sat 19/01/2019

Britain's Whale Hunters: The Untold Story, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Britain's Whale Hunters: The Untold Story, BBC Four

Britain's Whale Hunters: The Untold Story, BBC Four

Adam Nicolson's harrowing history of mass slaughter on the ocean wave

Adam Nicolson in Norway, aboard a restored Antarctic whale-catching vessel

Before the Vikings came to Britain there was no whaling, though coastal-dwellers would avail themselves of any beached strays by chopping them up for their meat and oil. It was the bellicose Norsemen who imported the notion of actively pursuing the creatures, which is how the pilot whale hunt became a tradition in Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. A line of boats would drive the whales into the shallows, where they were slaughtered by the islanders.

It was the shape of all manner of hideous things to come, and it wasn't easy to sit through this first part of Adam Nicolson's history of whaling and Britain's role in it. Early on, Nicolson stressed that he would be "examining it through the eyes of its own time," in other words before killing whales became a metaphor for mankind's potentially suicidal destruction of the natural world. We're supposed to accept that our forebears hadn't evolved beyond considering all animals to be "dumb" and whales as mere harpoon-fodder for storm-tossed whaling folk (below, a humpback whale).

That certainly wasn't the case in the final years of the British whaling industry though, which only ended as recently as 1965. Nicolson had rounded up some Scottish veterans who still vividly recalled their time at the huge whaling base of Leith Harbour on South Georgia, on the edge of Antarctica, where the slicing, peeling, chopping, sawing and boiling down of the great cetaceans was carried out with production-line efficiency ("they processed whales like Ford make cars," as Nicolson put it).

These venerable seafarers admitted that their work had given them pangs of conscience. "You couldn't help wincing when that harpoon went in, because that is a living animal," said one. "They have feelings just the same as we do as far as pain is concerned." One of his compatriots concurred. "When you hit them they cried really, and I felt that," he added.

All this cast a doomy and sickening light over Nicolson's film, even though it was in many ways a fascinating and even enlightening slab of history. It was intriguing to learn that destruction of the environment is by no means an entirely new phenomenon, since at the start of the 20th century the British government was already concerned that whales would be wiped out in the Southern Ocean as they'd already been in the northern hemisphere (you could once stand on the white cliffs of Dover and routinely watch whales frolicking in the Channel). His archive film of old whaling ships and seamen, and flickery footage of them hunting at sea, was like an alternative version of the story of the American West and the murderous mythology of the Wild Frontier.

It all came home to roost as Nicolson picked his way through the ghostly ruins of Leith Harbour (pictured left, circa 1950), the rusting remains of whale-oil tanks and all the ghastly paraphernalia of dismemberment overlooked by steepling, snowy cliffs and wild ocean. It was "a melancholy place," he observed, rather unnecessarily. It was, appropriately, reminiscent of the polar base in John Carpenter's movie The Thing, where all the scientists get annihilated by a shape-shifting alien.

As it happens, Nicolson had gone to South Georgia with a team of boffins who were making a 3D map of the whole settlement as a historical record. One evening they watched a film about Leith Harbour in the 1950s, when everybody seemed to be permanently waist-deep in slithery blubber and bloody whale meat. "It seems like a sin," said one of the technicians. "Such a beautiful animal and man's doing that."

'You couldn't help wincing when that harpoon went in, because that is a living animal,' said one whaling veteran

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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