As English as Egg and Bacon: The Boat Race

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So the Oxford-Cambridge boat race - 'as English as egg and bacon' as one commentator writes - is now back with the BBC, after five years with ITV. Dating from 1829, and billed as 'the world's longest surviving sporting challenge', it will hit the BBC multi-media airwaves (on TV/radio/online) over Easter weekend, on Sat April 3.

But why should such an atmospherically elitist event still hold such fascination, not only for British audiences but for the 120 or so countries around the world who also take it? Current Executive producer for this year's event, Paul Davies admits that it's a sport that 'most people don't know very well. They have no affinity with Oxford or Cambridge, but they do watch it... no-one can seem to explain why we get so many viewers.' He is hoping for seven or eight million of them, by the way.

So a whiff of Edwardian nostalgia, a moment of national togetherness, or the thrill of live action in adversity?

For difficult it is, and reading past reports of broadcast engineers only underlines this. The BBC first recorded it for the radio in Spring 1927, one of a clutch of commentary 'firsts' including Association Football, Grand National, FA Cup Final, cricket, Wimbledon Tennis. TV followed in April 1938. However, a complete televisation was not achieved until 1949 - mainly because the course was so long, demanding in terms of camera equipment, and hence expensive. The boat race actually runs over a gruelling four-and-a-quarter-mile distance from Putney to Mortlake: three times the length of an Olympic course. Plus the competitiors (and engineers/commentators) often have to face formidable waves and bitter winds.

The stories of technical challenge are legion: plastic tangled round the radio launch propellor, engines breaking down and launch drifting upstream towards the Cambridge crew, near collision with other boats... This year, there is technology a-plenty: nine boat-based cameras, a catamaram moving alongside the boats, a flotilla of commentators (including Sir Matthew Pinsent), a helicopter for aerial views plus 25 cameras at various locations on shore. Over in 20 minutes, it takes months of toil and preparation for all concerned - but that's sport for you!

The BBC voice that haunts the Boat Race is that of John Snagge. He made his initial commentary in 1931 - and went on to do it for 37 years (the war years intervening), listened to by people all round the world. His Michael Fish moment, which stuck to him he said 'like a tin can tied to a dog's tail' was the famous occasion during the 1949 recording when the engine of the TV launch broke down, and poor Snagge was left saying: 'I don't know who is winning. It is either Oxford or Cambridge'.

Let's hope Clare Balding, lead presenter this Saturday, has better luck!

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