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Video: Old Man of Hoy

The Great Climb : The Old Man of Hoy outside broadcast
By Ashish Chanda

On July 8/9 1967, 15-million people watched one of the most audacious BBC outside broadcasts ever undertaken – the climbing of the ‘Old Man of Hoy’. A team of six climbers was filmed ascending a spectacular 450-foot sea stack off the Orcadian island of Hoy in a live broadcast that has been likened to an early example of what we now know as ‘reality television’. The programme featured three pairs of climbers: Bonington and Patey repeated their original route, whilst two new lines were climbed, by Joe Brown and Ian McNaught-Davis, and by Pete Crew and Dougal Haston.

As academic Paul Gilchrist has described the groundbreaking event: “It connected an armchair audience with the elite of a sport subculture intent on conquering one of Britain’s most spectacular geological treasures.”

The leading Scottish climber and Ullapool GP Tom Patey had originally approached the BBC with the idea, and convinced them that the photogenic sea stack would make for compelling television. The BBC, taking a huge risk –decided to commission an unprecedented adventure — for climbers, viewers and broadcasters alike. The producer, the highly experienced outside broadcast specialist Alan Chivers, was certainly nervous, admitting publicly that the whole idea represented a “bigger headache than anything I’ve done before”. It was certainly one of the hardest things ever attempted by BBC engineers. Sixteen tons of equipment were ferried 450 miles from the Firth of Clyde to Hoy in army landing craft. The last three miles of ground to the cliff edge overlooking the Old Man comprised trackless blanket bogs that had to be traversed. The solution — back in those innocent, environmentally unaware 1960s – was to pile all the equipment on giant sledges and drag it over the fragile terrain — something unthinkable today, especially as it has left traces visible to this very day. The broadcast, regrettably, was thus ground-breaking in more ways than one.

Nevertheless, the result was a tele-visual triumph, remembered even by many non-climbers to this day. The spectacular shots, combined with the tension, and the natural chemistry between the climbers (equipped with new-fangled radio microphones) proved irresistible viewing. The ‘performers’ (comprising the crème de la crème of British climbing such as Patey himself, Dougal Haston (soon to find greater fame as the one of the first Brits to top Everest), climber-broadcaster Ian MacNaught-Davis, top rock climbers Pete Crew and Rusty Baillie – plus the inevitable Chris Bonington) put on a cliff-hanging show on the bird-infested, brittle sandstone of Orkney that captured the imagination of a largely sofa-bound Britain.