Tim FitzHigham: All At Sea

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

If ever they open a museum of the upper-class English eccentric, Tim FitzHigham should be stuffed and given pride of place. Charmingly loopy, disarmingly self-deprecating and utterly dedicated to the madcap caper – and yes, this is one time the use of the word ‘caper’ is entirely justified – he is the first to admit he’s a living stereotype.

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for that museum, as comedy’s answer to Sir Ranulph Fiennes is the best guide to his own unique insanity: describing his peculiar adventures with the same sort of mildly unhinged passion that got him into the scrapes in the first place.

Five years and one day since he first set out to row the Channel in a Victorian bathtub, FitzHigham is at the South Bank’s eye-catching Udderbelly to retell that epic tale in super-condensed, 60-minute format. The full version, however, is covered in his eminently readable book (reviewed here), which just happens to be re-released with the new title All At Sea this month.

His quest is the sort of story that inevitably makes the ‘and finally…’ bit of the news. But beyond the amused eye-rolling at an oddball’s quirky achievement lies a much more engrossing story, told here, as it originally was in the 2004 and 2005 Edinburgh festivals, with an irresistible lightness of touch.

The tale begins – inevitably – in a pub, where FitzHigham mentions his idea to a friend, who quickly suggests the journey be extended not just from Calais to Dover, but all the way to London. Vastly underestimating the distance, FitzHigham readily agrees to the wager, but mileage turns out to be only one of many things he hadn’t quite fully appreciated. He’d never rowed before, had no money, misjudged the demands of propelling a third of a tonne of plumbing against strong currents in the world’s busiest shipping lane and was oblivious to the paperwork required for such an endeavour. Apart from those minor details, he was well-prepared.

Still, such trials are the stuff of great stories, and this is undeniably what FitzHigham has; and although this fast-paced version can only skim the surface in just the way his bathtub didn’t, the spirit of adventure is obvious. Although his achievement was incredible, FitzHigham plays it down, emphasising the jolly japery and his foolishly quixotic nature more than the physical and mental demands. But even from this taster, you can tell he went to a very dark place on this challenge – and that doesn’t just mean Margate.

However, it’s the man more than story that makes this such an entertaining ride; FitzHigham is the sort of benign oddball you can’t help but warm to – which explains how his schemes ever get off the ground, as his passion cajoles people into helping him. The tale of derring-do is told with gags at his own expense, dodgy puns sold with a cheeky showmanship, and a mild anti-French xenophobia that’s as much a part of the English psyche as a good old-fashioned eccentric gentleman adventurer.

Review date: 14 Jul 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Underbelly Festival

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