Coast presenter Neil Oliver brings his first theatre tour to East Anglia
PUBLISHED: 18:30 04 October 2018 | UPDATED: 14:09 07 October 2018
We chat to Coast presenter Neil Oliver about his first ever theatre tour - The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places
Did you know there are 800,000 year old footprints made by very early human settlements around Happisburgh? What about the Cobra Mist radar project at Orford Ness in the 70s? How much do you know about the laying down of the keel of the Golden Hind, an early ship to circumnavigate the globe, at Aldeburgh?
Archaeologist, historian, author and Coast presenter Neil Oliver’s first ever UK theatre tour - The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places, also the title of his new book - is as much historical as it is geographical. An enthusiast rather than an academic, it plays into his childish excitement about things.
“That part of the coastline in fascinating from the point of view of its natural history and its dual morphology so there are places in your part of the world that will be cropping up in the talk,” he says.
Neil - who made his TV debut In 2002 with BBC Two’s Two Men in a Trench, featuring him and his close friend Tony Pollard visiting historic British battlefields – feels he’s been gifted a unique personal tour of our isles during the years.
“I’ve gone back and forth across these islands in a way probably nobody else has and a story began to make sense to me. I felt as if there was a way of understanding the history of Britain together with some of the places I’ve seen.
“Nobody else will have gone to the same places as me in the same order, for the same reasons. So I’ve ended up with this quite idiosyncratic picture of Britain and I’m hoping a lot of people will be interested to share it.”
Studying and working as an archaeologist before training as a journalist, it’s always mattered a great deal for Neil to be connected to history, starting in childhood with the realisation both his grandfathers survived the First World War.
His dad’s dad joined up when he was 16, fighting around Albert and being 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 and he still carried scars. Isn’t that incredible?”
His mum’s dad was younger, almost certainly lying about his age to join up and fought at Gallipoli aged just 16.
“He was badly wounded by friendly fire and was sent home. In the Second World War he tried to volunteer but couldn’t because of the injuries from the bullet wound. Although he died before I was born, I was descended directly from a man who had been at another of those iconic almost legendary episodes of the First World War.
“So I had from a very early age this realisation there was a physical connection to history. As an archaeologist and then someone presenting TV series about history, I’ve always had a great kick out of going to places where it seemed to me that standing on a hillside, walking inside a stone tomb – whether it was purely imagined or not – always enlivened and inspired my appreciation of history.
“I think if somebody was to go to one, 50 or all of the 100 places they might get some of the same emotional connection I get going to places where the history actually happened rather than just reading about it,” says Neil, who feels it’s such a shame history has been downgraded below IT and business studies in schools.
His long hair aside - “No (I’ve no intention of cutting it). It’s just the way I look. I don’t give it any thought, but because I’m the age I am, it does mark me out... people can recognise me from far-off” – he’s most known for the TV series Coast. Very popular, it’s lasted a lot longer than anybody expected he adds.
“It was down to the fact people were suddenly being shown places that were just 10 miles or 50 miles up the road. Sometimes they were being shown their own town or their own village but from a different perspective. People were given the opportunity to see a place as though for the first time, even though they had lived in it every day for 50 years.
“It’s like waves on a beach. A wave never breaks on the same beach twice; it’s constantly a little bit different. People thought ‘oh, right, it is quite pretty there’ or ‘I must go back and rekindle memories, that’s where mum and dad fell in love’. It gave people another reason to be interested in Britain both locally and further afield.” says Neil, who’s been working on a TV about the influence of the Scottish clans on various periods of Scottish history. He’s also filmed a series about modern Scots living in China.
Neil’s filmed series on the coasts of the British Isles, Brittany, Normandy, Scandinavia, parts of the Baltic, Australia and New Zealand so far. He puts the programme’s success down to its fairly simple premise.
“There’s nothing triumphalist about it. It’s not declaring Britain is the best country in the world. It celebrates our country and allows people to see it in a new light. It shows the highs and lows of our history, the whole tapestry of life in Britain. It invites people to think it’s actually a fascinating place.”
Neil thinks we often underestimate the wonders that are on our own doorstep. The ease of air travel has persuaded us to think if you want an adventure, you have to travel 10,000 miles. Our homeland hasn’t been exactly neglected; people have - understandably - forgotten what’s here.
The coast, of course, is part very much part of the British 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.
“For thousands of years, our trade has always come by the sea. We have defended our coastline from invasions and welcomed new arrivals there. Our history has always happened through the coast. Think of 1066 or Henry VIII and the Cinque Ports – so much of our history is about the coast. We are not a big island, and ours is a coastal story. The coast is woven through the tapestry of Britain.”
• See Neil Oliver’s The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places at Southend’s Palace Theatre, October 21; The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, October 23; and Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, October 30.