On board ITV's The Cruise: Meet the man who spent nearly 50 years at sea

“You lose the magnitude of what you’re doing; it’s second nature to us
“You lose the magnitude of what you’re doing; it’s second nature to us

After 46 years at sea, Captain Bob Oliver wasn’t expecting a big farewell – especially not one that would be broadcast to millions of TV viewers. 

Captain Oliver is one of the stars of documentary series The Cruise, narrated by Hugh Bonneville, which returned to our TV screens on January 11. 

He retired in December and the episodes featuring his final cruise will be televised during a three-part special in May. 

“As always my priority on that last cruise was to make it back safely,” he says. “I wasn’t really thinking about celebrating until I’d finished the job. If I’m honest, I could have done without having the film crew in the background! But it’ll be nice to have a souvenir of the cruise.”

The captain's deck on board a ship - Credit: AP
Bob Oliver, not pictured, describes himself as “Captain Sensible” Credit: AP

It wasn’t just the film crew that wanted to commemorate Captain Oliver’s long career – his crew gave him a suitably special send-off, too. “It was quite an emotional time,” he says. “I put on a brave face but I was very touched by a couple of things the crew did. When I went down the gangway for the last time, the only way I was able to hold it together was by pretending I was acknowledging applause from the stands having scored my maiden test century against Australia to return the Ashes.”

The Ashes analogy is particularly pertinent. Originally from the Essex port town of Harwich, Captain Oliver met his wife Sally in 1977, when she was a passenger on board the cruise ship Arcadia. The couple now divide their time between the UK and Australia, where Sally is from. “We basically follow the sun,” explains the captain. “We’ll spend the summer months in the UK, where our two sons live and work, and then the winter months in South Australia.” 

10 things I wish I knew before going on my first cruise
10 things I wish I knew before going on my first cruise

Despite describing himself as “Captain Sensible”, he had fun with the TV crew. “I was naughty on a couple of occasions. When they were filming me I developed a habit of throwing in something a bit outrageous right at the end – I figured they wouldn’t use that footage,” he says.

However, series two saw one of the captain’s flippant comments making it to the final cut. “It was during the build-up to a wedding, which was due to take place out on deck, and I was being filmed getting ready in my cabin. Having tied my tie half a dozen times, the crew asked me to comment on the weather. So I took a look and quipped, ‘Yep, still crap!’ and they televised it. I don’t know how much will make it through this series,” he laughs. 

The Cruise has been enormously popular with audiences, with the second series averaging around 3.5 million viewers. As a result, 2018 will see 12 new episodes going out on ITV: the current six-part series, filmed on Royal Princess in the Med, followed by two special three-part programmes later in the year, focusing on cruises to the Caribbean and Alaska. Why do viewers love it so much?

The Royal Princess cruise ship was christened by the Duchess of Cambridge - Credit: © dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo/dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo
ITV's The Cruise explore life on board the Royal Princess, which was christened by the Duchess of Cambridge Credit: © dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo/dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

“You lose the magnitude of what you’re doing; it’s second nature to us,” muses Captain Oliver. “But I did a handbrake turn going into Messina, and the TV crew gasped. Suddenly you realise that, from the outside looking in, it’s probably quite awesome.”

"The people are what viewers love best, of course, and dipping into the lives of the passengers and crew. Whether funny or dramatic, the show is a good reflection of the mix of personalities and the challenges we face on board," says the captain. “The crew can come from 50 different countries, but we all share a sense of humour." 

"I’ll miss that, and the sense of camaraderie among the ship’s company,” he reveals. 

The surreal life on board the world's largest cruise ship
The surreal life on board the world's largest cruise ship

Captain Oliver leaves with enough anecdotes to last a lifetime. “I’ve been involved in some quite humorous moments. I was on Diamond Princess a few years ago during an opening ceremony for the new passenger terminal in Shanghai. The city’s mayor declared the terminal open and they released about 500 doves behind the podium. Just as the doves started flying up above us, some fireworks were also set off… Let’s just say, I was glad I was wearing my hat.”

The Cruise: Return to the Mediterranean is on ITV, Thursdays, 8.30pm. #TheCruise

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