The Boat Race: From Vitaphone To YouTube

The Cambridge women’s “B” crew races a Leander women’s crew in a fixture held in March last year in preparation for the 2022 Boat Race.

4 February 2023

By Tim Koch

The Boat Race Club Fixtures, when top British and foreign crews race potential Oxford and Cambridge Blue and reserve crews over sections of the Putney to Mortlake course, are an important part of the Boat Race Season. Coaches get the chance to see how individuals perform under race conditions, rowers experience competing against top-class opposition and coxswains can practice steering the unique course alongside another crew while being umpired.

Tomorrow, Sunday, 5 February (50 days before Boat Race Day) there will be five fixtures run with the Cambridge men’s and women’s “A” crew races livestreamed on the Boat Race YouTube Channel (Oxford’s turn comes on 12 March). 

The official Boat Race website has this generous invitation:

Watch CUBC take on University of London and the Dutch National Team, in a series of exciting races on Sunday, 5 February. 

Enjoy all the action LIVE on YouTube or join us at London Rowing Club from 10am-3pm to watch the races on the big screen and enjoy some refreshments. 

If you choose to watch in person, you will also be able to watch Isis take on Imperial and spot CUBC lightweight fixtures against Imperial and University of London (these fixtures are not livestreamed). 

Dress in your club colours! ALL WELCOME. Address: London Rowing Club, 7 Putney Embankment, SW15.

Smile – you’re on YouTube. Oxford men against Brookes, February 2020.

Sunday’s timetable is:

11:20 Oxford Men B v Imperial

11:40 Cambridge Women A v University of London

12:00 Cambridge Women B v University of London

12:45 Cambridge Men B v University of London

13:10 Cambridge Men A v Dutch National Team

Of course, today we take for granted the ability to watch such events anywhere in the world on all sorts of devices, some that fit into a pocket. But, any young people reading (unlikely, I know) may be shocked to learn that this was not always the case.

In 1927, this was the equipment required just to broadcast the Boat Race in sound only for BBC radio.

In 1929, a popular magazine published a piece titled, “Oxford’s sound-recorder: Guy Nickalls comments”. During training in February 1929, the Oxford crew had been filmed using the new “Vitaphone” process – though whether this was done for the cinema newsreel or as a training aid is not clear.

Oxford are filmed with “Vitaphone” equipment.
An advertisement for Vitaphone talking pictures from 1928. Vitaphone was the first widely used and commercially successful method of recording sound and pictures together. The soundtrack was not printed on the film itself, but recorded and played back separately on phonograph records. Many early “talkies”, such as 1927’s Jazz Singer used the system
In a 28-year career, Guy Nickalls won everything worth winning at Eton, Oxford, Henley and the Tideway, including three out of five Oxford – Cambridge Boat Races, 21 Henley prizes, three Wingfield Sculls Championships and the 1908 Olympic Eights (the latter won at the age of 42).

As befits a privileged man born in 1866, Guy Nickalls could be a reactionary figure. Guy’s son, Gully, held that his father’s tact was “atrocious… he could never modify his point of view for the benefit of any one of the company.” However, it seems that the reactionary could also be a visionary. Under the magazine picture of “Oxford’s sound recorder”, Guy wrote about the benefits of playing back sound film to the oarsmen involved “and slowed up or stopped completely as and when required. The crew would see themselves as they were rowing, they would hear the coach’s voice…” 

While the above film of Oxford’s 1928 crew in training does not have sound, it does make full use of slow motion.

After looking at what was possible at the time, Guy then looked to the future:

But why stop at this? Why not coach from the armchair at home in perfect comfort before a nice warm fire, or from the club or office…? With the loudspeaker, the microphone, the television set, the broadcasting apparatus, the receiver, etc., all in position, the coach, with his cigar and whisky and soda before him, without any chance of catching influenza or getting cold feet, will no doubt in the very near future sit in his armchair and coach the crew in perfect comfort. 

Was Guy being serious? Perhaps there is a clue in his final thought:

There will be no need of coxswains, the craft will also be electronically controlled from the club or armchair.

Perhaps the idea of remote-controlled coaching and coxing in 1928 was on the same level as wireless telephones?

Sunday, 26 March 2023 will see the 77th Women’s Boat Race, the 51st Women’s Reserve Race (Osiris v Blondie), the 58th Men’s Reserve Race (Isis v Goldie) and the 168th Men’s Boat Race. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.