This trilogy of programmes – Somewhere at Sea/Back at Sea/All at Sea – charts the leisurely journey of Timothy Spall and his wife Shane as they take their 50 foot Dutch barge, the Princess Matilda, on a trip around the British coast.
Broadcast between 2010 and 2012, it’s a treat from start to finish. The gorgeous camerawork is a major plus point, but a large part of the series’ appeal is down to Spall and Shane. Gleefully admitting right at the start that he’s never had a sailing lesson in his life (everything he’s learnt has come from books) he’s a genial enthusiast who effortlessly draws the viewer in.
The shows are the antithesis of travel programmes such as Around the World in 80 Days. There we saw Michael Palin racing against the clock, whereas here there are no time restraints at all. And if you think that three years is a long time to travel around the British isles, they’d actually started out on this journey some four years before the cameras started rolling!
Despite the fact that they have a camera crew in tow, the programmes have the feeling of being completely unplanned. They know their destination, but it’s the unexpected obstacles they encounter along the way which makes for entertaining television.
This is evident from the opening episode of Somewhere at Sea, as the Princess Matilda makes its way to Falmouth. Spall is looking for a berth for six weeks, as he needs to pop off to make a film, but after deciding not to book ahead he’s disappointed to find there’s no room at the inn. They eventually find somewhere to haul anchor, but there are further problems to come.
After completing his film, Spall is keen to set off and navigate around the Lizard (a dangerous stretch of water which isn’t for the faint-hearted). But poor weather scuppers his plans and if things don’t improve he and Shane face the prospect of having to sit out the winter in Cornwall.
As the weather’s no good for sailing they decide to explore the local landscape. An impressive country church catches his eye and he takes the opportunity to quietly meditate. Shane explains that following his illness (Spall was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1996 but has since been in remission) he’s always had an affinity with churches. It’s a moment that could easily come over as sentimental and mawkish, but Spall’s directness and honesty shines through.
The second episode sees them finally make their way around the Lizard. It was clear that the thought of navigating such a challenging stretch of water was a concern for Spall, but a pep talk from the local lifeboat crew buoyed him up (if you’ll forgive the pun). His boyish enthusiasm as he takes the wheel of their lifeboat (which cost two million pounds, funded entirely from donations) is rather delightful.
Things take a slight downward turn in the final episode of the first series as a number of problems take their toll. First their anchor breaks and then Spall, making his way into Padstow harbour, sinks a marker buoy. Shane is far from impressed and makes this plain to her husband, although the pair soon make up.
Back at Sea opens with the Princess Matilda docked at Penarth, Wales. It’s been there for the winter, but now that spring’s arrived the Princess Matilda is able to set sail once more. Spall’s rather anxious though – the barge has been in dock for six months and the prospect of tackling the tricky Irish Sea fills him with a certain amount of dread. Once again this provides the viewer with a good example of Spall’s character. Many actors would find it impossible not to continue acting when the cameras were on them (playing the part of the stoic captain) but Spall’s fears and vulnerabilities are always on view.
The second episode of series two sees them visit Liverpool and then move onto Lancashire. But things again don’t quite go to plan. Spall drifts off course, which means he misses the high tide and is therefore unable to reach the safety of Glasson port. So they’re forced to drop anchor out at sea overnight, which Spall says was “a mixture of fun and horror”. But a trip the next day to buy some kippers cheers him up!
The remainder of the second series sees the Princess Matilda visit the Isle of Man (where they meet up with their son Rafe), Belfast and then deep into Scotland. By the time Back at Sea draws to a close, Spall and Shane are slightly more than halfway through their round-Britain trip, which sets things up the third series, All at Sea, nicely.
All at Sea opens with the Princess Matilda battling the North Sea around the coast of Scotland. It’s by far the roughest weather they’ve encountered so far, but they eventually reach their destination, Stonehaven harbour. They move on almost straightaway though and Spall confesses that the ever-changing weather is “doing my head in”. The stresses of the North Sea are clearly taking their toll.
But their greatest problems are not to be found in the bitter weather off the coast of Scotland, but rather closer to home. Heading to Chatham Marina in Kent, Spall had to call the Coastguard for assistance after losing his way. An RNLI lifeboat was dispatched and they were able to guide the Princess Matilda to her destination. Prior to their arrival we see Spall getting more and more frayed around the edges, which certainly provides a dramatic end to the series.
Also during All at Sea, Spall visits Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a city that effectively treated him like one of their own after the success of Auf Wiedersehen Pet. Melanie Hill, who played Hazel in the show, pops aboard for a tour around the docks.
With oodles of breathtaking scenary, Spall’s self deprecating humour and a soundtrack of classic 1930’s and 1940’s tunes, all three series are perfect viewing for the armchair mariner.
Somewhere at Sea was released on the 29th of August 2016. Back at Sea will be released on the 3rd of October 2016. All at Sea will be released on the 7th of November. All three titles cost £12.99 each.