Saturday, 13 August 2022

My wonderful grandfather the Olympian

THE grandson of Olympic rowing gold medallist Richard ?Dickie? Burnell says he has no regrets about not emulating him.

THE grandson of Olympic rowing gold medallist Richard ?Dickie? Burnell says he has no regrets about not emulating him.

Piers Burnell went to Pangbourne College in order to row but lost interest before he could progress beyond junior competitions.

His grandfather won gold alongside Bertram ?Bertie? Bushnell in the double sculls at the 1948 Olympic regatta, which took place in Henley.

Dickie and his own father Charles are the only father and son in Olympic history to have won gold medals in rowing ? Charles was a member of the Great Britain eight which won gold at the 1908 Olympics, also on the Henley reach.

It was not surprising that Piers was inspired to take up the sport.

Mr Burnell, of Friday Street, Henley, says: ?Rowing was something I grew up with, even before attending Henley Royal Regatta, because I would always hear stories about the family rowing and there would always be pictures about.

?I used to look at his gold medal which he kept in a cabinet in the sitting room.?

He was just five when his parents, Peter, an engineer, and Susan, a housewife, moved from Notting Hill to Brazil with him and his three siblings. He returned to England as a teenager to go to school.

Mr Burnell chose to board at Pangbourne College because he wanted to row.

He says: ?At the time my grandfather was rowing correspondent of The Times.

?We always used to drive through Henley when he was taking me to the airport from their home in North Moreton, near Didcot.

?He used to have an old Morris Minor which had a magnet on the front of it that was his good luck charm.

?He would tell me his stories of winning here, whether it was at the Olympics or at the Henley regatta. He would talk about all the rowing boats.

?When he could he would come and watch me row in the national schools regatta in Nottingham and a couple of local ones.

?He used to give advice but he would never coach because he was never around the river with me. He wrote several books about sculling and gave me copies.?

Mr Burnell rowed between the ages of 13 and 17, either at bow or seven. His first pot came at the Bedford Regatta in 1988, when he was 15 and part of an eight.

However, he had limited success apart from that.

Mr Burnell recalls: ?I tried a coxless pair at that regatta but my partner and I never practised properly. I was steering and we crashed into a wall halfway down the course.

?At the National Schools Regatta I was in an eight that lost because we were in the wrong lane. We were in the one which had a particularly bad crosswind.

?We had been leading by about one-and-a-half lengths but with about 200m to go the wind hit us and we just stopped. We ended up losing in a photo finish against Shrewsbury, who were in the middle lane.?

After Pangbourne, he went to CATS College, Cambridge, where he studied French and sociology before moving to Brighton to train as a chef.

Mr Burnell, who was then 19, says: ?I didn?t enjoy it and then I met a friend at a musical theatre in Hitchin and that?s when I decided to do acting and drama.?

He then joined a small drama college in London where he studied for two years. Then he started to do some minor films and some fringe theatre.

He also worked for the Paul McKenna show. Mr Burnell says: ?Two days before the show we would have a go with the props. We had to improvise as if we were hypnotised so we had an idea of what could work.

?Then on the night we would be in the background. If the scene was set in a restaurant we would be sitting at the back.?

Among his credits is an appearance in This Year?s Love (1999) and a couple of short films for MTV.

He also appeared in a stage production of Seduction in Chicago for which he was mentioned in Chicago Time Out.

He then set up his own acting company, Basement Bodies.

Mr Burnell says: ?I have done a lot of stuff but I never made a decent living out of it. I loved it but I always knew that at around 30 I would need to get a career.?

He spent the next seven years working in child protection in London and met the mother of his daughter, Vivienne, now five. They moved from London to Remenham in 2010.

Three years later Mr Burnell started working at the Buckinghamshire coroner?s office.

He says: ?It is very interesting on an intellectual level as you have to deal with a lot of different organisations.? In October he moved to Friday Street because he is involved with Henley Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society and wanted to be close by.

He appeared in the Full Monty at the Kenton Theatre in April last year and has other projects planned.

Mr Burnell, who is a member of Leander Club, likes to attend as many days of the regatta as possible.

He says: ?I have been coming every year since I was 14. I was actually quite bored the first time to be honest because I was accompanied by my family. But once you were 15 or more you could get away from the parents and it would become more enjoyable.

?Now that I live here of course I wish I had raced at Henley but I have no regrets. My life just took a different direction and I had other interests.?

Mr Burnell adored his grandfather. ?He was fantastic, the best,? he says. ?We used to go to Wittenham Clumps for walks and I still go there quite often with Vivienne. It is a lovely, tranquil place.

?I remember that he used to make his own homebrew which I had the odd sip of. I am sure it wasn?t particularly tasty but when you are 16 or 17 any beer is good.?

In 2012, the story of his grandfather?s Olympic triumph was told in a BBC drama, Bert And Dickie.

Dickie was played by Sam Hoare, who had roles in Captain America: The First Avenger, Doctors and EastEnders, and Bushnell was played by Doctor Who star Matt Smith.

Much of the filming took place in Henley.

Mr Burnell says: ?I spent half a day on the river watching them filming it and went to the premiere in London.

?I thought it was really good and a fair representation. But of course it was a drama ? I don?t think they were necessarily that posh.?

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