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Series / Longitude

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Longitude is a 2000 miniseries produced by Granada and A&E. It is based on Dava Sobel's 1995 book of the same title, which covers two stories: the solving of The Longitude Problem in the 18th century, and a historian's quest to restore the forgotten and corroded timepieces in the 20th.

As transoceanic voyages became more common in the Age of Sail, fleets saw numerous losses due to the inability to accurately determine one's longitude at sea. Unlike latitude, longitude lines are not parallel, and once away from land sailors had to rely entirely on celestial navigation (which was not always adequate). The best way to determine longitude was to know the time at one's present location and the time at another fixed point, but pendulum clocks were useless aboard a swaying, yawing ship. The matter came to a head after the loss of four ships and over 1500 men under Sir Admiral Cloudsley-Shovell off the isles of Scilly, thanks to poor navigation. In the wake of this disaster, the British government announced a competition for the invention of a timepiece that is functional and practical for shipboard use.

Enter John Harrison, a village carpenter and clockmaker. Harrison devises a marine chronometer that will keep time on a swaying ship. Complications arise during field testing as he struggles to make the device practical and compact, on top of which the astronomy-obsessed nobility of the Royal Society are outraged that they might be shown up by a village tradesman. Harrison and his son fight for over half a century both to create a clock that will work, and the Society's snobbish refusal to accept their results.

Meanwhile, in the 20th century, horologist Rupert Gould is recovering from a mental breakdown as a result of his time in World War I. He takes a volunteer position in the royal museum in order to restore Harrison's timepieces, now in a state of corrosion and disrepair. The work consumes him, straining his marriage and his emotional state as England again approaches the eve of war with Germany.

The two-episode series stars Michael Gambon as John Harrison, Ian Hart as William, and Jeremy Irons as Gould... along with the usual suspects from the British acting corps.

Tropes featured:

  • Artistic License – History: The story of Shovell hanging one of his men for disputing his navigation emerged several decades after the Scilly disaster, and there is no hard evidence that it really happened.
  • Bait-and-Switch Tyrant: Captain Standing is introduced by ordering several men flogged (which was standard punishment, but he also refuses to let civilian William turn away on pain of lashing the men further) and is openly skeptical of the clock. However, his response to the mutinous rumblings about the bad water is to drink an entire mug of the foul stuff in front of his men and state that none of the officers will drink anything else until they refill the casks. When William's navigation proves correct after all, Standing offers him an apology in front of the crew and asks to buy a clock once they're available to the public.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: A quiet one after John berates and shoves William in the halls of the Society following a particularly contentious interview with the Board. He simply informs his father that his dedication to horology has been motivated by hoping that the love John has for clocks will fall onto his son as well.
  • Companion Cube: The chronometers to both John Harrison in the 1700s and Rupert Gould in the 1940s. Harrison's singleminded focus on clockmaking and Gould's obsession with restoring the pieces put a notable strain on their family lives.
  • Did Not Think This Through:
    • The plan to determine longitude by stationing a line of rocket-firing barges across the Atlantic Ocean. As the board member points out, how would you feed the sailors manning the barges, and where would you find people willing to spend 365 days a year on a barge in the middle of the ocean anyway?
    • The Lunar Distance favoured by the Royal Society is not a practical method because you need to see the Moon in the first place. Too bad if conditions are cloudy or there's a New Moon.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Admiral Sir Clousdlsey Shovell has a man hanged simply for doing his own navigation and trying to warn that the fleet isn't where the officers think it is. The Admiral dies along with many of the sailors under his command because he wouldn't listen to this Cassandra Truth. Incidentally the reason only officers were allowed to do navigation was to deter desertion or mutiny.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: John Campbell, now an officer, turns up to inform Harrison that most of the sailors he met during the London-to-Lisbon test died of scurvy when they ran out of fresh food due to a navigation error that took them out of sight of land.
    Lt. Campbell: I sailed in the company of 961 men, sir. 203 returned to England. Of the 760 who died, only 48 were killed by enemy action.
    John Harrison: And the rest?
    Lt. Campbell: Disease. Despair. We were lost: weeks on end without sight of land, fresh food, water... Although much of the time we were within 6 hours' sailing of Juan Fernandez; but we mistook our position... didn't know it. I saw more men die than any Roman emperor. Men who you'll remember, and who remembered you: John Sprague; Lieutenant Draper; the messboys, Ned and Sed, didn't even make 14. We all heard about the Orford and how your machine performed, as we sailed hopelessly on, heaving man after man over the side.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The Royal Society is unrepentant in their efforts to discredit the Harrisons. However, they are visibly uncomfortable when they overhear John berating William and Maskelyne is awkwardly polite calling William back in. (Not that they stop being Obstructive Bureaucrats.)
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: The Harrisons' hair changes frequently in the second half, with William going from a simply ponytail to an elaborate wig in line with fashion, while John's becomes thinner and whiter with age.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: John Harrison is a brilliant clockmaker. Prior to proposing his design for the first marine chronometer, he built the clock machinery for his village church out of wood. Gould, visiting the church with its still-working clock two centuries later, marvels at the "grasshoper" mechanism that drives it.
  • Heroic BSoD: Harrison detects a flaw in his clock that causes it to lose time, causing himself to lose heart. Campbell comes to visit him, and talks of how hundreds of men in the ship he was sailing on died when an error of navigation made them sail away from sight of land. So regardless of how Harrison feels, he really can't afford to give up.
  • It Belongs in a Museum: The Harrison chronometers are in a sad state when Gould volunteers to restore them. He's greatly upset by it, finding them to be an invaluable piece of British naval history. The epilogue shows the results of his hard work—the chronometers, shining like new, ticking away in their display cases at Royal Observatory in Greenwich.
  • Kangaroo Court: The Royal Society elect Reverend Maskelyne to sit on the board assessing the practicality of Harrison's clock, despite the clear conflict of interest as Maskelyne is also competing for the Longitude prize.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Reverend Nevil Maskelyne is the darling of the Longitude Board and thinks very highly of his Lunar Distances method. When actually testing his method in the field, however, it proves less reliable than the timepiece and he's not nearly as adept with maths as William.
  • Married to the Job:
    • John Harrison is utterly devoted to his clockmaking and solving the longitude problem to the point of neglecting his wife and son. William also devotes his entire life to it, but he's not as content with the situation and later says that he's only so dedicated because he wants his father to love him the same way he loves clocks.
    • Rupert is at the museum to the late hours of the night more often than not, and doesn't realize that his obsession with restoring the Harrison chronometers is driving his wife away until she files for divorce.
  • Moving the Goalposts: Each time the Harrisons report on a success, Bliss, Morton, and Maskelyne contrive to change the rules to prevent them from claiming the prize.
  • Let Us Never Speak of This Again: Rather than acknowledge that they nearly made the same deadly mistake that motivated the Longitude Act in the first place, Captain Man and the admiral decide to hush it all up. This creates a huge problem when Harrison has to defend his chronometer without the testimony of any officers of the ship it was tested on. Fortunately, the ship's master is moved by conscience to present his own, private testimony declaring that the Harrison chronometer did exactly what it was supposed to: enable an accurate calculation of longitude, and save ships from foundering.
  • Match Cut: One occurs between Harrison's first timepiece, all shiny and new, transitioning into the 20th century with its thick coating of green patina and dust in the museum basement.
  • Meanwhile, in the Future…: The stories of John Harrison in the 18th century and Rupert Gould in the 20th are interspersed.
  • Rags to Riches: John Campbell starts as an ordinary seaman who befriends Harrison. Years later, he turns up at Harrison's door having become wealthy and gained a commission thanks to fleet actions and a disastrous return voyage that resulted in the deaths of most of the officers. (Campbell would later finish his career as an admiral and went on to become the Royal Governor of Newfoundland.)
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: George III, not yet having succumbed to the mental illness of his later years, gets personally involved in helping William Harrison meet the Longitude Board's ever-changing requirements for a "successful" test.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Rupert Gould, a naval officer in the first World War, who tells the museum's curator that "I had what is popularly known as a nervous breakdown." He has a second as Europe plunges towards World War II, putting him in the hospital for several months.
  • Spanner in the Works: Centrifugal force created when the ship turns throws out the chronometer, affecting its accuracy. This forces Harrison to go back to the drawing board.
  • Stepping Out for a Quick Cup of Coffee: After Harrison and the ship's master prove that they really are sailing towards a dangerous headland, Captain Man announces that he's going below, leaving his officers to covertly inform the flagship that they need to change course now.
  • So Proud of You: After one last meeting in which the Royal Society makes clear that they don't intend to accept the chronometer, John Harrison uncharacteristically thanks them because his years of work have allowed him to rediscover his love for his "sons" the timepieces—while looking directly at William.
  • Technology Porn: In this case a Clock Punk version.
  • Terrible Interviewees Montage: Sir Edmund Halley (the namesake of the famous comet) endures a number of longitude proposals that range from crackpot to downright inhumane. He ends it before Harrison's turn, but happens to run into young William and changes his mind.
  • Time Skip: The Harrison portions of Part 1 all take place while William is a child. The second part has him an adult assisting his father, and jumps forward decade to decade from there.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: The story switches regularly between the Harrisons' struggle to build their clock and Gould's struggle to return it to working order.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: Elements of the genre come into play when the Harrisons field-test their chronometers. William is noted to have more of an interest in sailing than his seasick father, but he's not ready for the brutal discipline and undrinkable water aboard ship. The sailors vary in how iron they are; John Campbell and Captain Standing certainly are, but Captain Man significantly less so.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The narrator's voiceover says that John Harrison did finally get his prize by act of Parliament before passing away in 1776, that William married and gave up clockmaking, and that Rupert Gould became a BBC panelist and museum curator before his death in 1948.
  • Who Would Want to Watch Us?: Gould has this reaction when informed of the inevitable interest by the newspapers in his upcoming divorce case. Of course, this was in a time when divorce was still rare.