BBC Boat Race

Ever since childhood I was fascinated by the Oxford and Cambridge Boat race. Each spring I listened avidly to John Snagge's radio commentary and later watched the event on TV. The Boat Race was one of the BBC’s iconic programmes. First broadcast in 1927 it was one of the key fixtures in the broadcasting calendar.  'It ranked from the first,' wrote John Snagge, 'with the Derby, the Cup Final and the England-v-Scotland match at Twickenham, in the BBC list of events they wanted to broadcast.'  

In its heyday the Boat Race was broadcast live round the globe. Millions of listeners tuned in and it helped create an image of Britain and the BBC.

But when I began photographing the event in the mid 1970s the Boat Race broadcast was in the doldrums. There was talk of abandoning it. Rowing, argued the critics, was too elitist. What listeners wanted to hear was football. Technically the programme was complicated and expensive. There had also been a number of mishaps with the radio launch. One year plastic tangled round the propeller and the boat failed to reach the end of the course. Another time the engine broke down at the start and the launch drifted upstream, narrowly missing the Cambridge crew. Drastic action was needed if the broadcast was to survive.

So in 1976 a large craft was hired with twin diesel engines and naval commander at the helm. 'What happens if we get caught up in the wash of the other boats?' I asked him. 'That won't happen,' he assured me. 'They'll all be behind us.' The commander was good as his word. On the day of the race we surged up the course leaving a huge wake sweeping along the river bank. At one point we almost collided with another boat and ran across the bows of the TV launch leaving it wallowing in the waves. But we got to the end of the course. The broadcast was a success and the BBC went on to cover the event for nearly 30 years after that.

John Snagge's unique voice - a boom like the chimes of Big Ben - gave the event its distinctive character. For 50 years he was the BBC's Voice of the Boat Race. But there were others, too. The Boat Race historian, Tom Sutton, was a regular. So was Brian Johnston. Then there was Judith Chalmers and the Chairman of Leander Boat Club and TV presenter Tom Boswell. A host of famous broadcasters were associated with the event - Peter Jones and Jim Rosenthal. And on television David Coleman, Harry Carpenter and Frank Bough. I photographed them,  as well as the Outside Broadcast producer Richard Maddock and his team and the technical staff. Between 1976 and 1982 I was able to construct a detailed photo essay - nearly 1100 pictures - showing what went on behind the scenes and how this famous broadcast got on the air.

Just as well I did. In 2005 the BBC abandoned the Boat Race. The only link with the BBC was a 1829 golden sovereign (the date the Boat race started) that John Snagge donated to the race. Each year the clubs’ presidents toss the coin before the race to choose which side of the river they will row on.    

On the next page you can see 100 pictures I took showing the Boat Race broadcasts.