Suffolk: We go behind the scenes of filming for BBC2 show The Cruise: A Life at Sea

Balmoral in Tahiti

Balmoral in Tahiti - Credit: Archant

Tonight sees episode 2 of The Cruise; A Life at Sea aired on BBC2. Lynne Mortimer talks to Suffolk PR people on board the Fred Olsen liner Balmoral during filming.

The Balmoral at Sydney Harbour

The Balmoral at Sydney Harbour - Credit: Archant

One of the fastest-growing, most popular ways to take a holiday is the cruise.

Full board aboard - Fabulous food with chef Sara Sipek (centre)

Full board aboard - Fabulous food with chef Sara Sipek (centre) - Credit: Archant

The luxury of life aboard a well-appointed cruise ship, combined with a fabulous experience tailored to the profile of passengers. There’s no need to worry about finding somewhere to eat or how to negotiate hilly terrains because the ship and its crew will look after you.

And that’s why people – especially, it has to be said, people of more mature years – are signing up for a slice of life on the ocean wave.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the BBC has filmed a cruise for its new documentary, aptly called The Cruise: A Life at Sea. This was not just any cruise. Setting off at the beginning of the year, the Balmoral sailed around the world, stopping off at some of the most wondrous and exotic destinations on the planet. Moreover, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines is based in Ipswich, and so the people aboard the Balmoral who were liaising with the BBC for the company were all from Suffolk.


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Each of them took a section of the 112-day cruise, flying out and back from destinations where necessary. They undertook to make sure the cameras got what they needed. Logistically it was a complicated process designed to make everything run smoothly and make for good viewing.

Episode one, last week, saw the liner leave from Southampton on the first leg of its voyage which would take it to Acapulco, Mexico, stopping off at Madeira before heading across the Atlantic Ocean.

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There were 2,000 people travelling some of the way; on one or more of the four parts with 400 signing up for the entire adventure.

Fred Olsen’s Rachael Jackson was the first to accompany the ship and she also rejoined the cruise between Bangkok and Dubai.

She says: “The project started in August 2012, when the BBC’s Religion and Ethics Department contacted Fred Olsen with an embryonic idea to take the hugely-popular BBC2 Island Parish programme to sea, giving it the working title, Parish at Sea.

“Fred Olsen is one of the major cruise lines still to provide Chaplains on board its ships, and, as we learnt, Reverend Colin Still, one of The Mission to Seafarers’ most accomplished chaplains and frequent Fred Olsen cruiser, was happy to do it.

Rachael explains that because the in-house PR team at Fred Olsen isn’t huge the company called upon the services of local PR experts Sue Wilcock of Trebuchet PR, Rachel and Kevin Sloane of Rachel Sloane Partnerships, and Cathy Shelbourne of Sea Shell Communications.

“All of them willingly signed up to the ‘working holiday’ of a lifetime (not knowing at the time what they were getting themselves into!).”

We got some idea of what they were letting themselves in for from last week’s first episode, as we met central character Colin Still and members of his on-board flock. He has been chaplain for 30 cruises. Happily, experienced seaman though he is, he does lose his bearings when he first comes aboard which will be music to the ears of anyone who has roamed a ship’s corridors in search of their cabin, knowing it has to be there somewhere.

The average age of Colin’s total prospective congregation is 69. Hazarding a guess, this is an age group not anticipating dancing the night away to garage music from the resident deejay... though I may be wrong.

We also meet Sue Alderson, musician, producer and choir mistress, who is to put on a concert version of, appropriately, Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic light opera, Pirates of Penzance before they dock at Acapulco.

She quickly casts bewhiskered former Navy man Gerald as the Pirate King but finding someone to play the juvenile female lead is not so easy. “There are not a lot of young maidens on this cruise,” says Sue. After several auditions, Eileen, who is nursing a sore throat, gets the part.

A focus for this first progamme is honeymoon couple Bob and Viv Spedding, who met on a cruise three years ago. Viv doesn’t show the cameras her honeymoon nightie but assures us she has one. “I might be over 60 but I still enjoy cuddles,” she smiles.

She is also on a mission to get Bob to lose weight before they leave the ship at Acapulco. Bob has diabetes and she is worried for his health. He spends a lot of time walking briskly round the deck, the breeze ruffling his eyebrows..

All is well aboard Balmoral until, 800 miles off Madeira, a medical emergency means turning around and sailing back towards the island so a helicopter can pick up the sick passenger.

At Acapulco, Sue can look back on a successful performance of Pirates of Penzance, Bob has waved goodbye to just over half a stone in weight and the Balmoral bids farewell to 500 passengers and greets 500 new ones.

For Cathy Shelbourne, on board Balmoral cruising through the Pacific, one of the highlights of the cruise was the Crossing the Equator ceremony.

“King Neptune and his consort arose from the deep, to huge cheering from the passengers packing the decks. Officers and crew were dragged before Neptune’s court to recount their sins and kiss the mighty (smelly) fish, before being tossed into the foaming waters of the swimming pool.

“But the Captain fought back! With muscles rippling through his wet shirt (think Colin Firth) – and every personal camera on the ship trained on him – he seized one of the pirates, and they grappled frantically before toppling into the pool too. It was lucky that we were six days away from the nearest land, as the applause was earth-shattering.”

The episode being shown tonight, when Cathy was aboard, features amateur dramatics with drama producer Carol Bunyan hard at work crafting a performance with her volunteer thespians. Suffolk couple Ian and Gail Hussey celebrate their Golden wedding by renewing their vows with the Rev Colin Still.

But this edition witnesses tragedy too as a passenger dies at sea.

On the third leg, from Australia to Thailand, Sue Wilcock tells of a humorous interlude during filming: “We were all up at 7am filming the ship refuelling when we spotted Colin, the chaplain, walking his daily ‘mile around the deck’. At that moment, we were waiting for the fuel boat to leave the dock and come alongside the ship, so the film crew decided to follow Colin and record him. Hence, passengers arriving on Deck 7 were greeted with the amusing scene of Colin being chased by a man carrying a big camera, trying desperately to keep up! Not bad for a 77 year-old!”

On their leg of the voyage, Kevin and Rachel Sloane, visited the Middle East.

“The UAE, Oman, Jordan and Eqypt may not have been as beautiful as some of the earlier destinations that Balmoral went to, but they were historically and culturally fascinating,” remembers Rachel.

“Rev Colin Still had planned a memorial service at the war cemetery at El Alamein. There, with the dazzling sun, the hot sand and the thousands of white gravestones, the wreath he’d brought made a splash of colour. You could hear a pin drop when the passengers gathered to hear a prayer, a poem and a solo sung unaccompanied by Dom, the singing barman from the ship.”

The Cruise is a gentle, sincere and heart-warming documentary; it is indeed a ‘parish at sea’ with Rev Colin seen conducting services, renewing wedding vows, escorting shore tours, giving spiritual advice and guidance to guests and crew, whatever their religion, and taking part in fun aboard the cruise which was Fred Olsen’s longest ever.

He says: “I most enjoyed building a bond of trust with passengers and the crew on the long voyage, and I particularly enjoyed the marriage renewal ceremonies, as they are such happy occasions. In terms of the challenges I faced, the work takes a lot of creative energy, being on duty all the time.

“That said, this important work has given me the opportunity to see so much of the world; we passed through both the Panama and Suez canals, visited New Zealand and Australia, Singapore, and Sri Lanka.”

Fred. Olsen will be offering two Grand Voyages in January 2014: Balmoral will embark on a 104-night ‘Around the World Cruise with Burma, Japan, Hawaii and Latin America’; and Black Watch will depart on a ‘South America & Australasia World Voyage’ of 114 nights. Find out more about Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines at www.fredolsencruises.com and The Mission to Seafarers at www.missiontoseafarers.org. The Cruise: a Life at Sea, episode two of six, is on BBC2, tonight at 8.30pm

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