Mawson provides backdrop for Antarctic drama

Two writers, four months, five thousand penguins, one big red shed and no way home. What could possibly go wrong?

So started our pitch to spend the 2018–19 summer at Mawson station as Antarctic Arts Fellows. Our plan was to research and write an Antarctic adventure novel for young readers and develop a television drama about life on an Antarctic research station.

‘We’ are author Jesse Blackadder, and television screenwriter Jane Allen. Before last summer we were both already Antarctic tragics: Jesse round-tripped as a previous Arts Fellow in 2011 and visited the Antarctic Peninsula as a tourist. Jane has been obsessed by Scott since childhood, and also voyaged to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Plenty could go wrong in Antarctica, it appeared, from the pre-departure briefing at the Australian Antarctic Division headquarters in Hobart, in which Dr Clive Strauss warned us of the many ways we could be killed or maimed in the far south. There were too many graphic pictures for a couple of writers with overactive imaginations.

“It’s all great material,” we told each other. Nervously.

None of our previous experiences prepared us for the reality of station life. Everything was bigger, brighter, more intense, scarier, more exhilarating, and more exciting than we could have dreamt.

Like the day of survival training, when we traversed the eggshell blue of the Antarctic ice cap on quad bikes, standing up on the pedals to look out for hazards, the sky a brilliant blue overhead, the mountains sticking up out of the ice, the sun making dazzling pinpoints in every direction. Or the time we climbed Mount Henderson, scrambling up the scree slope and then roping up to clamber to the summit, with its 360 degree view of ice sheet, mountains, frozen sea and icebergs. Or the time we slept at the foot of a cliff in yellow plastic bags. Or when we headed by Hägg out to the Auster Rookery and spent hours lying on the ice, surrounded by emperor penguins and their chicks, against a backdrop of towering blue ice cliffs. Or roped up in full climbing kit to stand on the ruins of an old Russian plane lodged in the ice.

It’s not what you imagine when applying for an Arts Fellowship. Knots, navigation, mountain climbing, quad bike riding, crampons, bivvies, ice rescues and swimming in sub-zero waters aren’t the usual fare of writers-in-residence. We were privileged to have the full experience of being summer expeditioners, with survival training, lending our hands to any projects needing help, and living as part of the summer population, immersed in station life.

Over summer we largely kept to the station’s working hours, heading up to the aeronomy building each workday. For our book project, we dreamed up ways that four kids could get to Antarctica, stumble on an evil corporation, and save Antarctica from its clutches. Once we’d mapped out the plot on whiteboards and covered the walls of the building with index cards, we settled in and wrote, working side by side on alternating chapters, stopping to read aloud to each other.

Draft of the book done and dusted, we turned our attention to the TV series. It was back to whiteboards, index cards and long conversations in different locations. This was harder — our experience of life at Mawson was largely harmonious — exactly the opposite of what’s needed for a television drama. We wanted to create a story about a female leader and her challenges in keeping a station functioning and happy in an extreme location, in the face of the ‘A-Factor’ (Antarctica’s extreme version of Murphy’s Law). Our immersion in station life was perfect for Antarctic authenticity, but we needed to go way outside our own experiences to devise a strong and completely fictional storyline. By the end of the voyage home, we had completed a blueprint for the first season of the series — and now we’re exploring options for the next stage of development.

In a writing collaboration, in a place like Antarctica, you never really go off duty. We thought, talked and wrote in places as varied as the Dog Room (home to Mawson’s husky memorabilia), the ship’s bunker door, the blue Hägg, the West Arm outcrop encircling Horseshoe Harbour. On warm days we’d sit on the rocks outside the cosray building at the station’s highest point, looking down at the ice cliffs — a good place to gnaw on knotty plot problems.

An Arts Fellowship of this scope is a cause for deep gratitude. To our fellow expeditioners for making us welcome, and their interest in our work. To the Australian Antarctic Division for sending us south for an entire season, and for supporting our work in such a respectful way. To Create NSW for development funding to help pay for our time. And to the people who bid for the right to name a character in the charity auction on our way home, raising a few extra dollars for Camp Quality. Plus those who offered to do their own stunts when it comes to filming — we’ll be in touch.

It has been the most extraordinary summer of our lives, and a wrench to sail away from Mawson at the end of the season. Since living at Mawson, we’ve graduated from Antarctic tragics to Antarctic obsessives and our plotting conversations include improbable plans for how we might return. The book and the TV project are both progressing through the journey of getting out into the world — watch this space.

Jesse Blackadder
Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow