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Sheila Hancock & Gyles Brandreth

The new presenters of Great Canal Journeys share the challenges of taking on the popular Channel 4 show


Actress Sheila Hancock and former Conservative MP Gyles Brandreth presented a new series of Channel 4’s Great Canal Journeys last year, taking the helm from the show’s original duo Timothy West and Prunella Scales. 

In the hands of the boating newcomers, the programme has necessarily taken a new direction – and has been something of a baptism of fire. “Apart from being an occasional passenger on the Isle of Wight ferry,” says Sheila, “I’ve done nothing on water. Never ever.” Gyles is even more categorical: “I’ve played with ducks in the bath but even as a child I didn’t have a toy boat. Water just wasn’t on my radar, and that continued through adulthood. Hiring a boat would never have occurred to me before.”

The producers certainly threw them in at the deep end. The first episode saw them tackling the non-tidal Thames, which included the bustling tourist hotspots of Henley and Windsor. It’s a waterway that can be daunting even for experienced boaters, but add a 70ft wide-beam into the equation, not a mid-length narrowboat, and the difficulty level is higher still. “It was absolutely ridiculous,” admits Sheila. “The boats we were given throughout the series were huge, and all slightly different, meaning I had to acclimatise to the steering and size afresh each time. But I love boating now and I’m getting quite good at it.”

For Gyles the challenge was overcoming an almost total absence of driving nous. “Even in a car I struggle. When I turn a corner or come to a roundabout I have to turn the radio down. I can’t do two things at once. So, at first I found canal navigation impossible. It’s all counter-intuitive – not just the direction you move the tiller but which side of the ‘road’ you have to keep to. It was all topsy-turvy to me.”

Having filmed four episodes, the pair are hoping that the producers give them the opportunity to work on a second series. “I’m up for anything now,” says Sheila. “If you’d previously asked if I’d consider a canal holiday in the Black Country I wouldn’t thought you were crazy. I’ve been proved wrong. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.” 

Read the full feature in February 2021 Waterways World