Coast presenter Neil Oliver talks ahead of his date at The Assembly Hall

Pam Mills
Neil Oliver

Bearing in mind that Neil Oliver has just undergone intensive root canal surgery when we get together to talk ahead of his first theatre tour, it’s fair to say that he comes across as being remarkably chipper despite this gruelling procedure.

His trademark soft Scottish lilt shows no sign of any dental distress – if anything, he’s in positively jovial mood, joking that the surgery hurt his wallet more than it hurt him – as he settles back to tell me what The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places book and subsequent tour is all about.
“I wrote the book earlier this year because in the back of my mind I knew that courtesy of my various TV programmes, such as Coast, I was on a unique, bespoke tour of the British Isles,” explains Neil, who is as famous for his lustrous long locks as his globetrotting. “I’d seen so many places over a geographical and chronological spread that I felt could tell a story.”

The result is the aforementioned book, which is a beautifully photographed, comprehensive tome of some of the UK’s most interesting and important historical and geographical landmarks. But it is not, Neil insists, a ‘tourist guide’ to Britain – it’s much more of an ‘owner’s manual’.

“I’d say it’s also a thesis about what has happened in these isles,” he continues. “Each place is a pearl in the string of the British Isles and has something important about it. I wanted to put it all down in some kind of order.”
Included in the book are battlefields, beaches, peninsulas, cathedrals, tors and ancient trees, all of which tangibly reflect the spirit of the past – which is, of course, right up Neil’s street as he’s also a trained archaeologist and journalist.
Before he became a popular presenter of programmes like Vikings, The History Detectives and Coast, Neil was working as an archaeologist and supplementing his income as a jobbing journo.
But it was on the BBC Two documentary Two Men in a Trench, about a dig he was doing with his colleague Tony Pallard on British battlefields in 2002, where he was spotted and given his first break. From then, Neil says, he went through an ‘accidental transfer’ to TV and radio and, of course, writing.
This latest book, published last month, is his tenth.

So what gave the man of many talents the idea to take this particular book on a UK theatre tour?
“Well, I thought I’m not with people when they watch my TV programmes or read my books,” he says, “so wouldn’t it be a good idea to talk about it in
various places with different audiences?

“We’re going through a pivotal moment in society at the moment, and in a way I want to put an arm around the shoulder of the British Isles and its people and tell them: “You’ve been through worse before. Yes, you have big decisions to make right now and you don’t feel you can cope, but no matter what happens, we have been through worse.

“In this present climate of public fear, disagreement and uncertainty about the future, I think it is timely to look again at the past, the story of this place from its earliest times.”
At this point, I assume he must be referring to the looming Brexit and the culture of fear that has slowly emerged following recent terror attacks, so I guess the timing of Neil’s tour seems quite apt.
Does he feel daunted about this new kind of journey he’s about to embark on?

“Well, I’m going to be doing 39 nights in a row and I will speak from the heart – I just hope I don’t get laryngitis as a result,” he jokes.
“When I have spoken in public before it has been at literary festivals, in bookshops, or on a discussion panel. I have never done a solid run like this, and I can’t even tell you what it’s like as I have yet to go on tour!”
He does, however, say that he will have a ‘kind of script’ to stick to as he progresses through the tour, which started in Harrogate last Monday and finishes on November 20 in Glasgow, taking in the Assembly Hall next Thursday.
“I’m ultimately hoping you won’t see the same show twice during the tour,” he adds.

The first half of the evening will see Neil focusing his conversational compass on specific places of significance: “I will set out my basic thesis about where we are now, using some of the 100 places as examples of how we got here.
“There are some very powerful ancient grounds which represent what has happened.
“We have lived through civil wars and religious intolerance, burnt witches and been invaded by the Romans, the Anglo Saxons. You name it, whatever can happen – war, famine, natural disaster – we have lived through it and – crucially – also survived it, learning some important lessons along the way. As King Solomon said, ‘This too shall pass’.

“The British Isles are like Father Time, they’ve seen it, done it and seem to have got over it.

“I’m not in any way giving out advice, but I do want to say consider this place as a person, what advice would you give them? Put an arm round them and I say ‘I love you and have faith in you. Whatever happens you will still be you’.”
During the interval audience members will have the opportunity to submit questions, some of which Neil will then address in the second half of the show. By the sounds of it, this promises to be a fascinating and highly engaging evening.
Can Neil possibly pinpoint any special places of personal significance out of the 100 landmarks?

“Lots of different places and people resonate with me, but I often find myself thinking about Iona, a holy island just off Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. It is a spectacularly lovely place, good for the heart and soul, a good place to be. I also have to include Westminster Abbey as it’s a bit like a filing cabinet of death, as you have royalty, poets and unknown warriors all lying there.

“But it’s the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney, which was discovered by archaeologists in 2003, which I come back to time and time again.

“During the Neolithic period they adopted farming as opposed to hunting and had permanent homes and did chores; it was a time of huge social change.

Fifteen years after the discovery, the exploration is still going on and has long since altered our understanding of the entire Neolithic period in north-western Europe.”

Despite a passion for the past, Neil says he’s always open to new things, too, and that if this tour is a success he might do more in the future.
Has Neil visited Tunbridge Wells before?

“I have,” he responds. “I have walked The Pantiles and seem to remember it was very pretty indeed. I’m looking forward to returning.”

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