Canals on Screen

Canals featured on film and television

A supplement to the

eBook and website by Cyril J Wood


Canals and inland waterways feature prominently in some films and television programmes. When they do I always try to identify various canal locations shown. My favourite film featuring canals is "The Bargee" starring Harry H Corbett of "Steptoe and Son" fame. This tongue-in-cheek film made in the early 1960's documents a love story between a working boater and a lock keeper's daughter. It is set in the closing days of commercial canal carrying on the Grand Union Canal. If you get the opportunity to see it keep an eye out for the character who owns a cabin cruiser played by Eric Sykes... we all know someone like this don't we?

Harry H Corbett plays "The Bargee" in this 1964 film

(Photograph Warner/Pathé)

Another classic film were canals feature is "Painted Boats"... a black and white film released by Ealing Studios in 1945. At sixty three minutes the film is relatively short and tells the story of two boating families that favour different modes of motive force on their boats... horse versus internal combustion engines. There is a sub-plot of a tentative romantic attraction between a member of each family. Like "The Bargee" it is now available on DVD from Amazon.

Painted Boats is now available on DVD

In "A Taste of Honey"... the gritty black and white drama set in Salford during the 1950's, Rita Tushingham, Paul Danquah and Murray Melvin were filmed at various locations including the Manchester Ship Canal and the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal. Actress Dora Bryan also starred in the film. Coincidentally, Dora Bryan also starred in the 1955 stage adaptation of A P Herbert's "The Water Gypsies"... originally a romantic novel published in 1930 and adapted into a film made in 1932.

Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin on the banks of the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal

(Photograph - Woodfall Film Productions)

Barton Swing Bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal was another location used in "A Taste of Honey"

(Photograph - Woodfall Film Productions)

I was pleased to see my old friends Ray and Thelly Corlett’s narrowboat "Charisma" used in the final episode of the television series “Watching” where the Bridgewater Canal at Lymm was used as the location. Canals feature regularly in Manchester based programmes such as “Coronation Street”. Des Barnes’ cabin cruiser was burnt on the banks of the Bridgewater Canal at Stockton Heath near Warrington and Samir Rashid (one of Deirdre's late husbands) was murdered in the Deansgate Tunnel on the Rochdale Canal, just around the corner from Castlefield Junction where the Rochdale meets the Bridgewater Canal. Steve Macdonald beat-up Vikram Desai... at one time his partner in the "Streetcars" taxi firm, on one of the wharf arms at Castlefield. More recently this is also where Tony Gordon from Underworld attempted to murder Roy Cropper. The Hillman (nee Platt) family nearly came to grief at Portland Basin where where the Peak Forest and Ashton Canals meet at the hands of Richard “Tricky Dicky” Hillman (Norman Bates with a briefcase - I love that description and just had to include it!) who subsequently "drowned" in the incident.

Portland Basin where "Tricky Dicky" Hillman nearly drowned the Platt family from "Coronation Street"

One of the television series that really fire the imagination of the canal enthusiast are as follows... Granada Television’s “Travelling Man” starring Leigh Lawson (Twiggy's husband) as an ex-police officer looking for his estranged son. The series was set on the Bridgewater Canal and was made in 1984. It featured the David Jones (of Taylor’s Boatyard fame) built steel narrowboat “Harmony” which was then moored on Preston Brook Marina and is now owned by fellow Lymm Cruising Club members.

NB "Harmony" as featured in Granada TV's "Travelling Man"

 “Waterworld” was made more recently by Carlton Television and is a factual series that shows many facets of the canals and inland waterways of Britain but mainly concentrates on the Midlands. The series even ventures over the English Channel with Terry Darlington... the author of “Narrow Dog to Carcassonne” who later took his narrowboat across the Atlantic Ocean (on board a container ship) to cruise the American East Coast Waterway as far as the Gulf of Mexico and is documented in his second book "Narrow Dog to Indian River". His third offering... "Narrow Dog to Wigan Pier" deals with waterways closer to home. "Waterworld" featured a member of Lymm Cruising Club... John Melling. John was demonstrating "Little Rosie", a remote control scale model of his narrowboat "Rosie".  Granada Television again came up trumps by producing “Locks and Quays” in which Fred Talbot (the Liverpool Albert Dock weatherman) and later another Lymm Cruising Club member... Matthew (Peter) Corbett (of "Sooty" fame) who explores the Leeds and Liverpool, Lancaster, Ashton and Rochdale Canals with excursions to the Bridgewater, Manchester Ship Canal, Shropshire Union and many other local canals and inland waterways. Another recent production is "Industrial Revelations" shown on the Discovery Channel (and other satellite and cable tv channels) in which actor/comedian Mark Williams (whose acting career started with the canal-borne Mikron Theatre Company) discusses the part that the Bridgewater Canal as well as other canals played in the Industrial Revolution in addition to many other interesting developments from that era.

John Craven and me whilst recording the BBC's "Country File" edition on the Manchester Ship Canal

(Photograph - James M Wood)

"Narrow Boat Afloat" was a series shown on the Discovery Real-time channel that covered many canal-based topics and followed Alan Herd's restoration and conversion of "Dover"... a 1937 Town Class Woolwich Type F ex-working narrowboat built by Harland and Wolfe. During the series yet another member of Lymm Cruising Club was shown in the shape of Ian Crompton ("Compo") who gave advice on the stern gear and engine of this beautifully restored craft. In addition to the afore mentioned programmes, the BBC series of programmes featuring Fred Dibnah supplied the viewer with tantalising glimpses of the canal system as did "What The Industrial Revolution Did for Us" presented by Dan Cruickshank. In this series of programmes, one of my books ("The Duke's Cut - The Bridgewater Canal") was extensively used for research in the episode dealing with canal transport. Not to be outdone... "The Big Ditch - Manchester's Ship Canal" and some of the photographs it contains were also used by the BBC as reference material for a "Countryfile" feature. On this occasion I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by John Craven about the Manchester Ship Canal and its history.

A screenshot of me being interviewed by John Craven on the Manchester Ship Canal for Countryfile

Two years later in September of 2010 the Manchester Ship Canal feature was incorporated into the BBC's "Country Tracks" but whilst re-editing it they managed to get all of the names wrong for the people being interviewed. After I drew their attention to the mistakes they promised to rectify them for future transmissions. "Rick Stein's French Odyssey" documented the popular chef's culinary journey along the Canal du Midi. As well as showing some of the mouth-watering recipes from this area it also gave tantalising glimpses of the popular French waterways. In February of 2011 the BBC also screened "The Boat That Guy Built". This was similar to Alan Herd's "Narrow Boat" but in a lighter and more humorous (if not disjointed) format with motorcycle racer and Isle of Mann TT competitor Guy Martin making a mess of fitting out a narrowboat called "Reckless" (now up for sale). Granada Television's, "Coronation Street" regularly uses Castlefield and other waterway locations in and around Manchester as a location. A recent storyline involving Ken Barlow befriending Martha... a lady played by Stephanie Beecham who lives aboard a narrowboat used Worsley as the location. Ken's dog falls into the Bridgewater Canal and after rescuing it Martha invites Ken and the dog aboard her narrowboat to dry out. They become close and Ken nearly leaves Coronation Street behind to embark on a life on a narrowboat.

The narrowboat "Contrail" that featured in Ken Barlow's storyline moored at Worsley

Another recent storyline involved the attempted murder of Roy Cropper by Tony Gordon. In the plot, Tony pushed Roy into one of the basins at Castlefield in an attempt to drown him but later his conscience caused him to dive into the canal and save him. Granada did not quite get the facts correct as any boater will tell you. The location where the incident took place is extremely shallow due to silting up but in the programme the viewer is lead to believe that the water is extremely deep. Not so! The BBC have produced the "Three Men" series in which the three men... Griff Rhys Jones, Rory McGrath and Dara O'Briain retrace Jerome K Jerome's footsteps (or is it wash) along the River Thames. In their second outing they venture downstream on the Thames and even sail into the open sea. However, their third outing sees them crossing the Irish Sea to Dublin where they board an ex-Guinness barge which transports them along the Grand Canal to the River Shannon. On a diversion to the Royal Canal they cruise in an amphibious car, and finally a classic sailing boat then transports them to the end of their cross-Ireland journey. For me the highlights were Griff trying to start an old hot-bulb Bolinder and their attempts to negotiate locks... including the two-step staircase lock at Ardnacrusha, renowned as the deepest locks in Europe with a total rise (or fall) of 102 feet accomplished by a thirty four foot and sixty eight feet chambers. Well worth watching and the programme also whets one's appetite for the beautiful Irish waterways. Shortly after this programme was broadcast the BBC made an edition of "Countryfile" that was centred on the Kennett and Avon Canal in Wiltshire. This programme illustrated how residential boaters fare in winter, maintenance crews in action at Caen Hill along with many shots of this beautiful canal.

The sixty eight foot rise chamber at Ardnacrusha on the River Shannon

(I pity any boats that get caught on that cill!)

Another canal orientated programme was Discovery Shed's "Water Boatman" produced by i2i Television. Alan Herd (of "Narrowboat Afloat" fame) cruises around the Stourport Ring of waterways in various boats ranging from traditional narrowboats, leisure narrowboats and cruisers to a revolutionary craft powered by a fuel cell (definitely the shape of things to come). The series starts at Gas Street Basin in Birmingham City Centre, passes along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal to join the River Severn at Worcester, upstream to Stourport where the Staffs and Worcs Canal is joined, up the Wolverhampton Twenty One at Aldersley Junction and back to Birmingham City Centre... so completing the ring. with many interesting places are visited along the way. The series was shot in 2009 and premiered on television in April 2010. A month later the BBC transmitted the short series entitled "Canal Walks". In this series Julia Bradbury walks the Caledonian, Worcester and Birmingham, Kennet and Avon and Llangollen Canals. Obviously a non-boater (judging by the way she attempted to wind-up a paddle), she examined the routes of four canals through the eyes of a gongoozler and whilst not very boat oriented was non-the-less enjoyable, interesting and watchable. A one-off programme transmitted right after the Canal Walk on the Kennett and Avon Canal on BBC 4 was "The Golden Age of Canals" which recounted the restoration of the canal network from the 1960s to the present day. It featured many canal personalities and showed how canals were restored using amateur ciné film taken at the time. This was a marvellous programme and I hope that it will be transmitted again to a wider audience on one of the main BBC channels... it most certainly deserves it.

The Caledonian Canal featured in the first episode of the BBC's "Canal Walks"

(Photograph - Barry O'Callaghan)

More recently we have been treated to a couple more series of note. Timothy West and Prunella Scales are well known for being canal enthusiasts. In their first series of Great Canal Journeys first shown in March 2014, the one hour episodes follow this intrepid couple cruising along the Kennett and Avon Canal, Rochedale Canal, Llangollen Canal concluding the series on the Canal du Nivernais in France. A second series was screened in 2015 where they travelled along the Oxford Canal, the London Ring Canals, the Glasgow and Edinburgh Union Canal and like the first series they also visited a French canal... the Canal du Midi.

Prunella Scales and Timothy West on the Oxford Canal

(Photograph - Channel 4 Television)

"Barging Around Britain with John Sergeant" was better than its erroneous title suggested. In this series first screened in Spring 2015 the British television journalist and "Strictly Come Dancing" competitor cruises along the Aire and Calder Navigation, Llangollen Canal, Caledonian Canal, Trent and Mersey Canal, Grand Union Canal and the Kennet and Avon Canal. As with most series documenting our canals and inland waterways the programmes suffer from lack of continuity and factual errors. For instance... on the Trent and Mersey Canal programme it is inferred that the canal starts at the Anderton Boat Lift and as we all know it starts just inside Preston Brook Tunnel where it makes an end-on junction with the Bridgewater Canal. Still... we should be glad that the series focuses on an interest that we all hold close to our hearts! In the photograph below John is heading towards the Anderton Lift when the programme shows him travelling away from it. They were most probably returning to re-shoot a sequence. Either that or they were going to the Stanley Arms for a pint!

John Sergeant at Anderton on the Trent and Mersey Canal

(Photograph - ITV)

Early in 2015 I was contacted by Georgia Plimbley... a researcher for the BBC who were planning a TV six part series entitled "What Canals Did For Us".  I was asked if I would like to be involved in the programmes. I was flattered and needless to say I agreed. I was next asked if I would mind being interviewed on camera to talk about James Brindley and the Bridgewater Canal. We made arrangements for a time and place for filming. Even though I was unwell I didn't think that it would be too taxing and we arranged to meet at Walton Park where the interview was to take place. Georgia was unable to attend but I was met by Paul Craven (no relation to John) who was the series director, cameraman and sound recordist rolled into one. After introductions, having the microphone pack fitted and a quick rundown of what I was to be asked the camera was set-up on the towpath and the interview took place.

Producer Paul Craven at Walton Park

A screenshot of me during the interview

Paul was impressed by my relaxed manner and professionalism which allowed the interview to be accomplished in one take. He was also impressed by the way that I spoke about James Brindley and the way he built the foundations of our canal network. When the interview was over Paul asked me if I would like to take a few shots with the HD video camera. Needless to say I didn't have to be asked twice! Paul also told me that when seeing the finished series of programmes not to be surprised to hear my words from "The Duke's Cut" and "The Big Ditch" being used as both books were used extensively in preparation of the scripts.

The week preceding the 2015 August Bank Holiday weekend I received an email from the BBC informing me that the series had been renamed "Canals - The Making of a Nation"... and a "taster" episode was due to be transmitted on BBC 1 that Friday evening and then the complete series on BBC 4 on a weekly basis. Quite a few colleagues and fellow Lymm CC members saw the series and were impressed by my performance. It is a shame that over an hour of recording was edited down to ninety seconds of screen time though! However, everyone who saw it said that it was quality and not quantity that counts. The rest of the series received favourable comments as well. It was in six parts each concentrating on a different aspect of canal history...

Episode 1    -    Engineering                -    Discusses the engineering difficulties experienced by canal builders such as James Brindley (featuring yours truly)

Episode 2    -    Geology                     -    How the building of the canals added to the geological knowledge of the land the canals passed through

Episode 3    -    Capitalism                  -    Shows how the economic drive behind the building of the canals shaped our present economy

Episode 4    -    The Workers              -    Recounts tales of the men who constructed the canals with their bare hands... the navies or navigators

Episode 5    -    The Boat People         -    Tells the story of the boat people who lived on the boats that travelled the length and breadth of the country

Episode 6    -    Heritage                    -    The final episode brings the story right up to date with how the canals were restored and used for leisure purposes


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 Book 1 - 1959 to 1982

 Book 2 - 1983 to 1999

 Book 3 - 2000 to 2005

 Book 4 - 2006 to 2007

 Book 5 - 2008 to 2009

 Book 6 - 2010

 Book 7 - 2011

 Book 8 - 2012

 Book 9 - 2013

 Book 10 - 2014
Book 11 - 2015

 Book 12 - 2016 (Coming Soon)

nb Squirrel
Canalscape Photography

The History of Lymm Cruising Club

The Duke's Cut - The Bridgewater Canal

The Big Ditch - Manchester's Ship Canal

Shroppie - The Shropshire Union Canal System (In Preparation)

The Manchester and Salford Junction Canal
Mersey Connections (Coming Soon)

Wonders of the Waterways

2011 Gardner Engine Rally Report

Foreign Forays - Canals of the World

Worsley Canal Heritage Walk

Castlefield Canal Heritage Walk

The Liverpool Docks Link

nb Total Eclipse

Don't Call it a Barge

Canis Canalus
Lymm Cruising Club Website

Footnote and Acknowledgements

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Updated 02-10-2015