Celebrated and celebrity

Sir James Weatherall and Dan Snow – both celebrated former Sea Cadets

Historian and BBC presenter Dan Snow on the front cover of Seafarer magazine

“Have you ever interviewed anyone famous?”

That’s a question I’m frequently asked when I say that I’m a journalist and editor, and when I reply yes, the follow-up is invariably, “Who?”

Olympians, actors, MPs

At that point I usually list a handful of personalities who make regular headlines – MPs, Olympians, actors… then I blank. You’ll find a few of them listed in my character interview pages on this blogsite.

The truth is, I’ve interviewed so many people in the course of 30 years in the business that I’ve forgotten more of my interviewees than I can remember.

That’s not what my offspring would call a humble-brag. Genuinely, I can’t name names when put on the spot and in the early days of my career (when I interviewed the likes of composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, Monkees lead singer Davy Jones and Dr Who actor Jon Pertwee) it never occurred to me to keep a record. I can’t for the life of me remember the author I interviewed when I was in my first few weeks as a professional journalist. I do recall that it was at a barn conversion near Diss and I was especially impressed by his floor-to-rafters bookshelves.

On Saturday then, flipping through the Register section of my paper copy of The Times, it wasn’t the name that caught my eye, but an image. Sandwiched between the obituaries of The Earl of Plymouth and actor Bill Maynard was a third, that of a man standing on the deck of a ship wearing naval uniform and looking both proud and pleased – and I knew I’d seen the photograph before.

He went on to receive not one, but two knighthoods

Vice-Admiral Sir James Weatherall considered his time as Captain of HMS Ark Royal as a boyhood dream come true, he told me. But despite the fact he went on to receive not one, but two knighthoods, the first after a distinguished 37-year-long career in the Royal Navy, the second after serving in the Diplomatic Corps, our interview didn’t even make the front page of the magazine that had commissioned me for members of the Marine Society & Sea Cadets (MSSC).

Not even the Sir James Weatherall’s status as a former chairman of the Sea Cadets and a series of interests and distinguished appointments that made me wonder when he had time to sleep gave him the cover slot of Seafarer.

The Winter 2009 issue that featured him also carried an interview I’d done with poster-boy television broadcaster and now much-respected historian Dan Snow. So perhaps understandably, it was Dan who made the cover, his steadfast gaze and crumpled shirt a contrast to the super-smart uniform of a Naval officer standing on the deck of one of the most famous ships of the modern age.

Celebrated, not famous

Of course I also remember the interview I conducted with Dan. It was done over the phone as he shuttled between terminals at Heathrow, competing with so much background noise from baggage trolleys and tannoy announcements that I was fearful that I would not have enough material to create the feature I’d been commissioned to write.

On Saturday, I couldn’t help reflecting on a life well-served but not in the spotlight. To the wider public, Sir James Weatherall wasn’t a celebrity, and if I told anyone I’d interviewed him, I’m not sure they would have a clue who he was or be impressed.

You can read the obituary in The Times, March 31, 2018 (paywall) and a pdf of my original article in Seafarer is available to view here.

My career in journalism has led to brief connections with the hugely respected and celebrated, as well as the feted and famous, and for that privilege I’m grateful.

But it’s a funny old concept, celebrity – isn’t it?

Timothy Spall and the Call of the Sea

Timothy and Shane Spall image for Seafarer Magazine, courtesy Paul Crompton


I’m amazed to find it’s two years since I interviewed the character actor Timothy Spall as he circumnavigated Britain. His wife, Shane has since published a book about their adventures. I caught up with them in a noisy pub at the end of a busy day.

Timothy Spall turned down the opportunity to play a Pirate of the Caribbean so he could circumnavigate Britain in a converted Dutch barge, the Princess Matilda, with his wife, Shane.
Interview by Sandra Kessell for Seafarer Magazine

Why did you take up boating and what inspired you to take to the sea?
I don’t really know. It was a thing that happened when I was ill [with leukaemia]. I said to my wife: ‘When I get over this we can get a narrow boat and do the canals.’ It was our initial plan to get across to France but we decided we didn’t want to do that, we wanted to discover our own country. When we started I couldn’t even read a tide table, I learned to navigate by reading books, but this wasn’t an epiphany. I started to feel the call to the sea and I still feel it – but now I fear it and feel it – though I’m enjoying myself – it’s called life, pleasure.

Who’s the captain and who’s first mate?
I’m the captain and the skipper, my wife Shane is the chief purser, ship’s figurehead and ship’s sorceress. When I lose my bottle she reminds me she believes I can do it. We’ve done 1500 miles so far, the more you know the more there is to find out.

Which is your favourite port?
Everywhere is lovely. One of the nicest feelings was arriving in Douglas as that’s the furthest we’ve been out to sea. When we arrived in Peel on the west coast of the Isle of Man, with its very quaint and beautiful castle, we had to wait on the harbour wall for the tide to come in – it was a microcosm of everything that we have seen, in a way. There were kids playing on the beach, and it was hard to tell whether it was seagulls or the kids screeching as the fishing boats were bringing in their haul of queenies [queen scallops]  – it was absolutely idyllic.

Where would you most like to visit?
Wherever we’re next heading is where I want to be. We’re off to the Caledonian Canal, but we don’t plan more than 50 to 100 miles ahead. I hope we can see the Mull of Kintyre, Oban and Loch Ness. We keep a general idea of where we are going, but that’s also dictated by the wind and tide and weather conditions. If we get trapped, we get trapped. we don’t have a timetable. Sometimes I have to go off to work, so we find a safe harbour and leave the boat in purdah. One of the great things about the British Isles is they’re nautical isles with good facilities – though the Princess Matilda is 54 feet long and we pay for our moorings by the foot!

Do you have any seafaring ancestry?
I’d lived in London all my life until recently, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool 100 per cent urbanite. The call of the sea came from out of the blue, there’s absolutely no recent seafaring history in my family. My wife looked my background up and found I’ve got links to the East Coast, to Suffolk, 100 to 150 years ago. Perhaps some were mariners then.

Would you consider sailing a yacht, rather than your barge?
I don’t think so. Having played a hangman [Albert Pierrepoint] I’m well aware of what a rope can do! I can’t see myself running up and down a yacht, unless I could press buttons in and make the sails do what I wanted them to do. I know how hard life must have been before the internal combustion engine and I’m a lazy so-and-so who would rather dictate it all from the wheelhouse.

Could you combine your love of the sea with acting – playing a part in Pirates of the Caribbean, for example?
That did come my way recently, I’d have loved it, but it didn’t work out. I would have been in the Caribbean rather than being on my own boat. I worked with Mr Depp on Sweeney Todd – if I had another opportunity to repeat that experience, I would take it, he’s very, very good to work with.

Which mariner would you like to play?
Captain Bligh or Nelson – or the last person to invade Britain by sea – John Paul Jones. He invaded Whitehaven in the 18th century – they call him a pirate there, but the US Navy think he’s a hero. Sailing the coast you find wonderful things out about your own country!

If the Princess Matilda sank, what would you save?
A bottle of wine and Shane – and hopefully the lifeboat!

Timothy and Shane Spall’s adventures are documented in a book The Voyages of the Princess Matilda and on their blog, www.spallsatsea.com. Their seagoing Dutch barge was built by Peter Nicholls Yacht Builders Ltd.

Original text here: Tim Spall