Channel 5’s Britain by Boat has so far not really lived up to expectations. It features the veteran BBC newsreader Michael Buerk and John Sergeant, the Beeb’s long term (1992 to 2000) chief political correspondent taking off around the coast in the Ashley Butler Mayflower 50 design Bonaventure. Both newsmen have previously done “some yachting”. So there is a pro crew to take care of things.
The boat alone should be enough to carry a feature like this, you’d think. Her spirit of tradition lines with a lissom iroko on oak hull and towering bermudan cutter rig – she carries a 12 ft bowsprit, suggests some grand adventure of discovery is on its way. And, after all, who wouldn’t want to go round Britain by boat?
Only it doesn’t turn out that way, as we discovered in the first episode two weeks ago, when the pair try to get out of Lowestoft only to be foiled
by a faulty engine. The professional crew Mungo and Stella set to to fix it and our chaps repair to the pub. The white wine is the giveaway and it reappears regularly from then on.
In fact the series reminds you of those days when you sail alongside another boat and out comes bottle after bottle and you begin to wonder what they are going to do to celebrate when they get ashore. But with Bonaventure’s engine breaking down again and again there are several excuses for running ashore. There are attempts during these runs ashore to create humour but it’s a bit laboured and really it needed a gags script to make it work.
The pair try to score off each other but Sergeant’s gruntled deadpan gambits just seem to sink into Buerk’s more serious psyche, where they find no foil or hint of repartee. So when they go fishing, for instance, Sergeant is happy and joshy but Buerk is genuinely sad to be there, and it crumples any energy that might be trying to entertain us. The only hope is for a bit of genuine German schadenfreude and this did occur in episode 2 when the pair had been sailing XODs at Cowes and Sergeant’s boat wins. His put downs to Buerk and the latter’s unhappy grimaces are genuinely funny. But that was it, that was the one moment and at other times the lack of spark is awful. Like when Sergeant does the cooking and repairs below to finish the cider he’s been using in the dish he’s preparing. Buerk’s annoyance at falling behind when it comes to a few centilitres of alcohol is so pitiful it makes your toes curl.
To make matters worse, as the pair continue to enjoy splicing the mainbrace and just about every other brace… Mungo and Stella curtly inform them that they don’t drink. In fact the tight lipped contempt of the professionals for the stars is another cause of embarrassment to the viewer.
One of the best reviews of this show was by Lucy Mangan in the Guardian who remarked: “God knows what kompromat they must have gathered on Channel 5 during their careers to get this commissioned.”
There is a good scene with Alan Priddy of Lively Lady fame when they visit the Hayling Yacht Company and see his new round the world speedboat in build and Lively Lady nearly and newly restored. “They didn’t come from the boat in Portsmouth though,” Alan said, “they took a taxi from London. We arranged for them to get a private tour of the Victory and then spent six hours filming after which we all went to the Maypole for dinner. But the producer told me they were already over budget and they couldn’t afford our food. There were 14 of them and four of us. The next day they went to Cowes, but by ferry. The boat had to be towed over as the engine wasn’t working.”
The third episode airs this evening at 8pm. It can only get better.