Neil Oliver, archaeologist, historian, author and presenter of the TV series Coast, will be sharing his love of Great Britain at Lighthouse on 10 November as part of his first ever UK theatre tour. The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places, which is also the title of his forthcoming book, gives audiences the opportunity to share in his enthusiasm and unique perspective of British history. Neil tells us more about what the tour will bring here ...
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: Will there be a link with the 100 Places?
A: 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.
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: 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.
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!