‘The world is hell, and men are both the tormented souls and the devils within it.’ This was the cheery epigraph from Schopenhauer with which The North Water introduced itself — aptly, as it transpired. Certainly, BBC2’s starry new Victorian drama is not for those who prefer their television characters to be loveable.
The first person we met was Irishman Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), who gruntingly concluded his business with a Hull prostitute before heading for the docks in a way familiar to viewers of Victorian TV dramas: shamble up the cobbles, straight on past the women in shawls, turn left at the urchins. Following a restorative dose of rum, he just had time to smash a fellow drinker over the head with a shillelagh prior to joining the Volunteer Arctic whaling ship where he soon proved not to be a rare bad apple. The first mate is Cavendish (Sam Spruell), approvingly described by the ship’s owner as ‘a great turd and whoremonger’. The owner himself (Tom Courtenay) is a greedy crook who appears to be planning an insurance scam with the captain (the suddenly ubiquitous Stephen Graham).
For a while, mind you, it did seem as if a more respectable citizen had managed to smuggle himself on board. The ship’s surgeon Mr Sumner (Jack O’Connell) arrived with a journal, a sketchbook and a copy of Homer. Talking about his time in Delhi, he even took the impeccably liberal line that hanging Indians for smiling was perhaps a little harsh. But that was before we discovered Sumner’s fondness for lashings of laudanum and the fact that his previous post had ended in a court martial. Possibly worse for modern sensibilities, he also joined in enthusiastically with the mass slaughter of seals.