it happened almost 200 years ago and so now we can look at it and perhaps be that one stage removed from it and go, ‘No no – this is hilarious – this guy survived by eating, essentially, Clarks’.”
FitzHigham is something of an adventurer himself, although his expeditions tend to be carried out in the name of comedy rather than for the glory of the British Empire. For previous solo shows at the Fringe he has rowed across the English Channel in a bath, paddled a paper canoe 160 miles down the River Thames and traversed a desert wearing a suit of armour. His one-man show this year, Gambler (for grown-ups only) is based on his attempts to accomplish similarly silly yet also genuinely arduous feats just because people bet him he couldn’t.
Perhaps it’s because of all the suffering he’s subjected himself to over the years that he has so much respect for the explorers of yesteryear – and perhaps that’s why he’s so reluctant to lampoon some of the famous adventurers who came after Franklin.
When asked at what point in history it became OK to laugh at Captain Oates, he says: “It’s difficult to say, because to some people it’s still quite tragic. That’s why we’ve picked Franklin and the 19th-century explorers to look at because I think if you get too close to us, people start getting less able to laugh. That’s why they stopped Blackadder at the First World War because they began to think, ‘Actually, we’re getting quite close’.
“I think Scott of the Antarctic is a classic example and Shackleton the same – they’re slightly too close to the present day for some people to be able to laugh at the subject matter.”
All of which sounds like bad news for Irish comedian David O’Doherty, whose show David O’Doherty Presents: Rory Sheridan’s Tales Of The Antarctica is inspired by the story of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition of 1914-17. Like FitzHigham, however, O’Doherty isn’t merely out to milk his subject for easy laughs – his comedy springs from a more interesting, more respectful place.
“I dunno why, but the two heroes in my life have always been Shackleton and Stephen Roche, the Irish cyclist who won the 1987 Tour de France,” he says. “Roche once said, ‘There are 200 better cyclists than me at the moment but I’m just capable of pushing myself to the furthest limits of pain’. It was the same with Shackleton. He never claimed to be much good at anything – he just gave it a bloody good go.”
O’Doherty says he also drew inspiration from Aidan Dooley’s Fringe First-winning 2006 show Tom Crean – Antarctic Explorer, which told the story of how the titular sailor, an Irishman mostly overlooked by historians, had played a key part in the expeditions of both Scott and Shackleton.
“The show was set in 1917,” he says. “It was all first person stuff and it lured you in so much that some nights there were six-year-olds in the audience who actually thought he was from 1917. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is one of the best things I’ve ever seen’. But then my comedic instinct kicked in and I thought, ‘Do you know what? This would make an incredible template for a stupid comedy show.'”
O’Doherty grew up in the same area of Dublin that Shackleton did, just a five-minute walk from the explorer’s house in Marlborough Street. “He would have played football in the same park as me and gone running on the same beach as me,” he says. “And the intriguing thing was always: why would someone who did these things want to go to the South Pole?”
Rory Sheridan’s Tales of the Antarctica is an attempt to answer that question of motivation, but from a contemporary perspective. “The character of Rory Sheridan has no business going to Antarctica,” he says. “He only goes there to impress a girl. That seems to be why people do ridiculous things generally these days, and I’m sure there was an element of that back then. I’m sure a lot of them wanted to go for bizarre reasons, because they owed money, their fathers hated them or they’d been spurned by a woman. Those are the stories I’m interested in.”
Like O’Doherty, FitzHigham is also fascinated by the question of what drove the adventurers of previous centuries. “You have to remember that at the time these men were going out, we had only mappe d a third of the globe,” he says. “These guys were trying to work out how the world connected up, how the people of the world connected up, and I think that must have been hugely exciting – although, of course, by the same token, some of the stuff they did was utterly ridiculous.”