Like many people, during lockdown 1.0 I lost all concentration. I lost my reading mojo, and I just switched to easy watches. Heavy crime drama wasn’t doing it for me.
But then, somehow, I began to catch up in the autumn and winter and one of the series I really enjoyed was The Terror. The tale of a mid-19th century ship whose voyage took them into uncharted waters somewhere in Canada, it told the story of a crew terrorised by demons of both the physical and the mental. It was a disturbing, often psychedelic and hypnotic watch.
And now we have The North Water, another series that threatens to chart the descent into madness of a crew on a mid-19th century ship.
Based on the novel by Ian McGuire and starring the likes of Stephen Graham, Jack O’Connell and Colin Farrell, I was stealing myself for a goodie.
And a goodie it was.
This first episode dripped with grime and grit and fury, the mid-18th streets of Hull and then the Shetlands caked in filth. We first met Patrick Sumner (O’Connell) attempting to gain passage on a whaling mission. Chatting to the ship’s captain – a Mr Brownlee (Graham) – there was tension behind the bonhomie ad Sumner attempted to explain his medical experience and, as it turned out, conceal past trauma from his years as a soldier in the Indian colonial wars.
Brownlee knew he was lying about his backstory, but needed men. If not good men, men at least.
But Brownlee was hiding something too. As he met with shipping magnate Baxter (Sir Tom Courtenay), he was told in no uncertain terms to destroy the boat to get the insurance money.
So already the mission of The Volunteer was doomed from the start.
We also met a Mr Henry Drax (Farrell), a heavy, shambling, mumbling, violent drunk – and ace harpoonist – who, by the end of the episode, had displayed a full array of violence and malevolence. We saw him murder a man in the back streets of Hull for failing to buy him a drink.
With all of these different characters onboard the ship something was bound to go wrong.
This first episode laid the foundations for that confrontation. Drax literally chomping at the bit to kill any animal that came into his path, his bloodlust insatiable. Those poor seals really got it.
As for Sumner, by this time soaked in laudanum to take the memories away, he was already making an enemy out of Drax.
So we have it all to play for. But as handsome and as cinematic as it logged, there felt like there was an impenetrable heart to this – something hard, metallic and black-as-night. Men thrust together. Men going slowly mad. At least with The Terror there seemed to be a human heart a trust in the virtue of men, however bleak the story became.