It was a great pleasure to meet John Sergeant whilst he was filming on location on the Trent & Mersey Canal.
We caught up with him onboard a Black Prince Narrowboat in Middlewich, amidst the festivities of the Folk and Boat Festival, and he was lovely to chat to, a very friendly character.
Interview with John Sergeant
Q: How would you describe the series?
It’s the most exciting canal programme you’ll ever see. There are so many twists and turns, you think it’s just going to be an ordinary journey but it doesn’t have that ordinariness about it. There are people we meet that will surprise and interest you and there are scenes that I don’t think people will expect in a travelogue.
So we’re trying to get a mixture between telling people exactly where we are and it’s a beautiful day and it’s British summer, but also having a bit of fun. But the amusing bits come out of the people we meet and the places we go. We’re not trying to impose comedy on the canals but the comedy naturally stems from the scenes we come across.
Q: Where does your own interest in barging come from?
I’m very keen on boating and I’ve been keen on boats all my life. I go sailing every summer with my brother and so the whole life on board, I don’t really know why it’s fascinating or intriguing but I just like messing around on them. The whole boating thing, I enjoy.
Also I’m very interested in history so when we get to anything historical, I find that just easy because it’s what I know. There are moments when that feel for history, particularly with canals is very important.
It’s an astonishing thing to have the canals still there and able to use them. There’s no real equivalent. If all the steam trains were still working and if you could go by steam all over Britain then yes, that would be. But we actually can do that with canals. OK, they’re not horse-drawn. But the sensation and living and what you are seeing are exactly the same as when they were built. That is really something. And of course because we’re going to the best places, it can’t be boring! It was a bit of a dream project really. I was thrilled to bits to be asked.
Q: Was there anywhere you hadn’t visited before that took you by surprise?
I used to know Bath quite well because I went to school near there and I hadn’t realised the extent to which the Bath stone which you see in beautiful buildings, that honey coloured facing stone, I didn’t realise that that was totally dependent on the canals. It wouldn’t have become a famous facing stone. It sounds nerdish but it gives Bath this lovely colour, a lovely warm honey brown colour.
You see it in Bath on the buildings and every now and then you see it in London, when we go to Lancaster House. To think everyone wanted his Portland stone, you couldn’t have transported it without the canals.
Q: You meet some interesting people along the way, any stories that touched you?
Well, Freddie, the horse I met. He was this great big horse, and I don’t normally spend a lot of time with animals but I did bond with Freddie. He was pulling a narrow boat with tourists in and I was given the charge of him as we plodded along near Newbury and most of the time I was just on my own with Freddie and we had a good chat. It was funny, at the end I took out some peppermints for him. It was so daft but lovely.
The live-ons were always interesting too, a guy called Badger, they really were escaping. And there was a shy woman we met, her husband had died so she was living on her own on the narrow boat, like an incredible Viking leader where his wife would stay on board.
The tailor we meet in episode one was great, like out of central casting in Hollywood. A very thin, pencil like guy and so quick, of course he could immediately measure me up. The contrast of him and me I found funny. Also the guy in the whisky distillery was fun. I was tasting the whisky and very slowly getting drunk but he is wonderfully serious about the whisky and I’m sipping away and I love all that. Not rehearsed, but he was just brilliant. Then I run off with the barrel.
Q: Any other personal highlights during filming? The beer tasting? Aerobics? Smashing ceramics? Making flour?
Going over the Aqueduct was a highlight. Amazing. Also on the Aire and Calder Canal programme we went to a flower club and I completely mess up doing some planting and they are all so charming and nice and I am the worst gardener in the world. That was a fun day, just because they were so sweet.
Then I had to join the women exercising… People are more used to television cameras now than they used to be, they know it’s going to be good fun and the joke’s going to be on me, and so they want to get involved. We meet some great people.
Q: Why do you think barging is so popular in this country?
There’s a real element of mystery and adventure, and people like a mystery. What are these strange waterways? Where are they going, tunnels, you’re not on an ordinary road. Whatever happens, there is a mysterious journey.
There is also a companionship with the people you are with and the kids love it and your holiday home is with you, if you’re on canal boat holiday. But I think there’s a deeper reason too, the British thing about how do we use history? I think we use history because we enjoy it and it gives us comfort and it strengthens us.
The idea that we are able to dip into the time of Henry VIII and at that point Britain was at the top of the world because of the Industrial revolution and you are looking at what at the time was the greatest, most important canal network in the world. I think people are proud. The fantastic, British engineers. The whole thing is a sort of celebration of our country and that might sound pretentious but I don’t think it is. I think it gets people. They don’t need to know a great deal about it but are kind of proud of it.
Q: Any top tips for first time bargers?
Planning. Choose your route, that’s the main thing. You’re only going at 4mph so if you make a mistake in the route planning, you can’t just take the barge and drive off down the road with it. Decide how far you can go, what you want to see and obviously what the crew want to do and are capable of. The planning is more important than anything else.
The official companion to the series, Barging Round Britain by John Sergeant and David Bartley is available from Michael Joseph (Hardback and Ebook, £20).