Broadcasting Henley: Nothing New

Pic 1. The cover of the Henley Preview edition of Rowing magazine, dated July 1965. The picture shows televisions in the grandstands at the 1964 Regatta. The caption inside says ‘TV cameras will again give full coverage of the racing on closed circuit and live BBC2 transmissions’.
The cover of the Henley Preview edition of Rowing magazine, dated July 1965. The picture shows televisions in the grandstands at the 1964 Regatta. The caption inside says ‘TV cameras will again give full coverage of the racing on closed circuit and live BBC2 transmissions’.

Tim Koch writes:

When you have been around since 1839, there is very little that you have not seen before and this seems to be the case with Henley and the broadcasting of this year’s regatta. It is widely accepted that the experiment was an unqualified success and it is difficult to imagine that it will not continue (though I imagine that there are financial considerations as this year the coverage was a cost, not an income stream). As journalist and Olympic Gold Medalist Martin Cross wrote:

…. the story of this year’s Regatta was not about the crews, races, or records – although they were part of it. No, it was the fact that the dramas played out on that historic stretch of the Thames, were seen throughout the country, all over the continent and even around the globe.

Of course the style of the coverage (notably the shots from the drone) and the method of broadcasting (mostly via the Internet but also on the BBC’s digital interactive television service) were very much a product of 2015 technology. However, less sophisticated methods have broadcast live images of Henley in six previous years, in 1976 by Independent Television (ITV) and between 1964 and 1968 by the BBC. I would like to think that both television companies were motivated by the love of a fine sport and a splendid event, but I suspect the attraction was that they found it an inexpensive way of filling air time.

Pic 2. ‘Closed circuit transmissions’ in the grandstands in 2015.
‘Closed circuit transmissions’ in the grandstands in 2015.

HTBS has linked to the YouTube videos of the 1976 regatta before. One is of the finals of the Princess Elizabeth and one is of the finals of the Grand, Stewards and Thames. The were shown on a Saturday afternoon sports programme which British readers of a certain age will remember, ITV’s World of Sport. ITV’s problem was that its only rival at a time when Britain had just three television channels, the BBC, held the broadcasting rights to most of the popular sports. Thus World of Sport showed many UK ‘minority’ sports such as water skiing, stock car racing, ten-pin bowling and (bizarrely) barrel jumping. They were so desperate that they even showed ‘women’s sports’ such as netball and lacrosse, a decision regarded as very eccentric in the 1970s. A contemporary joke was that the BBC were buying up sports in alphabetical order and had run out of money before it had reached wrestling – which is how ITV got it. Amongst all this, to show ‘toffs rowing’ probably seemed normal (the viewers being unaware that ‘Thames Tradesmen’ and others were not posh boys).

Pic 3
A poor screen grab from the 1976 ITV coverage of Henley. This pre-drone high shot came from a static crane.

Sadly, no online evidence of the BBC’s efforts between 1964 and 1968 seems to exist. However, we do have the schedules from the BBC listings magazine, the Radio Times (which also included TV). This was the coverage on BBC2 television for the four day 1964 Henley Royal Regatta:

1st July. 5.30: The last races of the opening day. 6.50: Highlights of the days rowing.

2nd July. 2.30: Reports direct from Henley. 5.30: The last races of the second day. 6.40: Highlights of the day’s rowing.

3rd July. 2.30: The semi-finals. 5.30: The last races of the third day. 6.25: Highlights of the day’s rowing. 

4th July. The finals at 12.25, 2.40, 5.05. Highlights at 6.00.

7th July. Harry Carpenter introduced ‘The Best of Henley’ on BBC1 at 7.00.

Pic 3a. An advertisement from the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race Programme of 1956. Broadcasters have always covered the national institution that is the Boat Race with much greater constituency and enthusiasm than Henley Royal. The cheapest TV set was 70 Guineas (£71.75) but the average industrial worker earned only £10 17s 5d (£10.88) a week. The strange figures are in ‘old money’ http://resources.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/questions/moneyold.htm which the UK used between 1066 and 1971.
An advertisement from the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race Programme of 1956. Broadcasters have always covered the national institution that is the Boat Race with much greater constituency and enthusiasm than Henley Royal. The cheapest TV set was 70 Guineas (£71.75) but the average industrial worker earned only £10 17s 5d (£10.88) a week. The strange figures are in ‘old money’  which the UK used between 1066 and 1971.

According to the Radio Times, similar formats were followed in 1965, ‘66, ‘67 and ‘68. Coverage seems to have been comprehensive and the BBC brought in its big names to front it, including Harry Carpenter and Frank Bough, both legendary sports presenters. They were supported by genuine experts including oarsman and broadcaster Tom Sutton, the Daily Telegraph’s rowing correspondent, Desmond Hill, and a fresh young Blue called Donald Leggett (nowadays in his 47th year on the Cambridge coaching team). The ‘women’s viewpoint’ was supplied by popular TV stalwart Judith Charmers, who presumably was more concerned with fashion than sport. I do not think that it was a coincidence that Britain’s third television channel, BBC2, had started only three months before the first Henley broadcast. It was envisaged as a home for less mainstream and more ambitious programming, a little like the American PBS, though attaining a much higher audience share than most public service networks worldwide. It was an obvious place for a minority sport. Presumably the BBC paid Henley for the broadcasting rights (though this was not likely to have been a great amount) and perhaps this helped the ailing regatta’s accounts. In 1964, the Henley Standard newspaper reported that ‘Although there was a surplus of £1,131 on the accounts……. this was insufficient to transform last year’s deficiency of current assets into a surplus…’

Pic 4. BBC2 started in April 1964 to cater for ‘minority interests’, as opposed to the ‘populist’ coverage of the two existing channels, ITV and, to a lesser extent, BBC1.
BBC2 started in April 1964 to cater for ‘minority interests’, as opposed to the ‘populist’ coverage of the two existing channels, ITV and, to a lesser extent, BBC1.

‘Broadcasting’ of course, does not have to include both sound and vision. Radio (or ‘wireless’) first came to Henley in 1927 and the BBC continued its coverage sporadically and with varying degrees of enthusiasm until 1998 – as a look at the Radio Times online archive* will confirm. You can almost hear a clipped ‘BBC English’ voice read the introduction for the first broadcast from the regatta on Saturday, 2 July 1927. It was titled “Mr. G. Wansbrough: An Eye-Witness Account of Henley Regatta”:

Henley Regatta is the crown of the oars-man’s year, the occasion when English crews and English scullers have their chance to win fame in conflict with each other and with the picked men of the Continent and, very often, of America. The Grand Challenge Cup is the blue riband of eight-oar racing, and even a man who has stroked a ‘Varsity crew to victory over the Putney-Mortlake course may feel that he has added to his reputation when he has brought Leander home in the final of the Grand…

As Mr Wansbrough (an Old Blue) was broadcasting at 7.25 p.m., his summary was heard after racing had finished. According to the Radio Times, the first live commentary during racing was on 4 July 1936:

Tennis enthusiasts must not mind interruptions in the commentary on the Wimbledon Finals this afternoon – interruptions which will be made to give rowing enthusiasts a chance to hear how the Finals are going on at Henley…….. The commentator will be in a position at the finish of the course by the stewards’ box, and he will be able to see past the famous Phyllis Court all the way down the course to the ‘distance signals’. Listeners should be able to hear the ripple of cheering coming up the course with the boats. After each event, they will be taken back to Wimbledon. This was the one way this year to broadcast something of Henley Regatta – the Royal Ascot of rowing which is being broadcast for the first time.

Radio bulletins from the regatta did not just interrupt Wimbledon. On 4 July 1939 for example, listeners were told that the programme of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger Vonnurnberg” with the Saxon State Orchestra and the chorus of the Dresden State Opera would be ‘broken into between 12.15 and 6.00 for broadcasts from Henley’.

Pic 5. Punch magazine’s view of rowing on the radio in 1936.
Punch magazine’s view of rowing on the radio in 1936.

Thus, the broadcasting of Henley Royal Regatta is not something new. However those early listeners and viewers probably did not think that, in 2015, someone half-way around the world would be able to watch the whole thing live on a wireless telephone that fitted into the palm of their hand. I am not sure that I believe it myself.

Pic 6. An advertisement for the Radio Times magazine in the Boat Race programme of 1956.
An advertisement for the Radio Times magazine in the Boat Race programme of 1956.

* The Radio Times archive contains tantalising glimpses of lost radio programmes that would have appealed to HTBS types. These include talks by G.O. Nickalls, “Rowing: The Old Orthodoxy and the New”, George Drinkwater, “Crews at Henley”, and John Snagge, “The Crowd Roared: Henley Royal Regatta, famous races remembered and the stories re-told”.

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