The Boat Race - 80 Years Through the Lens

Charles Runcie former Head of Sport, BBC English Regions, examines the colourful history of the BBC's 90-year-long involvement in broadcasting a unique national sporting event.

Video clips from every era of BBC TV coverage of the Boat Race.

Dramatic crashes, famous commentaries, contractual shocks, and technical innovations. Who would think a rowing event between the same two universities could produce such drama over 90 years of broadcasting? The University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge is one of the country’s best-known annual sporting events, and the BBC’s association with it has produced many tales to add to its lustre.

“Like many major sports events the BBC helped to popularise through running commentaries, the Boat Race already had an established history and popularity by the time of its first broadcast” says Richard Haynes, Professor of Media Sport in the Division of Communications, Media and Culture at Stirling University. “There’s reference to a ‘press launch’ from the 1860’s and the ‘dead heat’ of 1877 was apparently decided on by the press corps. The race had a broader public interest by the 1920s, which by then was also supplemented by newsreel coverage”.

First Radio coverage

Commentary from the 1949 Boat Race. John Snagge’s famous gaffe “Oxford are ahead, no Cambridge are ahead. I don't know who's ahead, but it's either Oxford or Cambridge!”

The first radio coverage was on 2 April 1927. The launch "Magician" cast off that April afternoon with four engineers, a pilot, 1,000 lbs of generator and batteries. Also on board were an unlikely commentary pairing – Olympian and three-time Oxford rower Oliver “Gully” Nickalls alongside literary editor Sir John Squire. Nickalls said afterwards: "We stood on each other's foot when it was our turn to interrupt, and simply poured excited words from start to finish, totally oblivious to being heard or not".

1931 saw the first commentary for someone indelibly linked with the event, John Snagge. He did 36 more until retiring in 1980, but is probably best remembered for his 1949 effort. The commentary launch fell behind the race before Hammersmith Bridge, not catching up for two miles. Struggling to see the close finish, Snagge excitedly declared "I don't know who's ahead, it's either Oxford or Cambridge".

Enter Television

Lining up cameras by the Thames in 1938.

By 1938 the new BBC Television Service boldly decided to televise it. Most of the race was covered in sound only, using Snagge’s commentary and illustrated in the Alexandra Palace studio with a chart of the course and the two boats being moved along it using magnets. Three live cameras covered the finish. It was not until 1949 that the whole race could be televised, using eight shore-based cameras and another in a launch following the flotilla.

Fast-developing TV technology encouraged innovation over the next decades, but no amount of fancy kit could prevent chaos in 1984. The Cambridge boat hit a barge during the warm-up, and damaged their bow. “It was impossible to get any information as to whether they could change boats and restart, or race the next day” remembers producer/director Johnnie Watherston. “Grandstand was screaming for information, and poor Harry Carpenter in the commentary box above one of the boathouses just had to keep waffling on. The only picture I had of it was from the helicopter, which in those days had the cameraman sitting with the door open holding his camera looking down to where the crew were”. It was eventually rowed the next day, the first ever Sunday race.

1990 Tragedy

Commentator Peter Jones, at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games.

On radio, John Snagge handed commentary to Brian Johnston, then tragedy. 31st March 1990 was the blackest day in BBC Boat Race history. Making his debut, Peter Jones on board the launch “Arethusa” suffered a massive heart attack. “Just after Hammersmith Bridge he simply stopped commentating, still holding the microphone, but clearly paralysed”, remembers Caroline Elliot who was producing. “Our expert Dan Topolski picked up commentary, but once it dawned on us what was happening we quickly tried to find a place to land. We had to wait until Chiswick Boathouse, and to complicate matters “Arethusa” developed a fault so it took 10 minutes. We shouted for doctors, but the ambulance took an age to arrive as it was the same day as the poll tax riots in central London”. Jones never regained consciousness - the BBC’s celebrated voice of radio sport was silenced.

Expansion and evolution

Commentator Claire Balding, at the BBC boat races.

Rowing’s increasing profile, fuelled by Olympic success, meant that by 2000 coverage had expanded from a slot on Grandstand to a two-hour programme. Watherston’s successors, including current Director of BBC Sport Barbara Slater, continued to expand and innovate for growing audiences. Barry Davies became “Voice of the Boat Race” from 1993.

Few however could have foreseen one other change. In 2004 ITV dramatically outbid the BBC for broadcasting rights. A surprise? Maybe to many but not the organisers, insists the then chairman of the event’s negotiating group, Chris Rodrigues. “We felt it was important to have a competitive bid process. ITV’s marketing vision won the day. They promised to build both audience and Londoners’ interest with ancillary support programming, and there would be more sponsor opportunities. The world had moved on since John Snagge”.

Back on BBC ONE since 2010 it’s now renamed the Boat RACES, as the women’s race is covered the same afternoon. Executive producer Pete Andrews and Editor Mike Jackson have at their disposal 30 cameras, including 6 on the Oxford and Cambridge boats alone. Communications along the course are carried by a new specially-built IP mesh system. “No, I'm sure exactly what that means either but it's new technology!” jokes Andrews. It’s broadcast on BBC World News and by many other international rights holders, while radio commentary takes its place dependent on clashes with other sport and is on 5 Live Sports Extra.

Multi-camera, online, digital, on demand, worldwide. Nickalls, Squire and Snagge would surely approve.

Charles Runcie worked on sport for the BBC from 1982-2016.