Ian McMillan: Messing about on the water in Whitby Harbour

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The other day I nipped into Mad Geoff’s for a trim and a natter; Mad Geoff is my barber in Darfield, and a fixture in this part of South Yorkshire for many years. “Ian McMillan!” he shouted as I sidled in. “Last time I saw you, you were rowing across Whitby Harbour!” Ah yes, Whitby Harbour and the glamour of TV.

I’d been in Whitby a couple of days before doing some filming for the BBC programme Coast; the story was about a hospital ship called the Rohilla which sank in rough waters just outside the harbour in the stormy Autumn of 1914.

The idea was that we would recreate the attempts to rescue the people on the Rohilla from the vantage point of 2011. “It’ll involve a couple of boats,” the director said. “Nothing to worry about.” I wasn’t worried, I was relieved: the first plan had featured me being pulled across the harbour on a rope in a pair of leather kecks to show how people in 1914 were brought to shore. They dropped that idea, I’m glad to say.

I stood by the harbour doing what we in the media call a PTC: a Piece To Camera. I was aware that I was being watched closely by members of the public who weren’t quite sure if I was Johnny Depp or not, which made me want to do my job well as I was representing the BBC to the wider world. I had to say a sentence that began “This shipwreck in Whitby” and I may as well have tried to name the 14 Assyrian Kings of Ur, all of whom had notoriously unpronounceable names. “This shiprock in Whitby…” I said. Take two: “This shipwreck in Wetby…” Take 3: “This shiprock in Wetby…” This could take a while. Luckily I was rescued from the PTC, or so I thought, by the arrival of the old lifeboat I was to film in. It was a magnificent vessel powered by oars, six on each side pulled by stout-thewed chaps across the briny blue. The plan, as I understood it, was that I’d interview the skipper as the lads rowed until their arms ached. That’s almost what happened. “Right, Ian, you take this second oar and chat to Peter as you row,” the director said with a gleam in her eye, “and we’ll film from on the boat.” I grabbed the oar. It even felt heavy to grab. We began to row. A man behind me said “Come on, Ian, I know you won’t let us down.” And off we went across the harbour. I do a bit of exercise in the comfort of my back room: a few sit-ups, some press-ups, but nothing prepared me for this. We rowed out to the site of the wreck and I interviewed Peter, gasping. We rowed back, my arms on fire. Phew. Done it. I felt a sense of achievement.

“Now it’s time for the boat-to-boat” the director said, and we had to do it again, as they filmed us from another vessel. Sweat poured from me, my arms felt like they belonged to somebody else. My bum was giving me some proper cosh. As we came back for the second time, I heard somebody shout “Give him ten lashes!”

That was Mad Geoff from the harbour wall. I wish somebody had given me ten lashes: it would have taken my mind off the agony in my arms and my aching bum…