■ The host, 66, on the shocking secrets he’s discovered about Ancient Britons and what happens when interviews flop
How did your new series, Mystic Britain, come about?
In the way of broadcasting, you either persuade someone to do an idea of your own, which is hard, or someone offers you something and you say yes — like this. I’ve always been interested in history and I’m fascinated enough to happily stand in wet, muddy fields in the middle of winter while an expert tells me why something is buried there, even if we can’t see it any more.
Is this a more serious tack for you?
It’s fairly serious but I think my role is to jolly everything up and ask a few either obvious or humorously expressed questions so it’s not too dry. It’s quite fun trying to get an expert to describe some hideous death they’ve found evidence of. I’m not pretending to be an expert and while I’m happy to be the jollier-upper, at the end you have to be interested in what might have gone on at Maiden Castle or Stonehenge or 11,000 years ago.
What were some of the things you learnt that shocked you?
The oldest thing we looked at was Star Carr in Yorkshire, where they’ve found evidence of humans living there 11,000 years ago: a shelter, and bows and arrows for shooting fish. You can work out there was a lake there and it was a time you could still walk from Britain to the Continent. I learnt a lot about trees too. The definition of a tree native to Britain is one that got here before humans did.
Have we evolved that much in our social behaviour?
It’s depressing because you look back and the things you find a lot of are weapons. Once you bring metal in, there are swords that are rather fine decorative things but they were to stab and behead people — it’s been part of human activity since the dawn of time. So as our technology improves we’re better at doing the good things but also the worst things too.
You’ve been in the entertainment industry for 40 years. How’s it changed?
Oh God, is it? That makes me feel ancient — although not compared to some of the sites we’ve been looking at! The main thing in broadcasting is that when I started there were only four channels but now you can access 500 channels so it’s no longer possible for things to have the same sort of impact as Morecambe And Wise or Dad’s Army.
You challenged people in your TV chat show. Are talk shows a bit too PC these days?
There are plenty of jokes in Graham Norton’s but he creates an atmosphere by having lots of big-name stars on together so they feel at home and you hope they’ll do something a bit different. I like to put a bit of pressure on people and sometimes it works, sometimes not! I did a tetchy interview with Jeffrey Archer, I enjoyed that. I did a good interview with Mikhail Gorbachev with a translator after he’d stopped being leader of the USSR. The Bee Gees left before our interview got going — or they got going before the interview did! Things have to go wrong in a chat show for people to remember it.
You’re bringing back Whose Line Is It Anyway? to the Edinburgh Fringe…
Yes! I’m doing that and a one-man show at Edinburgh this year. The first time we did Whose Line on stage we thought it’d be fun but will it work? On TV it’s a genuine show but you do have the capacity to cut down the boring bits. But it makes for an energetic stage show.
How did Whose Line change your life?
I’d always done bits and pieces of comedy but it was very much a small side issue to my proper life as a barrister. Maybe something within me was always keen to get out and do comedy but that show moved me along. If I’d stayed a barrister, I might have been involved in some interesting — and lots of not very interesting — cases and might possibly be some sort of judge. But I wouldn’t have known what I was missing.
You were at the first night of the Comedy Store in 1979, another politically interesting time with Thatcher coming to power. Are we going to see a new kind of comedy with everything going on in UK politics now?
That’s a good question and unfortunately too good — I have no idea what the answer is! Comedy Store was people doing comedy reacting to tumultuous political times. The times we’re in now are almost too tumultuous to cope with. I do a topical reference every week on my Radio 4 show, Loose Ends, but 36 weeks in a row I’ve said, ‘Well, it’s a complete mess and nobody knows what’s going on!’ It can’t keep going on forever. It’s a shambles and there are only so many ways you can say that.
Mystic Britain with Clive Anderson starts tomorrow at 8pm on the Smithsonian Channel