Culture: Marvel-lous history with Neil Oliver
What inspired you to go on tour with your compelling show, The Story of The British Isles in 100 Places?
I saw a flyer for Ray Mears’ show. He was going to be playing at the Albert Halls near us in Stirling. My wife said to me: “Why don’t you do a show like that?” I’ve done lots of book tours and festivals before, and I began to think that the book that had been commissioned from me, The Story of The British Isles in 100 Places, would lend itself particularly well to a tour of Britain. So I decided to do it, and now I’m really excited about it.
Will there be a link with the 100 Places?
Yes. The venues on the tour will all be close to the locations I’m talking about. There is a geographic as well as a historical side to this. I wanted to do something simple and straightforward. I’m not an academic, I’m an enthusiast. I have a quite childish excitement about things. The Story of The British Isles in 100 Places connects all of these towns, which are like shining gems on a chain. It’s a great basis for this tour.
How did you go about selecting those 100 Places?
Writing is 50 per cent of what I do, and I’m always thinking about the next book. Over the last 20 years, TV has taken me on a very unusual tour of Britain. As well as iconic places such as the White Cliffs of Dover, Edinburgh and Cardiff, I’ve gone to unexpected, remote places that take quite a lot of getting to. They are places that people have never heard of. So I’d become aware that an idiosyncratic chronology of the British Isles had formed in my head.
Do you have a favourite?
That is very hard because there are so many places in the British Isles that I love. For instance, Iona is somewhere I’ve been a lot over the years, and I love it. It’s a great centre of Christianity, but beyond that it’s a very spiritual place because of the look of it. It’s a little island with a beautiful shape. It has turquoise seas, pink rocks and a wonderful abbey that dates back many centuries. It’s a lovely, relaxing place to be.
I love Avebury. I was taken there as an archaeology student in my teens, and I’ve visited it many times since. Whatever you think magic is, there is magic in Avebury. There is something there that just lets your imagination run free. It makes you think differently about the world. It’s a very special place. I also love St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. It’s a splendid site that has all these amazing legends about giants and dragons associated with it.
Do you relish the prospect of meeting your fans face to face?
Definitely. People always ask me really interesting questions. They ask me, ‘What’s your favourite place? What period of history would you go back to if you had a time machine? And who would you invite to a dinner party?’ But the great thing is, the questions can be about literally anything. I’m not a specialist – I’m not just talking about the six wives of Henry VIII. In the show, I’ll be talking about anything that has happened in the last million years – quite a big subject!
Are you looking forward to performing live?
Yes, although I am nervous about it. People make the assumption that if you’re on television, you’re used to being looked at. I don’t deal with an audience in my TV work. I’m just with a cameraman, a soundman and a director. So the prospect of public speaking,
always makes me nervous – just as you’d be nervous about making a best man’s speech. The tour is exciting, but nerve-racking. It’s the agony of anticipation, but I know it will ultimately be really enjoyable. I take great pleasure in telling stories, and I can’t wait to share them
How do you maintain your passion for your subject?
I’m always in the position of finding out that I don’t know anything. Every day is a school day. I’m always realising that however many interesting facts I’ve picked up, I don’t know the half of it. I’m always thinking,’I don’t know enough’. That keeps me fascinated.
Are you passing on your passion to your three children?
As a family, we’re always going to places of historical interest. We live in Stirling, the site of a great deal of history. In Stirling we had the Jacobite Rebellion, William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots and James I of England. The kids hear a lot about all that.
Do you view history as a universal subject?
Yes. Whether you’re rich or poor, educated or not, everybody is interested in history. It’s the stuff people talk about. It’s why we are the way we are. That’s why it’s so important to study history. It such a shame that it’s been downgraded below IT and business studies.
Does history affect popular culture today?
Definitely. The stuff that happened in Scotland during the mediaeval period was every bit as violent as Game of Thrones. If you think the House of Lannister is bloodthirsty, just take a look at what happened with the Campbells and MacDonalds!
Was there one thing when you were a boy that influenced your passion for history?
Yes. I used to love watching the film Zulu when I was young. The story is so well told. It’s very exciting and dramatic – it portrays the bravery on both sides. The Zulus come out of it with nobility. The film inspires a lot of emotions – it’s uplifting, but also violent. That kind of thing is bound to leave a mark on a youngster.
Why are we so fascinated by history?
As animals, we’re curious about each other – hence the popularity of gossip magazines. History is part of that. From a very young age, I was always interested in why things were the way they were. That same instinct draws to science people who want to know why the grass is green. Science deals with the how; history deals with the why and the who. As a child, you think ‘Why do I live here?’ Your parents say: “We moved here because of your dad’s work.” Or you hear that both your grandfathers survived World War One and you ask: “What is World War One?” Very soon, it starts to become history.
Tell us more
Everyone is wired differently, but from early on I felt the need to understand why we had got to where we were. Why do we speak a different language from the people in France? Why are Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales different countries? These questions that children ask are answered by history.
Can yesterday teach us about today?
Our current geopolitical situation is fascinating and complex. Why are we at daggers drawn with Russia? Why did the recent poisoning in Salisbury happen? Why are we better off than people in Africa? It’s a long story that is 50,000 years old. It’s all because of history. You can’t understand anything without history. If the story of the world is a book, then all of us are born on a different page. If you only read a few lines around your page, you won’t understand the story.
You have presented several series of Coast. Why has that programme struck such a chord?
I’ve now done series on the coasts of the British Isles, Brittany, Normandy and Scandinavia, parts of the Baltic, Australia and New Zealand. We haven’t quite gone all over the world yet, but we’ll keep trying! The programme has a fairly simple premise. It invites people to remember and celebrate places close at hand that they might have forgotten about or not thought of since they were children. People love to be shown their own country from a different angle. Coast has these amazing aerial shots, and people get a kick from seeing that in our show.
Why is the coast such an essential part of British culture?
It’s part of our psyche. As Winston Churchill and others have pointed out, we are an island race. In the British Isles, you’re never more than 70 miles from the coast – it is ever present. For most of us growing up, holidays are about getting to the beach. Even though the weather is often inclement, when you go to the coast, it’s a completely different landscape for people who live in towns.
The coast is vital to our history as well, isn’t it?
Yes. For thousands of years, our trade has always come by the sea. We have defended our coastline from invasions and welcomed new arrivals there. Our history has always happened through the coast. Think of 1066 or Henry VIII and the Cinque Ports – so much of our history is about the coast. We are not a big island, and ours is a coastal story. The coast is woven through the tapestry of Britain.
You are very recognisable with your long hair – would you ever think of cutting it?
No. It’s just the way I look. I don’t give it any thought, but because I’m the age I am, it does mark me out. It’s part of who I am. It’s been like that since I was 17. In my line of work, it’s good to be recognisable, and with my hair people can recognise me from far-off!
Finally, what do you hope that audiences will take away from your show?
I hope people will go away with the same passion for history that I have. History can sometimes feel like a dry and dusty subject you studied at school, but I find it is as thrilling as any Marvel movie!
Neil Oliver’s The Story of The British Isles in 100 Places, October 23, The Apex, Bury St Edmunds. Call 01284 758000 or visit theapex.co.uk