Review: Swim the Channel / by Crispin Thorold

The swimmers who gather every summer on a pebbly beach in Dover harbour share a dream that they will achieve a Herculean feat.  It’s the stuff of legends - armed only with a swimming costume, a pair of goggles and a swim cap they hope to conquer the 21 miles (34km) stretch of sea that separates England and France.  On their way across the busiest shipping lanes in the world they are likely to encounter cold waters, ‘lumpy’ seas, variable weather, jellyfish and perhaps experience acute sea-sickness.  

The preparation for a solo attempt should be rigorous and it is often lonely, but in Dover the channel community comes together to train.  The pilgrimage to Dover beach is a quintessentially English gathering that attracts all manner of characters and misfits who are united by their shared endeavour.  Together the swimmers and the volunteers who support and cajole them are the heart of English Channel swimming.

Swim the Channel

 The General (Photo: Mother Hen Films / S+O Media Production)

The General (Photo: Mother Hen Films / S+O Media Production)

The beach is also at the core of this documentary, which brilliantly captures the spirit of Channel swimming.  Running throughout are the stories of three Channel aspirants.  Al Gale, a father, husband and IT consultant who is relatively new to swimming and has embarked on a Channel solo in memory of his son Harry who died in his arms.  Then there is schoolgirl and diabetic, Georgie Halford, who is graduating from her swim squad with a Channel attempt, inspiring her giggly teenage friends in the process.  And finally Mike Cross, the cheeky Essex lad and serious talent, who has swum solos three times before with its seems minimal training - there's no sign of him starting now.

As their stories unfold over the 2014 season we meet some of the regulars of the Channel scene.  For anyone who has spent time in Dover they will be familiar.  Freda “The General” Streeter who trained her daughter Alison, the most successful Channel swimmer in history, before taking residence on the beach all weekend, every weekend of the season to oversee the Dover training crew.  By her side are her two principal lieutenants, Barry and Irene Wakeham who keep the swimmers fed, chaff-free and safe.

 Mike Oram, pilot (Photo: Mother Hen Films / S+O Media Production)

Mike Oram, pilot (Photo: Mother Hen Films / S+O Media Production)

Also featured is Kevin Murphy, the hirsute “King of the Channel” and elder statesman of Channel swimming who appears on the beach wearing trunks that proclaim “King Kevin”, with a regal cap to match. Michael Oram, one of the premier pilots, holds court at home and while at work at sea.  We also hear from the long-suffering spouses and parents of the swimmers, as well as their somewhat bemused mates.   

Swim the Channel elegantly weaves archive with the original footage. The soundtrack - music by the Damon Albarn led Electric Wave Bureau - works in perfect harmony with the bleak skyline of Dover and it lifts the tedium of the Channel.

This is a story that is told with a gentle touch and affectionate humour is never far away, whether it’s Barry Wakeham scrambling up the rocks in his yellow fisherman’s waterproofs trying to round up errant swimmers in the fog, or Kevin Murphy training at a nudist colony in nothing but his goggles and cap.  If you are seeking a how-to guide to Channel swimming then look elsewhere but as an introduction to the scale, oddities, and charm of this pursuit then look no further than Swim the Channel.

Swim the Channel will be broadcast on BBC4 in the UK at 9PM on 18 July 2016, and will be available for 30 days afterwards on the BBC iPlayer.