Long-haired historian Neil Oliver could be starring in Poldark, instead he’s launched a dazzling history of Britain and taken it on tour. James Rampton finds out more about the TV heartthrob’s motivation and The Story of The British Isles in 100 Places.
St Michael’s Mount - Photo copyright: Julian Elliott | 123RF.com
Q Neil, what inspired you to go on tour with your compelling show, The Story of The British Isles in 100 Places?
A I saw a flyer for Ray Mears’ show. He was going to be playing at the Albert Halls near us in Stirling and 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 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.
Q How did you go about selecting those 100 places?
A Writing is 50% 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 sites 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.
Q Can you expand on that?
A I had seen everything from very early human settlements around Happisburgh, where there are footprints from 800,000 years ago, through the Stone and Metal Ages to sites connected to great moments from a more modern era. I thought I could easily choose 100 places – in fact, I could have chosen 500. I realised there was a story to be told from very early to modern times by introducing people to these places.
Q Do you have a favourite?
A 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.
Q Anywhere else?
A 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.
Q Do you have any other favourites?
A The Tower of London is a fascinating place. It’s an icon. I’ll be inviting audiences to look at it in a different way. It’s dwarfed by modern London and almost looks like a toy. But the parish church inside it, St Peter ad Vincula, is astonishing. In front of the altar is a shallow grave containing the bodies of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, Thomas More, William Lord and many more. They are all there, having been dispatched by the executioner’s axe. It’s the antithesis of Westminster Abbey, where the glorious dead are revered. At the Tower of London, they are tucked away and buried in shallow graves to be forgotten.
Q Do you relish the prospect of meeting your fans face to face?
A 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!
Q Are you looking forward to performing live?
A 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 with people.
Q How do you maintain your passion for your subject?
A 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.
Neil’s snapshot of Britain in five places
Goat’s Hole Cave, Gower Peninsula
Where a skeleton was discovered from 34,000 years ago. “There are places in Britain where the world feels old, where she shows her age.”
The Roman Baths, Bath, Somerset
Where the modern world arrived with invaders from Italy. “When you get right down to it, the Roman invasion of Britain was driven by two politicians on the make.”
The Globe Theatre, London
Where Shakespeare wrote and his work was performed. “The King James Bible, the works of William Shakespeare – the language of those creations has moved and shaped the whole world.”
Abbeystrewry Cemetery, Skibbereen, County Cork
Where the victims of the Great Hunger of the 1800s are remembered. “Starvation, slavery – these are blights we associate with the story of Africa, but they are part of the story of the British Isles as well.”
The Old Kirk, Parton, Dumfries and Galloway
Where the father of modern science, James Clerk Maxwell, is buried. “Without his imagination, his curiosity, we might live today in a world without radio, television, mobile phones and the internet.”
Q Where did you and your wife meet?
A My wife and I met at university. She is a journalist who worked for a long time in newspapers.
Q Are you passing on your passion to your three children?
A 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.
Q Do you view history as a universal subject?
A 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 is such a shame that it’s been downgraded below IT and business studies.
Q Does history affect popular culture today?
A 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!
Q Were your parents passionate about history?
A Yes. My dad was a salesman, not a history teacher, but when we were children he loved taking us to historic sites. He is a great lover of the West Highlands. We went to places like Glencoe and he was the first person to tell me about the Massacre of 1692. My dad’s enthusiasm for those places was infectious. I now have the same love of the West Highlands, probably absorbed from him.
Q Was there one thing when you were a boy that influenced your passion for history?
A Yes. I used to enjoy 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.
Q Did your enjoyment of that film continue later in life?
A Yes. At university, I met my good friend Tony Pollard. We discovered we shared a passion for films like Zulu and The Man Who Would Be King. We set up a project to investigate the battlefields of South Africa such as Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana. Two Men in a Trench, our TV debut in 2002, happened because of that. So our shared interest in Zulu completely changed both our lives and lead us both into TV. Zulu was the fork in the road.
Q Why are we so fascinated by history?
A 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 the First World War, and you ask: “What is the First World War?” Very soon, it starts to become history.
Q Tell us more.
A 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.
Q Can yesterday teach us about today?
A Yes. 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.
Q What can we learn from the past?
A Everything makes more sense when you study history. The more history you read, the less judgemental you become. All the things that are happening now have happened before. It’s always been the case that people can’t get on with each other. If kids out there are worried about relations between the West and Russia, you can tell them that we’ve fallen out before. We’ve also been at war with America. Countries reach a high point and then they go through low points. That’s all explained by history. Like everyone else, politicians can have a better understanding of what’s happening by appreciating that there are patterns in history.
Q Does being famous ever get to you?
A No, it’s a manageable level of fame. Most days someone will say hello based on the fact that they recognise me from TV. Usually it’s something very pleasant like: “I love that film you made about Cornwall or Egypt.” It’s not a level of fame that means I can’t go out of the house. I’m not followed by paparazzi. It is really nice.
Q You have presented several series of Coast. Why has that programme struck such a chord?
A 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.
Q What have British viewers in particular gained from Coast?
A There’s nothing triumphalist about the series. It’s not declaring that Britain is the best country in the world. But it celebrates our country and allows people to see it in a new light. It shows the highs and lows of our history, the whole tapestry of life in Britain. It invites people to think that it’s actually a fascinating place. It also reminds you that if you spend half an hour in a bus, you can be at the coast and somewhere completely different.
Q Do you think we often underestimate the wonders that are on our own doorstep?
A Yes. The advent of accessible air travel has encouraged people to think that if you want an adventure, you have to travel 10,000 miles. A couple of generations now think that to be on holiday you have to be at least in Europe and probably in Asia. So our homeland has been not exactly neglected, but people have forgotten what’s here. It’s quite understandable. Time is precious, and if you only have two weeks a year for a family holiday, you may well want to go somewhere like Bali. But people can forget that Pembrokeshire and Cornwall are wonderful too. Coast has shown people the far north of Scotland, the Atlantic coast of Ireland and Cumberland and made them think: “My God, there are stunning places within an hour’s drive of me.”
Q Does the same happen in other countries?
A Yes, it’s the same all over. In Australia and New Zealand, people come up to me and say: “We spent all our holidays going to Fiji, but your series has inspired us to visit places closer to home. We’ve lived here all our lives and never seen half of it.”
Q Why is the coast such an essential part of British culture?
A 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.
Q The coast is vital to our history as well, isn’t it?
A 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. We are not a big island, and ours is a coastal story. The coast is woven through the tapestry of Britain.
Q You’re passionate about military archaeology which in part stems from a strong family connection with the First World War, doesn’t it?
A Yes. Both my grandfathers fought in the First World War. My dad’s dad joined up when he was 16. He fought around Albert and was wounded at the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge. He came home but was sent back to the Front. He was involved at the Somme and also at Passchendaele. I sat on the knee of a man who knelt in the trenches at the Somme. Isn’t that incredible?
Q And what about your mum’s dad?
A He was younger. He almost certainly lied about his age to join up and went to fight at Gallipoli at the age of just 16. He was badly wounded by friendly fire and was sent home. In the Second World War, he tried to volunteer, but couldn’t because of the injuries from the bullet wound. I find it amazing to think that a century ago my mum’s dad was fighting at Gallipoli. If you think back to then, you can see how far we have come. That’s the great thing about history.
Q You studied archaeology – what is it that you find so interesting about the subject?
A It’s the opportunity to handle objects that were last handled by someone 8,000 years ago. No-one else has touched them until today. You can also find the marks where people knelt. So, as well as finding evidence of the fighting at the Battle of the Somme, you can find the place where a soldier knelt to cook. That gives you a funny feeling.
Profile: Neil Oliver
Neil Oliver was born in Renfrewshire in Scotland. He studied archaeology at the University of Glasgow and worked as an archaeologist before training as a journalist. In 2002 Neil made his television debut presenting BBC2’s Two Men in a Trench in which he and Tony Pollard visited historic British battlefields. Since that time he has been a regular on television, presenting A History of Scotland, Vikings and Coast. Neil was appointed President of the National Trust in Scotland in 2017. He travels all the time, but his home is in Stirling with his wife, three children and an Irish Wolfhound.
Q What is the most exciting archaeological find you have made?
A At the battlefield at Isandlwana I found a bullet from a Martini-Henry rifle. I can be sure that was fired on 22 January 1879, probably around lunchtime. I also found the button from a soldier’s tunic. There could only be one reason why that was there. At a Neolithic site, I also found a scatter of flint tools. There were four bald spots in the middle where their feet had been. Whoever it was stood up from working with the tools and walked away, little knowing that 8,000 years later someone would find that impression on the ground. I find that profoundly moving.
Q So you’re just as fired up as ever about archaeology?
A Absolutely. The thing that excited me about archaeology when I was a boy still excites me today. I’m still thrilled about the idea that there are traces all around us of things that people dropped thousands of years ago. They’re commonplace things – not the American Declaration of Independence or the birthplace of Jesus Christ. You could put a cup down today and it could be picked up by someone in 8,000 years’ time. Imagine that.
Q Can you please tell us a bit about your new novel, The Black Glass?
A It’s a kind of sequel to my last novel, Master of Shadows. It has the same central character. He comes back from the Siege of Constantinople in 1453 and finds himself swept up in the events of the Wars of the Roses. It involves a real artefact from a real person, Dr John Dee, who was known as Queen Elizabeth’s magician. He had a ‘Black Mirror’ which was part of the kit he used for magic and is now in the British Museum. I created a complete fiction around that.
Q You are very recognisable with your long hair – would you ever think of cutting it?
A 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. Some people cut their hair or dye it. Most people arrive at a look; mine just happens to be longer than most. It means I get recognised. In my line of work, it’s good to be recognisable, and with my hair people can recognise me from far-off!
Q Finally, what do you hope that audiences will take away from The Story of The British Isles in 100 Places?
A 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 studied at school. But I find it is as thrilling as any Marvel movie!
Neil Oliver on tour
In The Story Of The British Isles In 100 Places, an idiosyncratic choice of locations tell us how our nation became what it is today. They start in Norfolk with the footprints of a family from nearly a million years ago, and go up to the Highlands and the Orkneys and as far west as it is possible to go, before ending up at the nuclear power station at Dungeness in Kent.
Tickets for Neil Oliver, The Story of The British Isles in 100 Places tour are available from theatre box offices and via www.neiloliver.com. Locally, see the show at GLive in Guildford on Monday 8 October and The Capitol in Horsham on Tuesday 16 October.Facebook: NeilOliverUKTour