The North Water: Ian McGuire’s Arctic thriller comes to BBC Two with an all-star cast aboard

Jack O’Connell, Colin Farrell, Stephen Graham and Tom Courtenay sign up for an epic adaptation of the acclaimed novel about a whaling expedition that becomes a struggle for survival.

By Katie Archer Published: 5 September 2021 - 1.00am
BBC/Harpooner Films/Nick Wall Jack O’Connell and Stephen Graham in The North Water

An all-star cast is set to launch cinematic drama series The North Water - a highly anticipated adaptation of the Ian McGuire novel - on BBC Two.

Set between 1850s Hull and the Arctic Circle, it features a menacing tale of a whaling expedition and the rivalries between the crew that takes them on a dangerous mission.

Here’s all you need to know about the story, the cast, where it was filmed, and when you can expect to see it on TV.

What is The North Water about?

Based on the acclaimed novel by Ian McGuire, The North Water is set during the 1850s and tells the story of disgraced ex-Army surgeon Patrick Sumner.

Looking for a new calling, Summer signs up to join a whaling expedition to the Arctic - but soon discovers that there is more to worry about than just the harsh elements of the icy journey.

He is accompanied by a violent crew, including the brutal force of nature Drax, a harpooner who is also a murderous psychopath.

As the true nature of the expedition becomes clear to Patrick, a confrontation breaks out between the medic and the harpooner, taking them far from the safety of civilisation.

The North Water cast

Patrick Sumner – Played by Jack O’Connell

Jack O'Connell in The North Water BBC

Patrick Sumner is the ship’s doctor on board The Volunteer, a whaling ship sailing from Hull, bound for the North Water. He also has a laudanum addiction following time in India where he worked as an army surgeon.

O'Connell describes his character as "quite enigmatic".

"He was discharged from the Army under quite questionable circumstances," he explains.

"Was it necessarily all his wrongdoing? Did he deserve his discharge? Did he deserve to have his career completely upended? By the end of it, it’s a man trying to find his balance."

Where have you seen Jack O'Connell before?

Skins, This Is England, United

Henry Drax – Played by Colin Farrell

BBC/Harpooner Films/Nick Wall

Drax is one of the best harpooners around. Morality or decency matter little – but when his instincts and desires get him into trouble on The Volunteer, he has to fight for his own survival.

Farrell says of Drax: "He is incredibly intense to read and to play, in a joyful way, but he doesn’t consider himself to be intense at all.

"He’s just following his proclivities day to day, moment to moment, breath to breath.

"He’s been a harpooner probably for the majority of his life. I think that he finds a sense of purpose and a sense of meaning in life when he’s on the water, when he’s involved in the hunt, which more often than not culminates in the kill for him, because he’s very adept at what he does."

Where have you seen Colin Farrell before?

Ballykissangel, In Bruges, Minority Report

Captain Brownlee – Played by Stephen Graham

Stephen Graham in The North Water BBC

Brownlee is a whaling man and knows how to captain a ship through the perilous Arctic waters – but the whales are close to extinction. When the ship’s owner, Baxter, proposes a lucrative alternative plan for The Volunteer, Brownlee silences his conscience and follows the money.

Graham said of Brownlee: “He’s a man of integrity. He’s a whaler by trade, it’s in his blood. The character we created was that his dad was a whaler so he was always going to be a whaler. He always wanted to captain a ship and he did, and his first ship set sail and sank, so after not doing it for a while he comes back to captain ‘The Voyager’.”

Where have you seen Stephen Graham before?

This Is England, Line of Duty, Boardwalk Empire

In Spotlight: Stephen Graham’s best TV shows

Baxter – Played by Tom Courtenay

Tom Courtenay in The North Water BBC/Harpooner Films/Nick Wall
Veteran actor Tom Courtenay plays the ship’s owner, Baxter

Baxter is the owner of a fleet of whaling ships – but he knows the whaling trade is over and wants to cash out, even if it means risking the lives of the entire crew.

Two-time Academy Award nominee Courtenay revealed he enjoyed playing the role.

“The story is set in Hull, which happens to be my home town, in the late 1850s," he said.

"It’s near the end of the decline of the whaling industry and it’s very nice for me to be speaking with my native accent as a Hull ship owner called Baxter who feels that the bottom’s fallen out of whaling and so he wants to devise another way of making money.”

Where have you seen Tom Courtenay before?

Doctor Zhivago, A Rather English Marriage, Unforgotten

Cavendish – Played by Sam Spruell

Sam Spruell in The North Water BBC

Cavendish is employed by Baxter because he does what he’s told. He is in his element onboard – but once the ship arrives in the North Water, things spiral out of control and Cavendish finds himself in a position of authority.

“I play Michael Cavendish who is the first mate of the ship," said Spruell of his character.

"He, like a lot of the guys in the series is an alpha male, but actually the story of The North Water seems to be more interested in things about these men that aren’t alpha – the more emotional side of these characters or the more obvious psychological flaws in their armour, so to speak.

"I love my character actually. I think Cavendish is funny and optimistic, but he’s also cruel and self-centred. One thing about him that seems very clear is that he really wants the character Henry Drax to be his best friend."

Where have you seen Sam Spruell before?

The Hurt Locker, Snow White & The Huntsmen, Spooks

Otto – Played by Roland Møller

Roland Moller in The North Water BBC

Otto is a Danish harpooner. A deep thinker as well as physically strong, he bonds with Sumner. However, one day he shares a chilling premonition about the fate of the crew which is hard to ignore.

Where have you seen Roland Møller before?

Land of Mine, Atomic Blonde, The Commuter

Where was The North Water filmed?

The North Water BBC/Harpooner Films/Nick Wall

The story, adapted and directed by Andrew Haigh (45 Years, Looking), is set both in Hull and among the ice floes of the Arctic, and the production team spared no effort in finding and creating the most realistic set possible by venturing into the Arctic Circle itself.

Expect stunning scenes in pack ice as the cast and crew travelled as far as 81 degrees north to the Svalbard Archipelago, halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

It is the furthest point north a drama has ever been filmed - even Sky's psychological thriller Fortitude, set in Svalbard itself, only ventured as far as the east coast of Iceland for its location filming. 

Stephen Graham in The North Water BBC/Harpooner Films/Nick Wall

Stephen Graham, above, said of the experience: “Filming on the ship was an incredible experience and one that I will never forget.

“To be so privileged to see such beautiful animals like polar bears in their natural habitat - albeit it an ever-changing one, sadly - was truly remarkable."

Colin Farrell, meanwhile, found the filming experience intense to say the least. “I did feel that death was just around the corner at any given time, that we were just one mistake away from someone falling into the Arctic sea and either very quickly getting hypothermia or sinking under the weight of the waterlogged costume," he said.

“There were also polar bears around, that are beautiful and elegant and majestic but also apex predators. It was a very profound experience for us all to share. None of us had been up to that part of the world before, we were all seeing it with child’s eyes.

“We all went through whatever we went through individually, missing our children, our lovers, our wives or husbands, because we had no communication, no email… it’s only three or four weeks but three or four weeks in a world in which we’re so used to having such accessibility at our fingertips. I found it really hard not to be able to be in contact with my guys, but it certainly created a bond between us all.”

Director Andrew Haigh added: “Ian McGuire’s novel vividly evokes the brutal beauty of the Arctic environment and I knew I had to try and bring a similar realism to the show.

"Despite the obvious challenges, shooting in the Arctic seemed the very best option. I wanted us to feel the biting wind, the bitter cold. I wanted to capture that fear that comes from being so far from civilization.”

When is The North Water on TV?

The North Water will begin on BBC Two on Friday, September 10 at 9.30pm.

All five episodes will be made available as a box set on iPlayer on the same day, but will air weekly on BBC Two.

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