Charity walks continue to attract publicity but now North-East writer Michael Chaplin has turned the event into an ITV drama starring Nicola Stephenson and Philip Glenister . Steve Pratt reports on how the pair survived the sahara.

ACTRESS Nicola Stephenson feared she really was lost in the desert while filming scenes for a new ITV1 drama in which her character goes missing in the sand dunes. She and the rest of the cast spent a month in Morocco shooting the two-hour film The Walk, which follows a group of fundraisers on a charity hike across the Sahara desert.

Christine, the woman she plays, goes walkabout after a row with her husband and best friend. Stephenson went out with director Mark Brozel and the cameraman in a helicopter to film aerial shots over the sand dunes. "We flew out at 6am and they dropped me off. I had a bag, an orange, a bottle of water, a compass and a walkie talkie with me - and a camel on stand-by to rescue me if needed," she says.

She buried the bag under a rock and got ready to do her scene. Then she realised the walkie talkie wasn't working, so she buried that as well. "I saw them circling above me and thought, 'it must be about now' and began climbing up this sand dune," she recalls.

"After the first take, the helicopter started circling and went behind the sand dune to come back for the next one. They obviously lost sight of me for a while. The pilot turned to Mark and said, 'okay, you've got your eye on her, haven't you?' and he said, 'no, you know where she is'. And the pilot said, 'I don't know where she is, I thought you were watching her'.

"Mark thought that he'd lost me forever and started getting hysterical. After a while, the pilot just winked at him and went, 'yeah, of course I know where she is'.

"Meanwhile, they were gone for ages and I was sitting on this sand dune counting the minutes. Everything looks the same out there, so you just completely lose your bearings in all that sand. I've never been so happy to see a helicopter in my life." She's part of a cast that also includes Philip Glenister, Ralph Ineson, Crispin Bonham-Carter, Judy Flynn, Lindsay Baxter, Trevor Fox and Emma Lowndes. North-East writer Michael Chaplin based The Walk on a charity walk he himself undertook in the Sahara.

Christine, who is recovering from breast cancer, is caught by best friend Karen making love with her husband Lawrence during the time in the desert. That's one of the reasons she wanders off by herself.

The actress doesn't know if she'd react the same as Christine in a similar situation. "The way you react to traumatic circumstances in your life can often take you completely by surprise," she says. "It's really hard to put yourself in such an extraordinary position if you've never been there, which is why it's so bloody fortunate it's all written down for you as an actor."

Philip Glenister - recently seen in the ITV1 thriller The Stepfather - plays husband Eddie and came to the conclusion that "he's a bit of a prat". He's pretty quiet for the first half of the film and then it kicks off with some emotional scenes. "His true personality only really comes out in the second half. That was appealing to me, to have a character that slowly got more and more interesting as the script developed. That's always nice for an actor," he says.

He was one of those who found that laughter was the key to surviving weeks of long filming days in difficult conditions in Morocco - such as filming in 48 degrees without shade, encountering snakes and scorpions on a daily basis and being forced to endure stomach-churning food.

Filming in the desert made Glenister realise how sanitised and westernised he was. "We all had to adapt to it and, thankfully, we all bonded really well together," he says. "The cast were a great bunch and there were no starry egos. And if there were, they'd have been crushed to pieces pretty quickly."

One scene was particularly difficult to film - working on a set nicknamed "the wok" because it was a bowl shape in the middle of the dunes and the cast were all sizzling inside it. The hardest thing was climbing up the dunes. "It's like climbing hot treacle, and we had to do it five or six times for a scene where we slide down them. It was also the most fun as the sliding part was brilliant. But as soon as we got to the bottom - and it was very high - we heard 'cut' and knew we had to do it all over again".

When the going got tough, humour saw them through. They had a running gag, based on something he started on a film he once did. "It was a multi-milllion dollar Hollywood production and one morning we all went to breakfast, and there were about 300 people sitting inside this huge tent... and one toaster. It's so typical. So we all started saying, 'millions of dollars, 300 people and one toaster - utter insanity'.

"So I started doing it in Morocco and, before long, we were all walking around saying, 'utter insanity' to everything."

* The Walk is on ITV1 on Sunday at 9p

Published: ??/??/2004