Reality TV on the rock face
Although The Great Climb, set in one of the remotest climbing grounds in the UK, is a unique and formidable technical challenge for the production team, the idea of televising of live rock climbs is certainly nothing new to the BBC. The corporation first experimented with the idea back in 1963 when it broadcast a live programme from Snowdon featuring the leading climbers of the day, Joe Brown and Don Whillans, on the magnificent cliff of Clogwyn du’r Arddu. Unfortunately technical problems ensured that, in the event, little was seen of its magnificence. Undeterred, the BBC persisted, and the following year it broadcast a more successful live climbing event from the enormously overhanging limestone cliff of Kilnsey in Yorkshire. ITV counter-attacked in ’65 with a spectacular featuring a young climber called Chris Bonington leading a climb in Cheddar Gorge. In 1966 the BBC came back with a set-piece from the awesome sea-cliffs of Gogarth on Anglesey, which aired as part of the long-running Saturday afternoon sports strand, ‘Grandstand’.
But the real breakthrough came in 1967. In July of that year, 15 million people watched one of the most audacious BBC outside broadcasts ever undertaken - the climbing of the ‘Old Man of Hoy’. A team of six climbers was filmed ascending a spectacular 450-foot sea stack off the Orcadian island of Hoy in a live broadcast that has been likened to an early example of what we now know as 'reality television'. As academic Paul Gilchrist has described the groundbreaking event: “It connected an armchair audience with the elite of a sport subculture intent on conquering one of Britain's most spectacular geological treasures”.
The leading Scottish climber and Ullapool GP Tom Patey had originally approached the BBC with the idea, and convinced them that the photogenic sea stack would make for compelling television. The BBC, taking a huge risk –decided to commission an unprecedented adventure – for climbers, viewers and broadcasters alike. The producer, the highly experienced outside broadcast specialist Alan Chivers, was certainly nervous, admitting publicly that the whole idea represented a “bigger headache than anything I’ve done before”. It was certainly one of the hardest things ever attempted by BBC engineers. Sixteen tons of equipment were ferried 450 miles from the Firth of Clyde to Hoy in army landing craft. The last three miles of ground to the cliff edge overlooking the Old Man comprised trackless blanket bogs that had to be traversed. The solution – back in those innocent, environmentally unaware 1960s - was to pile all the equipment on giant sledges and drag it over the fragile terrain – something unthinkable today, especially as it has left traces visible to this very day. The broadcast, regrettably, was thus ground-breaking in more ways than one.
Nevertheless, the result was a televisual triumph, remembered even by many non-climbers to this day. The spectacular shots, combined with the tension, and the natural chemistry between the climbers (equipped with new-fangled radio microphones) proved irresistible viewing. The ‘performers’ (comprising the crème de la crème of British climbing such as Patey himself, Dougal Haston (soon to find greater fame as the one of the first Brits to top Everest), climber-broadcaster Ian MacNaught-Davis, top rock climbers Pete Crew and Rusty Baillie - plus the inevitable Chris Bonington) put on a cliff-hanging show on the bird-infested, brittle sandstone of Orkney that captured the imagination of a largely sofa-bound Britain.