BBC pushes the boat out for one of its most ambitious dramas ever

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The Independent Online

Jurassic Park star Sam Neill and an entire harbour town in South Africa are being commandeered by the BBC to make one of the corporation's most ambitious dramas ever.

The series, called To the Ends of the Earth, is based on a trilogy written by William Golding, best known for Lord of the Flies. Based on his 1980 Booker Prize-winning novel Rites of Passage and two further books, Close Quarters and Fire Down Below, it tells the story of the passengers and crew on a decrepit former warship travelling from England to Australia.

A James Bond-style studio has been specially built by the BBC to film the drama. Crews have spent around three months building sections of the boat on a series of pontoons within the studio at Richard's Bay, north of Durban, and filming will take a further three months. The project is thought to have cost around £5m, which makes it one of the most costly dramas ever made for BBC2. It is, however, a bargain compared to the big-budget epic Rome currently being made by the BBC, although much of the £50m cost of that production has been financed by the US producer HBO.

For the Golding production, suitable UK locations such as the water-filled studio at Pinewood, used for 007's aquatic battles, were already booked, and producers had to search further afield, with South Africa chosen partly for reasons of economy. It was cheaper than alternative locations such as Australia and Malta.

South African producer Lance Samuels says: "The exchange rate for the rand against the pound and the dollar was very favourable but the weather is also very good all year round. This is by far the biggest TV production made in South Africa."

BBC producer Lynn Horsford said: "When we have viewed the rushes, it has looked incredibly intimate - like Big Brother on a boat.

"It has elements in common with Lord of the Flies and has similar themes of what happens in a closed society. There's a very strong sense of class structure - it's like Britain in miniature on a ship."

The BBC had begun work on To the Ends of the Earth nearly five years ago, but it was put on hold following the death of writer Leigh Jackson. Another writer, Tony Basgallop, was later drafted in to continue the series which is being filmed as three 90-minute episodes. It is told from the perspective of a young aristocrat, Edmund Talbot, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who recently starred as Professor Stephen Hawking in another BBC drama.

Golding died in 1993, but his daughter Judy Carver said she was impressed by how sensitively her father's work had been handled. "I've sent little bits of his journal from the time he wrote the sea trilogy to the BBC which I think shows my level of trust in them," she said.

The first book of the trilogy was written as a self-contained novel, but Golding decided to return to the characters to explore the end of the story.

Ms Carver added: "I think he said at one point, 'I've left all these people sitting around in the middle of the ocean and I keep thinking of things that Edmund would say.' I think he did walk around imagining himself in the world he had created.

"His imagination was very strong, to the extent that he could actually feel things. He could feel the texture of the wood on the boat."