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Archaeologist from TV's Coast
I was expecting Neil Oliver to be rather stuffy, all tweed-jacket-with-leather-elbow-pads and no sense of humour. Instead, I found myself not only enthused but charmed by this vibrant Scotsman. Not that he’s out to win you over, but you can’t help but get swept up by his passion for anything historical.
And if anyone’s going to educate us about the world that was, it’s Neil Oliver.
Although currently promoting his book A History Of Ancient Britain, which accompanied the TV series, he’s best known for Coast, his long-flowing locks having graced our coastline for six consecutive series now.
And yet his career is as much of a surprise to him as anyone, having been plucked from obscurity on an archaeological dig in South Africa to front the Two Men In A Trench series, which led to his numerous other historical programmes.
“I think my advantage is that I was never an academic or a lecturer, because people tend to talk in a particular way when holding court for an hour. I’ve got more of a journalist’s mind. Plus, all of this came to me in my thirties when I was too old to have my head turned,” the 44 year-old explains.
So why hadn’t he considered a career on TV?
“It was just a box in a room when I was growing up. Of course I watched it, but I didn’t give a thought as to who made the programmes I watched, so to get asked to be a presenter was a bolt from the blue because TV was not a world I had ever considered.
“But I was lucky because I couldn’t have remained an archaeologist any longer because it’s so poorly paid.
“You earn more money stacking shelves, which is so sad because archaeology is what preserves our heritage and should be more valued, and yet it’s going through such a massive struggle for survival.”
Neil specialised in ancient history at university, but still found the task of writing a book about it enormously daunting.
“Writing the book was terrifying — 160,000 words covering a million years. God help me, how do you begin to even track that?” he says. “And you want to do this monstrous tapestry justice. So you have to ask ‘what are the key points?’ and provide a line for people to follow.
“And while there is a lot of conjecture, that’s the challenge. You could shrug and say ‘who knows what the Ancient Britons did or who they were?’, or you can take the challenge and say ‘I can’t prove it but the body of evidence seems to suggest to me the following’.
“So while I also know for certain that the story will change with every new discovery and turn my story on its head, that in itself is not a reason to give up on it. You’ve got to try because it’s the story of how we came to be here now. We didn’t just arrive with the Romans.”
You see, Neil Oliver can’t help himself, every answer proving infectious. But what about the man away from the camera?
“Well, I live in Stirling in Scotland, in the heart of the town. So getting away from it all is what I do when I’m making the TV programmes, because most of the locations are so remote.
“And although I’m never away from home for more than a month, my wife has the harder job, looking after our three children and getting them to school every day. And, yes, there’s a readjustment to make when you get home because at work I’m always on the move, and then I come home and it takes a couple of weeks to get used to. But overall it’s two sides of the same coin.”
So is Neil Oliver a local celebrity at home?
“Stirling is a more of a town than a city and we’ve been there for four years now so people have got used to my face and got over the novelty,” he said. “And being on TV doesn’t mean anything to my kids because they’ve grown up with it, so they think that’s what all dads do. And besides, they are much more into Horrible Histories at the moment than anything I’m doing.”
Neil Oliver is at Waterstone’s in Broad Street, Oxford, on Monday, to sign copies of his new book. For details, call 01865 790212.
A History of Ancient Britain is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson at £20.