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FOUR SEASONS: THE COMEDY AND THE TRAGEDY OF CAPTAIN SCOTT

Published: The Scotsman (STMag) 21 January 2012

THE line between tragedy and comedy can sometimes be a fine one, and that’s certainly the case when it comes to discussing the fate of Sir Robert Falcon Scott, aka Scott of the Antarctic aka Old Mooney (nope, I’m not making that last bit up – it’s what Scott’s father used to call him on account of his proclivity for daydreaming). The death of Scott and his men on their doomed quest to become the first people to reach the South Pole is almost indescribably tragic, yet it’s also been spoofed by countless comedians, from Stewart Lee and Richard Herring to Edinburgh sketch troupe the Penny Dreadfuls. It’s almost as if their tragedy is so great, so iconic, so perfect, that poking fun at it has become a monumental taboo – which, of course, makes the jokes even funnier.

Scott reached the Pole on 17 January 1912 (he got there a few weeks after some Norwegian blighter, in case you haven’t heard, dying on the way back) and this week, to mark the 100th anniversary of his achievement, various happenings kicked off around the country.

On board the Discovery, the ship now moored in Dundee that Scott used for his earlier 1901-3 expedition to Antarctica, there’s a new exhibition called The Race to the Pole, featuring photos taken during the winter of 1911-12 and various pieces of memorabilia from the long march south including, rather poignantly, a cake belonging to Captain Oates. The Discovery will also host a specially commissioned play about Scott by Oliver Emanuel, which runs from 7-11 February.

Down the road in Edinburgh, meanwhile, the National Library of Scotland has just launched a show entitled Scott’s Last Expedition, comprising letters and scientific books written by members of his party. There are commemorative posters and postcards, too, and without meaning to, one of these cards perfectly encapsulates our society’s starkly contrasting attitudes to Scott and everything he represents. Billed as an “advertising postcard” for Fry’s Cocoa – an early example of junk mail, in other words – it somehow manages to be both profoundly upsetting and hilariously funny all at the same time.

The somewhat romanticised painting reproduced on it shows three men striking heroic poses in a wild, snowy landscape, surrounded by sledges and sled dogs. Sitting in a prominent position on the front of the lead sledge are a couple of large tins of Fry’s Cocoa. A banner at the top of the picture proudly proclaims: “Fry’s Pure Cocoa and Chocolate – With Captain Scott at the South Pole”.

If you think about this image one way, it’s desperately sad. Here are these brave, patriotic men, thousands of miles from home, risking their lives for a lost cause they don’t even know is lost yet and about to have a well-earned drink of cocoa – something familiar and domestic which, after the unreality of slogging through a featureless white landscape all day, will no doubt bring them back to earth with a jolt, reminding them of their families back home, and how very far away they are.

Looked at in a slightly less sympathetic light, however, the card is pure, unintentional comedy genius – an advertising own goal of epic proportions. Not only have Fry’s gone and associated their brand with a failed expedition, they’ve shackled themselves to an expedition that failed largely because the men involved didn’t have enough calories to see them over the finish line. It’s a bit like making an ad saying “Walkers ironmongers – our rivets held the Titanic together” or “Chubb fire extinguishers – proud sponsors of the Hindenburg airship”. A colossal PR own-goal.

Scholarly opinion about Scott has been divided for years, since Roland Huntford wrote The Last Place on Earth, drawing attention to Scott’s alleged errors of judgement, including his decision to have his men haul their sledges themselves rather than use dogs (Fry’s ad department please take note). Many have refuted Huntford’s claims, notably Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and it seems you’re either with Scott or against him. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and by the same token I think it’s OK to have mixed emotions about what Scott did. It’s OK to cry – but it’s OK to laugh too.

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