Neil Oliver, archaeologist, historian, author and presenter of the TV series Coast, will be sharing his love of Great Britain with audiences this autumn on his first ever UK theatre tour. James Rampton spoke to him about history, performing live and his British favourites.
The tour, The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places, which is also the title of his forthcoming book that will be published by Bantam Press on 20 September 2018, will take place this autumn and will head to the Lichfield Garrick on Friday 5th October.
Q: 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. 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.
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 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.
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: 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.
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 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: Was there one thing when you were a boy that influenced your passion for history?
A: 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.
Q: Did your love for 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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 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: 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 that 8000 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 8000 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: 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 you studied at school. But I find it is as thrilling as any Marvel movie!