Celebrity Squares (and Feathers) 

Some of the contestants in the recent television ‘celebrity challenge’ show, ‘Don’t Rock The Boat’. Picture: ITV.

24 November 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch sympathises with the view that television is called a medium because it is neither rare nor well-done.

Many television viewers have an apparently endless fascination with watching alleged celebrities getting into great difficulty doing things such as dancing, cooking and sharing a house with idiots. Thus, it was perhaps inevitable that rowing would soon be added to this list of Herculean tasks. Between 2 and 6 November, Britain’s ITV network broadcast Don’t Rock The Boat, one of those programmes that you suspect was developed by a team of media studies students who started with the title and then worked backwards. The premise was that two teams of six celebrities take three weeks to race, in stages, the length of the UK in ocean rowing boats and also take part in challenges on land. Just in case there were viewers who had not seen one of these sorts of shows before, we were told to ‘Expect stress, exhaustion and tears as the physical and mental strain takes its toll’ (though that the same warning is given for programmes about people baking cakes).

I did not watch much of Don’t Rock The Boat, but I think that I can summarise the whole five hours: rowing for a long time is a strain; at least one contestant was inspired by the death of a relative; it obeyed the rule that James Cracknell has to appear in any such programme; at the end, all the contestants said that they were better human beings for having been uncomfortable for a bit. You get the idea. To be fair, The Guardian liked the whole thing and there will probably be a second series. Also, I suspect that the part where the celebrities defecate into a bucket will get its own spin-off show.

Making a ‘reality tv’ programme? Remember the ‘include Cracknell’ rule, please do not force James to get a proper job. Picture: ITV/Radio Times.

In the modern age, great deference is paid to those who somehow gain the status of ‘celebrity’. In the recent past, things were just as bad but it was the antics of people such as the young gentlemen at Oxford and Cambridge that enthralled the masses and it was these fellows that the public want to see rowing, both properly – in the University Boat Race – and badly – as reported by the Sphere of 24 June 1950. The magazine covered a boat race between officers of the debating societies of both universities, the Oxford Union (founded 1823) and the Cambridge Union (founded 1815).

‘The climax of May Week at Cambridge’.
The public turned out en masse to watch the chaps having a wizard time.

The coxswains were the respective Presidents of the debating societies and later both became well-known for their achievements in public life and both appeared regularly on television.

The Oxford Union President, Robin Day, later Sir Robin Day.

Oxford’s Robin Day became a political journalist and broadcaster who was rarely off British television screens between the late 1950s and the 1990s and was particularly well-known for his BBC election night coverage. His Guardian obituary stated that Day was ‘the most outstanding television journalist of his generation. He transformed the television interview (and) changed the relationship between politicians and television…’ However, his ending of the deferential style of interviewing politicians on British TV was not universally popular and in 1958 a critical Daily Mirror columnist wrote, ‘the idiot’s lantern is getting too big for its ugly gleam’. I wonder what the Mirror man would have said about the idiot’s iPhone?

The Cambridge Union President, Norman St John-Stevas, later Baron St John of Fawsley.

Cambridge’s Norman St John-Stevas was a Conservative MP from 1964 until 1987. At various times he was Leader of the House of Commons, Chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission and Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. However, he was much better-known than most of the holders of those obscure posts, possibly because his flamboyant personality attracted media attention. A brilliant scholar (he studied at Cambridge, Oxford and Yale) and a serious politician (his career held back, some say by prejudice against his homosexuality, some say by his flippancy), the foppish St John-Stevas also had a slightly comical devotion to the Monarchy and the Papacy (the two came together when he advocated the canonisation of Princess Grace of Monaco). His Independent obituary called him ‘an élitist desperate to appear on daytime television’ and noted that ‘he collected names and then dropped them’. The Guardian concluded that ‘he lived life as a camp performance’. The above pictures indicate that he coxed in that way as well.

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