Pack up the Ice cores and get ready to party: the continuing tradition of antarctic entertainment

May 2, 2003

The garage has become a hive of activity, writes Nathan Keen.

All the snow blowers, Caterpillars and SkiDoos are gone. Carpenters are fashioning a stage from food boxes and spare shuttering plywood. A palaeontologist is hanging painted bed sheets to cover the tool boards on the walls, and a glaciologist is attaching coloured lights to a lifting beam. As ever, we are working with minimal supplies and the most inventive of people.

We are preparing for Folk Night. This is a one of the great traditions of base life at Rothera, the British Antarctic Survey's largest station, sited on the western edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. It is a night to celebrate the end of the summer season, when all the deep-field parties return to base after weeks living in tents on spartan rations.

This is the time to finally relax, and release is provided in a free-for-all of stage-based entertainment. For weeks, people have been practising songs, learning to play drums, writing poetry or conjuring up the most evil of comedy routines. Every member of the base has been involved in some capacity, from beakers (scientists - so called from The Muppet Show ) playing guitars to meteorologists dressing as coal miners and engineers as drag queens.

Folk Night may be unusual, but it is not an isolated event. There have been various attempts at organised entertainment since I have been going south.

A notable one was Through The "Pit Room" Keyhole - a day of intrusive filming followed by a contrived panel game that ridiculed members of staff in the cause of morale-boosting entertainment. Another memorable instance featured an excitable radio officer who became convinced that he was James Bond. He recruited a camerawoman to record an adventure involving every person in the base for a film in which he battled evil forces to win the girl and save the Antarctic from being melted by a death ray.

Rothera, a large base with its long summer season, tends to stage the most lavish events, but other bases get in on the act, too. Halley is sited much further south on an ice shelf and has only a six-week season. In temperatures that freeze skin in minutes, every available hour is used for work. So we try to lift morale during the five-week voyage to the base and on the return journey.

From playing a central role in many of these events, I have found that ordinary people from every walk of life can become close friends and reach far into their personalities to provide merriment and escape. It may not be the formal theatre of Scott's day, but in this age of television, we have to perhaps dig deeper to make our entertainment. The Antarctic brings many things to the brave traveller, but the most unexpected is this desire to be part of something bigger and to escape the inhibitions of modern life.

Nathan Keen, facilities manager at Halley, has spent almost two years in the Antarctic since 1999. He acts as a part-time entertainment coordinator and once performed the Sex Pistols' Pretty Vacant in full bondage kit.

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