Last Night's Television:
The Schoolboy who Sailed the World, Channel 4
Fearne And Alesha Dixon, ITV2
The young man and the sea
Friday 06 November 2009
When I was 16, I mainly thought about clothes and, probably, Dawson's Creek. Boys? Maybe. Friends? Probably. Sailing? Er, nope. Which may explain why I've only been on a boat a handful of times in my life, and Michael Perham has already sailed the world. The whole world. He did it aged 16, and became the youngest person ever to do so. The Schoolboy Who Sailed the World told his story.
Michael, clearly, had been thinking about boats for as long as he could remember. Before that, his dad, Peter, was thinking about it for him. "It's not just my dream," said Michael. "It's my dad's too." Anyway, just because he'd been planning the journey virtually for ever, it didn't mean it was going to be easy. First, there was the fundraising to be done. Michael estimated that the trip would cost about £1m. Originally, his dad was to sail behind him, but the strain of budgeting for the two of them soon put paid to that idea. Eventually, they got the money: some of it (the sails?) from Skechers, some from the local supermarket and some from God knows where else. (It was a tough pitch. As Peter put it: "No one wants to be associated with the death of a 16-year-old.") It's not exactly what they wanted, but they seemed happy enough making a few compromises here and there. The boat Michael was using was massive, much bigger than most would use for a solo circumnavigation. And it was old, too. Really old. Gosh, I don't think I could take these sort of risks with my son, but then what do I know? Like I said, Dawson's Creek and clothes.
After a measly five days' (five days!) training, Michael was off, crying and hugging his parents and swapping bracelets with his girlfriend, who seemed completely bemused by the whole thing. "I didn't really think he was serious when he said he wanted to sail the world," she said. Predictably, things went wrong from the off – the autopilot failed, repeatedly, and the rudder fell out. Michael seemed to spend most of his time either in tears or having to patch up his boat. It was gripping, really, though in a rather horrible way, given his age. He made it in the end, of course. We knew that – it happened in August. Still, for a moment there I thought he might not.
Come to think of it, my youthful frivolity may explain something else: why I was never on University Challenge. Also why, all these years later, I still struggle to answer a single question. Ah well, at least there are some people who can. They were interviewed here in the latest charming Wonderland documentary, I Won University Challenge. It's reassuring, really, when you think about it. My favourite was Pamela ("from London, studying law and psychology" circa 1968). Pamela has an IQ of 168 (that's 68 above average) and is a member of Mensa. Not that anyone would ever know it; she doesn't tell them, "because they would give her sideways looks". As her mother used to say: "A whistling woman and a crowing hen, is fit for neither God nor man; don't let your brains show."
Hang on, don't listen to her, Pamela. Show 'em off! There was a wonderful clip of her back in 1968, reacting to the question, "For what invention would women in particular thank Denis Papin?" (Answer: the pressure cooker.) Pamela grimaced, rolled her eyes and gave the camera the dirtiest look she could muster up. She married a fellow contestant, who has since passed away. Now she's turned 60, she said, she's having much more fun. She decided to stop being scared of what people think. So there she was, in her sitting room, morris dancing for the cameras. She couldn't be more delightful.
Not everyone has found their way so comfortably, though. John, who appeared as part of the Open University's team in the Nineties, has struggled to stay in one job. He's currently a postman, and feels frustrated that he could have done more. And there's Tony from Birkbeck College, who was drunk when he entered. He still won, but sees the victory as more damaging than anything. It proved he could "live the life [he] leads and get away with it". Mainly, though, they're lonely. Being so exceptional does that. "It's not like being a rock star," observed one. It certainly isn't.
At last! Something more in line with my frivolous tastes. Fearne and Alesha Dixon. It was the last of this ill-fated ITV2 series and, possibly, the least fathomable. Why would anyone want to interview Alesha Dixon? Sure, she seems lovely enough, but don't we all know what she's like? She's on TV every weekend, after all. You know, on Strictly Come Dancing, a subject that, incidentally, takes up most of this programme. Speaking of which, it's pretty difficult to ignore just how prominently the BBC has featured. There's Fearne, obviously, a Radio 1 DJ. And there's the Radio 1 studios, where Fearne was filmed sitting in front of an enormous BBC logo. And there's Strictly. All on an ITV2 programme. It's... odd.
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