Boat Race: Drury keeps steady hand on tiller after change of channels

ITV caused a few ripples when it took over the franchise for a venerable old institution, but after initial doubts Brian Viner is happy to go with the flow
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The 151st Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race was the first transmitted by ITV, who treated the venerable event with proper reverence yesterday, slightly to the disappointment of this observer, who was hoping for Boat Race Pop Idol as a warm-up act, followed by Boat Race Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? At the very least, we might have expected the boats to be emblazoned with advertising, with the Cambridge "Laura Ashley - This Weekend Only, 25 per cent off Home Furnishings" boat trailing the Oxford "Abbey - Move Your Mortgage For The Last Time" boat. Mark my words, that time will come.

The 151st Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race was the first transmitted by ITV, who treated the venerable event with proper reverence yesterday, slightly to the disappointment of this observer, who was hoping for Boat Race Pop Idol as a warm-up act, followed by Boat Race Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? At the very least, we might have expected the boats to be emblazoned with advertising, with the Cambridge "Laura Ashley - This Weekend Only, 25 per cent off Home Furnishings" boat trailing the Oxford "Abbey - Move Your Mortgage For The Last Time" boat. Mark my words, that time will come.

Despite the reverence of the presenter Gabby Logan and her colleagues, however, the Boat Race still sits uncomfortably on ITV. The channel's new controller of sport, Mark Sharman, has acknowledged as much, reportedly saying that, had he been in charge at the time, he would not have shelled out £1.75m for the five-year deal.

Whoever did was obviously trying to cash in on the growing interest in rowing inspired by Britain's Olympic success, which is fair enough, although I think Sharman would have been right to baulk at the deal. Unlike the Olympics, the Boat Race will always carry the whiff of social élitism, which might get fainter as the years pass but will never entirely evaporate, and the commercial channel is not the place for élitism. No, the Boat Race plainly belongs on the BBC, with the ghost of John Snagge saying, "I can't see who's in the lead but it's either Oxford or Cambridge," as he so splendidly did in 1949.

Still, Des Lynam swapped sides and so did Parky. Institutions do. So instead of lamenting the BBC's decision to relinquish the Boat Race, which would once have seemed comparable with Fortnum relinquishing Mason, let's analyse how ITV went about the job.

The hour-long build-up was slick enough. Logan has acquired "safe pair of hands" status, making her ITV's answer to Steve Rider, except that she uses less hairspray and is therefore more environmentally friendly.

In the studio she had the Olympic gold-medallists Tim Foster and James Cracknell, along with the former Cambridge rower Wayne Pommen. Were it not for the fact that she is married to a reasonable bit of beefcake in the substantial form of Scottish rugby union star Kenny Logan, she might have become a little intoxicated on the six-packs alongside her. But Gabby did not get where she is today by getting giggly in the presence of strong men, unlike Sue Barker, who did.

Flexing their muscles, too, were the backstage technical bods, who gave us a virtual reality tour of the course, unaccountably set to light orchestral music. These virtual reality trips have also become obligatory in golf and horseracing, and are more ornament than use. But it was nice to see a computer-generated Craven Cottage, home of Fulham FC, and interesting to see that it is just across the river from Harrods depository. Never mind the Boat Race, this was a computerised bird's-eye tour of the empire of Mohamed al-Fayed, rather appropriate for a man whose mind is rooted in virtual reality.

As for the mind of Oxford cox Acer Nethercott, the commentator Peter Drury could not praise it too highly. Nethercott is not only a philosopher but also has a first-class degree in physics, I think he told us. I wasn't absolutely sure because my pen had just run out, as exhausted as I was by Drury's commentary.

"This is tense, this is gladiatorial, this is a staring-out of two prizefighters," he said, as the Oxford boat crossed the Melling Road for the second time. Hey, if he can bring other sports into it, then why can't I?

Drury - once an esteemed fellow-columnist on these very pages - is a great proponent of the poetic form of commentary as pioneered by Barry Davies. "A cox is to his eight as a scrum-half is to his pack," he said, as the Cambridge boat went into a particularly fiendish chicane. "Each stroke," he added, "is as smooth, as long, as harmonious as the last."

I've noticed on his football commentaries, too, that Drury never uses one word when he can use the same word again and again. "This is about pain, this is about endurance, this is about fortitude," he told us, as the Oxford boat entered the final furlong. The man is a walking thesaurus, a walking lexicon, a walking glossary.

Still, in all fairness, he made a pretty good fist of his first match in the cockpit. After all, the Boat Race has tripped up some of the greatest names in sports broadcasting, not only Snagge, but also Harry Carpenter, whose 1977 gaffe remains the high water-mark by which all others are measured: "Ah, isn't that nice," said Harry, "the wife of the Cambridge president is kissing the cox of the Oxford crew."

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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