BBC Radio 4, 23 January 2012
Anita Sullivan's play told the story of Gertrude Ederle, the nineteen-year-old
daughter of a German immigrant to the United States, who became the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1926.
At that time Gertrude had certain rivals who trained and competed with her, notably
Lillian Cannon (Samantha Dakin). Lillian was a pretty girl, ever-willing to give a juicy quote to the press, or have photographs
taken of her dressed in her bathing-costume. By contrast Gertrude, a plain girl at best, was dedicated to swimming; when journalist
Julia Harpman (Madeleine Potter) pressed her for something to say for the newspapers, Gertrude could not respond.
While Sullivan's play celebrated Gertrude's achievement, it focused more on the ways
in which the media manipulate their subjects in search of a good story. Gertrude was sponsored by the New York Daily News;
Julia was their journalist, charged with the responsibility of ghost-writing a daily column. No one was quite sure whether
she was a friend or simply searching for a good story: Gertrude's trainer Bill Burgess (Philip Jackson) was particularly suspicious
However Julia was positively tame compared with her press rivals, who rented a tug-boat
and tried to wreck Gertrude's cross-channel swim, as if she was personally responsible for their being unable to obtain an
exclusive story. The media can make celebrities, but it can also break them.
In the end Gertrude accomplished her task and returned to the United States a heroine.
Yet within a short time her feats had been forgotten, as Charles Lindbergh completed the first cross-channel flight a year
later. Gertrude lived the rest of her life in virtual anonymity, except for one occasion at the World's Fair in 1939, when
she made another well-publicized swim, despite the handicap of a back injury which threatened to render her immobile.
Told as a first-person narrative from Julia's perspective, The Great Swim
not only celebrated Gertrude's physical strength (her swim lasted fourteen hours in total) but more importantly admired her
mental strength, as she overcame ill-health and unwelcome media intrusion to carve a life out for herself. She died in 2003
aged 98. The producer of this Afternoon Play was Karen Rose.