Sink Or Swim review – hugging, learning and the occasional jellyfish | Television & radio



“White men can’t jump. Black men can’t swim,” says Linford Christie. What nonsense. The 59-year-old Olympic gold medallist and former world champion is now spending 12 weeks proving himself and the stereotype wrong.

Along with 10 other celebrities who, like 25% of British adults, struggle to swim, Christie is getting in condition to form a relay team that next month will swim 21 miles across the Channel. Which, as you know, is an obstacle course featuring jellyfish, waves, cold, polluted water, plastic debris, container ships, gulls ready to feast on your still-warm corpse, and the piercing shards of shattered human dreams. More people have climbed Everest than have swum the Channel, says Keri-Anne Payne, the two-time 10km open-water world champion and coach to this – no offence – unpromising bunch.

In his pomp, Christie clocked 9.87 seconds over 100m. He is a little slower over 500m. To be fair, those 500m are in Windermere, and Christie isn’t the only one out of his element. Yes, it takes him an hour to swim to shore and, yes, the former Towie cast member Arg, who is morbidly obese (he put on 64kg, or 10st, in two years and is 50% fat), took only 21 minutes to complete the same course. But so what? Earlier this summer, Christie couldn’t swim at all. As for Arg, how clever of him to name himself after what he will be shouting at rescue boats next month.

Plenty of other stereotypes are overturned in the opening episode of Sink Or Swim (Channel 4). Sair Khan, a star of Coronation Street and a reality show recidivist (she was on I’m a Celebrity), says people from her background don’t really swim, since the focus is putting food on the table. She probably means Muslims, not people from Weatherfield. But recall the relevant hadith: “Teach your children swimming, archery and horse riding.” Happily, Khan clocks 21 minutes over 500m, making her the fastest of the women taking part.

The Last Leg presenter Alex Brooker was born with hand and arm deformities and a twisted right leg that had to be amputated when he was a baby. How does he feel in 17C water? “I’ve only got one set of toes I can’t feel.” Upbeat guy.

I love his mum’s back-garden pep talk: “You were a boy, now you’re a man,” she says, while he eyes her sceptically. “Have you gone on the internet for inspirational quotes from mum to son? You’ve never said anything like that before.”

I shouldn’t enjoy this show, for all that it raises money for Stand Up to Cancer. It contravenes Larry David’s rule when writing Seinfeld: no hugs, no learning. Sink Or Swim is all hugs and learning, reality TV at its most algorithmically constructed. Go-to-ad-break jeopardy? Check. Manipulative mood music when the celebrity sets out their sad backstory? Check. Christie joking about the flotation powers of his legendary lunchbox? Afraid so. But when Brooker fights off tears and pain to complete his 500m swim and collapse into Greg Rutherford’s arms, I well up like a Cumbrian rain cloud.

That said, Sink Or Swim leaves questions to be answered. What happens if someone drops the baton mid-Channel? Are you allowed to swim after it and, if so, for how long before you are disqualified? After all, this is a bumbling British relay team we are talking about.

The biggest question of all concerns another Towie star, Georgia Kousoulou. Payne tells her there isn’t enough time left for her to get into shape to battle the cruel sea, so Kousoulou leaves the show – even though, ironically, she is a swimwear designer. “When you really think about it,” she had said earlier, “why would I want to swim?” Quite right. Why would anyone?

But doesn’t this development mean 10 will have to do the swimming of 11? If it is not too late, they should bring in a ringer, ideally the heroic teacher Sadie Davies, who just swam 15 miles from the Hartland Point in north Devon to Lundy, to raise money for the environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage. But that probably wouldn’t be fair.

Next up, White Men Can Jump, in which celebrities including Stephen Fry, David Cameron, Rick Wakeman, Tony Blair, Danny Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg raise money for charity by going to basketball camp. Twelve weeks later, they emerge with the right stuff to beat a team including LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan.

Don’t pretend you wouldn’t watch it.