Last week was what might be called unsettling. Just one damp squib after the other. I was supposed to be heading for Baltimore but once again, at the eleventh hour, well four days before to be exact, I got the word. No Baltimore! Which left me floundering a little. I had already cancelled an appearance at the Memorabilia Show in Birmingham, had made sure that the frig was empty so that there would be no unpleasant pongs when I returned from the States and spent a fortune on having my hair teased. I had also bought some new gear which I was sure would go down a treat in the Colonies. The biggest disappointment was that I wasn’t going to be among the first-footers to take advantage of the BAA’s splendid new building, Terminal 5.
Then the phone rang and a deep American voice asked to speak to me. Could it be Baltimore was back on the time sheet again? No! But it was a job. It was Max Brule, the bloke with whom I had made a documentary about Hammer early last year. He was in a bit of a hole and hoped I could dig him out of it. He was scheduled to do a piece on the Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race. A ‘young lady’ from Cambridge, interestingly named Titch Rich, had been contacted to do the presenting and generally interpret what the Brits had to say. She had been forced to drop out and he had remembered that I lived locally so…
The Boat Race has always been one of my favourite events, due mainly to the fact that my father actually rowed in the very first Olympics in Athens in 1896. Max was also offering the sort of money which embellished its attraction exponentially. So I agreed. At least the hair and the new sweater wouldn’t be wasted. Nor would the Internet. I quickly boned up on what was what and who was who. First race; 1829 following a challenge from Cambridge, was over a course at Henley and was won by Oxford. It first went to the Putney/Mortlake stretch of the River Thames in 1845. The present score is Cambridge 79, Oxford 73. I also knew the weight of the crews, the number of times each boat had sunk, the fastest times and the slowest, and all the little bits of trivia a reporter needs to know to make it look as if she is up to the job. I was ready.
Friday afternoon Max called with a cheery, “I’m here.” I had been fretting a bit. I knew he had been floating around, visiting Oxford and Cambridge and that sort of thing, but I would have liked the opportunity of a good run-through before we hit the water front.”What time do you want to meet.?” he asked.I thought he meant that evening but he quickly explained that he had another meeting lined up. I suggested ten o’clock, Saturday morning. That would give us seven and a half hours to do what we had to do before the race proper.”Sure. Fine.” said Max. “Where shall we meet? At the boat?”That sounded fair enough and I agreed.”Where is it?” quoth Max. I didn’t understand. Max explained. The ‘young lady from Cambridge’ had, he had been assured, hired a boat which was to follow the race. He assumed that she had passed the information on to me. He had given her my telephone number. I instinctively knew that the waste product had just been inducted into the elementary air conditioning.
I spent the evening trying to track down the ‘young lady from Cambridge’. She wasn’t at home. Probably living it up with the boat crew. In times of stress I tend to wax lyrical and the theme running through my head as I contemplated the evolving disaster went along the lines of:
There was a young lady called Titch,Who was always a bit of a bitch,If she’d done what she orterwe’d have been on the waterInstead of this muddy old ditch.
Shakespeare it ain’t – but it diverted the panic. And panic it was when I met up with Max at The Bull at Barnes. Neither of us had been able to raise the elusive Titch nor find anyone who would even contemplate launching a boat for us. The scene may look pretty chaotic when viewed on TV but up close and dangerous it is strictly controlled. We couldn’t get near the boat house, every boat with the facility to get near the race was full to the gunwales, all the best spots had been taken well in advance along the embankment and the chances of actually talking to someone involved in the race seemed well below zero. We were reduced to buttonholing spectators and asking them riveting questions like, “Do you come here often?’ and “Are you cheering for Oxford or Cambridge?” I was beginning to get the impression that our lack of success was being marked down to me. What was worse was that I had to agree.
Race over, Max decided that he was going to take his crew down onto the towpath and see if he could get some sort of footage that would give the piece some local colour. The way he said it I knew I wasn’t invited. I apologised and said if only I had more time etc. etc. etc. He was very nice about it. Said everything would be fine. He would buy in some footage of the race and fit my ‘interviews’ around it. He even asked if he could call me a taxi. I had a feeling that wasn’t the only thing he was calling me under his breath. I declined the offer and walked home. I don’t think I will be hearing from Max again. Which is a pity because there is the Grand National next week, then the Marathon, the Queen’s Birthday. And, of course the Beriing Olympics.