Shiver me timbers

It wasn't as painful as Shackleton's ill-fated 1914 Antarctic expedition, but Channel 4's re-creation, filmed in Iceland and Greenland, was a gruelling experience for the actors. In his diary Pip Torrens, who plays Dr McIlroy, recalls the seasickness, the ferocious dogs and worst of all, the biting cold

In spring last year I was cast as Dr McIlroy in Shackleton, Channel 4's £10.5m production following the great man's icebound Antarctic expedition of 1914-16. After a few weeks filming in Pinewood we went to Iceland to film aboard the Kaskelot, the replica of Shackleton's ship Endurance. Then we were to live on a Norwegian icebreaker for three weeks in the pack ice along the east coast of Greenland.

May 19 2001

We descend into Keflavik after a surprisingly drunken flight. I distract myself with the beautiful views of St Kilda far below us, its huge cliffs jutting like tiny teeth from the Atlantic. These are soon lost to sight, leaving empty north Atlantic water and the endless clank of the drinks trolley.

May 20

We have an exhilarating first day aboard the Kaskelot, bucking in a heavy swell and lashed with sleet. Miraculously I am not seasick; I chew down the pills and spend a good part of the afternoon below deck with an Elmore Leonard paperback. The crew, most of whom seem to be 19-year-old Scousers, stick it out in sodden jerseys and oilskins as the actors retreat below, one by one, to their polar jackets and salopettes. Kevin McNally was last on the bus this morning and absolutely silent after yesterday, his face a kind of sea green.

May 21

A glorious blue-skied, north-winded, breaking-swell day; the movement of the boat finally gets to me, and I spend an apprehensive hour at the gunwale. Thankfully my lunch stays down. We all pose for the re-creation of the famous group photo, taken by the expedition's photographer Frank Hurley, on a foredeck that is pitching wildly: the horizon disappears, and we approach the sky; the horizon reappears, with much sea attached; and so on.

May 22

Rain. Unworkable weather. Afternoon off. Taxi across volcanic hinterland to the Blue Lagoon, a vast, hot pool in the middle of absolutely nowhere, shrouded in steam and offering the opportunity to make like a lobster, which we do.

May 24

7.10pm: cabin 206, the Polar Bird - home for the next three-plus weeks. Just in from an hour high up on the bows in thick fog, looking hopefully for whales. This is one of the best cabins; minute, as they all are, but we have a kind of banquette seat on two sides of the little table. I am lucky to be sharing with "Professor" Nick Hewetson, playing Macklin, the other expedition doctor. Nick also likes a good book and plenty of quiet, or so he claims. A real little spinsters' library we have, compared to some of the others.

Champagne cocktail in Ken Branagh's cabin down the hall, a suitably Shackletonian activity, and on to pleasant dinner in the little mess room, with plenty of wine, courtesy of Selwyn Roberts, the producer. The swell can't hurt me now.

10.30pm: in my bunk - the lower one - looking up at the laminated copy of Psalm 107 stuck to the plywood above my head, as the ship rolls so violently that my body is upended against my headboard every few seconds. We're on our way to the ice.

May 25

First iceberg this afternoon - a great humpbacked thing half a mile away, surrounded by empty sea. The whole cast, clad in our official orange snowsuits, gather noisily in the bows, toting binoculars, digital cameras, zoom-lensed video minicams, etc. Fantastic expenditure of film, to amusement of captain and crew. We turn into thicker pack and the ship starts to shove aside floes the size of village greens.

May 26

Three scenes to shoot on the ice. Four actors descend in a rope cage slung from a crane and sing It's a Long Way to Tipperary to a flock of imaginary penguins. Even quarter of an hour out of our insulated gear is enough to chill us right through. It's funny to think that we won't see a single penguin on this trip, when in reality the expedition spent all their spare time butchering and cooking thousands of them, along with every seal they met. Many of Hurley's photographs show men with faces begrimed by cooking smoke and clothing apparently covered with a sheen of blood and oil. Good waterproofing, if nothing else.

This is a truly hostile environment. We are alive here only because of the ship; we exist almost as its creatures.

May 28

Spend the day in the small boats, out on a glassy sea among smaller floes, re-creating the escape to Elephant Island. Survival suits, rubber sealed tight at throat and wrists, beneath our costumes. Full beard wigs, gluey blisters, the works. The wooden rowboats rise and fall almost imperceptibly as we sit frosted with paper snow like almond croissants in some polar patisserie. All around us the sea.

June 6

Passed through some kind of novelty fall-off/ inertia/depression barrier in the last day or two; now simply want to get home, hug my daughters and get into bed with my wife for 48 hours.

June 8

We're moored next to an ice floe so big it looks like part of a continuous shelf. There never is a typical day because we never know for sure what we'll be filming next, but generally it goes something like this: breakfast kicks off at 9.30am. The trick is to avoid the honey trap of fried eggs, fried bread, potatoes, meat, lakes of baked beans, and feast lightly on muesli and juice. Failure to do this means the body will shut down into digestive hibernation from which no amount of stimulant ingestion will rescue you.

After a quick satellite phone call home I descend to the booming hold with its perpetual reek of fresh paint. The beards, blisters and grime are all painstakingly applied in the container designated Makeup and Hair.

I start to dress: T-shirt, North Face top (wicks away my sweat, apparently), two thermal tops, wool flannel shirt, wool sweater, cotton stormsuit top, orange down jacket, woollen balaclava. Below the waist: four layers minimum, two thermal, with optional survival-suit bottoms for total waterproofing, thick wool flannels, stormsuit trousers. On the feet: whatever idiosyncratic combination of thermal, woolly, or plastic waterproof socks one vainly believes will keep the cold and slush out, under enormous leather army boots.

Like tubby astronauts, we wobble down the gangway into the crystalline bomb site of the ice and the camp set. Camp set just about sums up the assembled group of actors out there in the snow; Oakley shades and Walkmans festooning their wino-painted faces; snowballs, funny voices and innuendo fly through the freezing air. After much planning and organisation we heave and haul the ship's boats around - over the pressure ridges, through the ice pools, while wind machines howl and pummel us with soap suds.

We sit about in green fishermen's chairs, feeling our toes gradually numb as the sun leans away from us. Eventually we tramp back to the ship and eat lunch, then out again into the endless evening light, and finally dinner, which is at about 11pm, with wine, copious puddings and cheese. We think we've had a tough day - we would have been dead and buried after a week in Antarctica.

June 10

Sunday lunch is cooked by a motley team under Michael Howells, the linebacker-sized production designer, whose first priority in preparing a three-course meal for 100-plus disgruntled crew members is to get the claret jelly done: vast trays of this magnificently Edwardian stuff cover the galley worktops. I assemble a soup of broccoli, together with a box of courgettes found languishing in the very lowest cargo hold and otherwise destined for lonely putrefaction.

June 11

The football scene. The temperature is about 65F, so the ice becomes a pool very quickly and everyone flounders ineffectually when we come to shoot the scene. I stick to the wing and cram my sunglasses on whenever possible. Glare total. Temperature drops 30F in the afternoon and no amount of thermal/waterproof socking can help our toes.

June 14

Pathetically exhausted over the past few days. Some dog-walking scenes with the ferocious and charmless dogs who practically wrench our arms from their sockets as we highstep about in the snow trying to look masterful. Nick Rowe is appallingly funny with two dogs hauling him in separate directions like some Oxbridge Monsieur Hulot. Director Charles Sturridge calls it off; he's seen enough.

June 15

Room 39, the Ammassalik Hotel. We came off the Polar Bird this morning and stepped off the Zodiak on to Greenland in a little cove. So, land; rock; floors. We have two days off and are euphoric. The absence of background noise, of clanking, slamming, churning din is sweeter than I could have imagined. The ability to walk more than a few paces without having to step through a bulkhead; corridors; carpet; wooden doors; all these delights. Time to sleep a while.

June 18

An afternoon up in the mountains waiting fruitlessly to do Hurley's scene. Ferried up in the six-seater helicopter, with terrifying skill, to a crag surrounded by 500ft cliffs. It becomes clear that the light-hearted earlier scene with Matt Day and myself is not going to make it into the film. I settle back with an Edith Wharton.

We fly back to Kulusuk, the settlement nearest the "international" airstrip; the hotel here sits in a landscape desolate and vast. There are angular Bang & Olufsen telephones in every room. After an enormous ribsticking dinner of halibut and cheese, I venture half a mile down the unmade track to Kulusuk town. The snow lies in immovable ballast five or six feet thick all along the route; when I get back everyone is still drinking, of course: a dense post-prandial glow prevails. I go contentedly to bed.

June 26

7.55pm: Molly Malone's fish and chip restaurant, Scarborough. We are filming in Whitby, 40 minutes away by minivan. Scarborough has a proper little fishing harbour at one end with a majestic beach backed by a garish half-mile of casinos, joke shops, chip shops, souvenir shops and arcades. I'm rather missing the lunar solitude of Kulusuk. Still, in two weeks I can shave off my moustache and my wife will look at me again without a shudder - I hope.

· Shackleton starts at 9pm on Channel 4 tonight.