Interview by Graeme Strachan for The Courier, 22nd February 2021
Dundee actor Gordon Morris has been chipping away at the city’s links with Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition in 1845.
Gordon, from Douglas, plays John Weekes, a carpenter on board HMS Erebus, in the supernatural drama The Terror which is coming to BBC Two and iPlayer.
The series centres on the disastrous attempt by the crews of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to discover a sea route through the Canadian Arctic to the Orient, with both ships becoming icebound in the Canadian Arctic’s Victoria Strait and the entire 129-man expedition perishing.
Gordon was surrounded by Franklin artefacts
Reports of the crew turning to cannibalism while they slowly succumbed to disease and starvation scandalised Victorian society.
Gordon said: “There are lots of links between the show and Scotland.
“There were two Dundee men on the Franklin Expedition and also a man from Fife called John Kenley who is commemorated in Dundee’s Eastern Cemetery.
“I discovered his grave last year on one of my many lockdown walks.
“I must admit I had to look twice when I first saw the headstone and I felt very humbled to discover it.
“I also found out John Weekes’ father worked on the building of HMS Unicorn which is berthed in Dundee.
“I was invited down to look at his initials carved into the ship’s timbers.
“To think I had played on that ship when I was a child and now I was playing the son of a man who had helped build the ship was mind blowing.
“There’s also a sledge in The McManus which was used to help in the search for Franklin.
“I’ve been in to see it lots of times, but only recently found out its links to the expedition.
“It seems like I’m now surrounded by Franklin artefacts and folklore, which only makes me even more interested in the story.
“When I first started looking at the character of John Weekes and the Franklin Expedition, I found out a lot of information about Dundee whaling ships and the Dundee men who had served alongside Franklin.
“This helped me decide to use my own accent for the part of Weekes as a tribute to those Dundee men who risked and lost their lives in the Arctic ice.”
Northwest Passage was a lucrative prize
The Northwest Passage is around 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle and less than 1,200 miles from the North Pole.
In Franklin’s time, finding it was one of the greatest maritime challenges.
But the prize was lucrative as discovering a way through would open up a new trade route.
Explorers had tried – and failed – since the 15th Century.
To get there from the Atlantic meant dodging thousands of icebergs up to 300 feet in height.
From the Pacific was just as tricky with masses of ice pushed into the Bering Strait.
The fabled route captured the imagination of explorers.
Sir Humphrey Gilbert, whose treatise on the passage inspired many voyages, drowned on his own attempt in 1583.
His son, Henry Hudson, who Hudson Bay was named after, and seven others were cast adrift by a mutinous crew in 1611.
There were several Scots on Franklin’s expedition
Over time a passage was pieced together before Captain Franklin set off on his doomed attempt in 1845.
Harry Goodsir from Anstruther was one of several Scots on the expedition including Aberdonians Daniel Arthur, James Reid and Josephus Gaeter; Dundonians William Bell and William Shanks; David Leys from Montrose, John Kenley from St Monans, Robert Ferrier from Perth; and Thomas Work from Kirkwall.
They made their final stop before the Atlantic crossing at Login’s Well, Stromness, Orkney, for water and supplies.
The ships were last seen in Baffin Bay in the Arctic three months later and after this they became part of one the enduring mysteries of the age of exploration.
Since the expedition was equipped with three years of provisions, the Admiralty in London did not send out rescue missions until 1848.
Intense searches in the 1850s shed light on the fate of the expedition.
In 1850, three graves, two dated January and one April 1846, were discovered by American and British searchers on Beechey Island.
Dickens tried to ruin Orkney explorer’s reputation
No further traces were found until 1854 after Orkney explorer John Rae ended up leading two missions in an attempt to locate the missing sailors.
He found the vital last link for the Northwest Passage and he discovered the fate of the Franklin expedition.
Normally Rae would have been given a knighthood.
But the doctor was instead almost airbrushed out of history
Rae recorded accounts from local Inuits who said that some of Franklin’s crew had resorted to cannibalism in a last desperate effort to stay alive.
However, Lady Franklin defended her husband and recruited Charles Dickens who used his popular magazine to cast doubt on the story and destroy Rae’s reputation.
Lady Franklin decided to send out another and final expedition from Aberdeen to clear up the great Arctic mystery.
Steam Yacht Fox had been built in the 1840s at Hall’s shipyard in Aberdeen for Sir Richard Sutton at a cost of around £5,000.
Thus reconfigured and equipped, Francis Leopold McClintock and 25 members of the expedition set sail from Aberdeen on June 30 1857.
McClintock returned to England as a national hero
Two years later, on King William Island in the Canadian Arctic they discovered written proof of the death of Franklin and later the rest of his team.
It gave the locations of the ships and said that the crews had abandoned them after they became lodged in pack ice.
McClintock returned to England in September 1859, and was hailed as the discoverer of the lost expedition’s fate.
In addition to being knighted, the officers and men of the Fox shared a £5,000 parliamentary reward.
It wasn’t until 2014 that a Canadian mission, equipped with all the latest marine archaeological equipment, located Erebus.
Terror was discovered two years later.
Gordon is proud to be a small part in the story of the Franklin Expedition
Gordon held down a number of jobs before he got into acting in 1998 and a few years later he was taking up his first role since he tread the boards in a school play.
Appearing in the 10-part thriller was Gordon’s biggest role to date after previously featuring in Taggart, Bob Servant, Armchair Detectives and Schemers.
“John Weekes looked like a really nice wee role and I was excited to get the chance to try out for it,” said Gordon.
“After I had recorded the self-tape I sent it off to my agent and turned on my TV only to see the Hunt for the Arctic Ghost Ship (a programme about the search for HMS Erebus) was on.
“I thought that might be a sign I would get the part!”
Ridley Scott is the executive producer of the series
Executive produced by Ridley Scott for AMC, the ten-part drama originally aired in the UK on BT TV.
“I must admit I was really nervous when I turned up on set in Budapest for my first day of filming as I knew Ridley Scott was involved, also Jared Harris who had been in one of my favourite shows Mad Men and I didn’t want to let anyone down,” said Gordon.
“What I will say is I shouldn’t have been nervous as everyone was so supportive and lovely.
“I just threw myself into the role and enjoyed every minute of it.
“The show is based on Dan Simmons book The Terror which takes the story of the Franklin Expedition and adds a supernatural element.
“It first aired in 2018 and received brilliant reviews in the USA.
“Unfortunately, it never reached a wider audience due to a number of factors including the channel it was shown on in the UK being quite hard to access and a lack of publicity.
“I am so excited the BBC have picked it up!
“The fact it finally has the opportunity to be seen by a huge audience in the UK is wonderful.
“I noticed Jared Harris tweeted that it was up there with Chernobyl, Mad Men and The Crown, which is high praise indeed.
“Having The Terror on my acting CV has already opened a few doors for me and hopefully once it’s aired on BBC 2 even more opportunities will open up.
Gordon’s £10 gin and tonic was made to last
“I watched the first three episodes of the show at a private cast and crew screening at a very posh hotel in London and knew immediately it had the makings of a hit.
“The only disappointment I had that day was the £10 I was charged for a rum and coke at the hotel bar – I made it last for the full three episodes!
“The fans of The Terror are an amazing bunch! I just had to say that as every day I see wonderful posts from them on social media about the show and it makes me very proud to think I’m now a small part of the story of the Franklin Expedition.”
Gordon went on to star in the first-ever Dutch film produced by Netflix which ticked all the boxes for the self-confessed history buff.
With a budget of a whopping 14 million euros, The Forgotten Battle is the biggest Dutch film of the last 10 years, and the second most expensive Dutch movie ever made, after the 2006 war film Zwartboek.
The Dutch epic is set in 1944 during the Second World War and centres on the Battle of the Scheldt which was a key period in the liberation of Holland from Nazi Germany.
Timeline of a real-life tragedy
1845 Captain Franklin, an officer in the Royal Navy and decorated war hero, takes two ships – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – and 129 men towards Canada’s frozen northern coast in an attempt to map the Northwest Passage.
1845 On July 26, a team of British whalers become the last Europeans to catch sight of the crews.
1846 First winter at Beechey Island. Three die. After ice melts the group set off with their supplies – three years’ worth of food and 180 tons of coal – towards Cornwallis Island, between the Arctic Ocean and Baffin Bay.
1847 Erebus and Terror sail into the perilous Victoria Strait where the sea ice proves too much. After a long, cold winter the ships are locked in ice six miles offshore for 587 days.
1848 First search party sets off to find expedition. Franklin’s widow, Lady Jane Franklin, whom he married in 1825, sponsors the attempt. Meanwhile the surviving crew head south, eating the dead on the way.
1854 While surveying near the Canadian Arctic coast, explorer John Rae hears first-hand accounts from the Inuit as to the fate of the crew, which includes tales of cannibalism.
1859 A single handwritten note, dated April 25, 1848, is found. In it, Captain Fitzjames explains some of their tribulations and of the death of Franklin on June 11, 1847.
1869 American explorer Charles Francis Hall hears Inuit accounts of “white” bodies discovered with missing limbs and saw-cuts on their bones.
1879 New search with army lieutenant Frederick Schwatka sets off. Schwatka finds a skeleton, which he buries.
1931 William Gibson, of the Hudson’s Bay Company on King William Island near the Victoria Strait finds numerous artefacts believed to be from the ships.
1994 Between 1992 and ’94, the skeletal remains of 11 crew members are discovered, some with cut marks likely confirming reports of cannibalism.
2008 A team of Canadian divers and archaeologists revive interest by trying to find the ships Erebus and Terror using latest technology.
2014 On October 1, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces HMS Erebus has been found, settled upright on the seabed in Queen Maud Gulf.
2016 HMS Terror is found in icy waters off King William Island in Canada’s far north.
This interview was originally published by The Courier. It has been reposted here for posterity.