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Neil Oliver on history, housewives … and hair

In the busy tearoom of a Stirling art gallery I am trying to coax Neil Oliver to share the secrets of his luscious trademark locks.

The television historian and archaeologist, who fronts BBC shows Coast and A History Of Scotland, has become almost as famous for his flowing raven tresses as his distinctive presenting style (think copious grand hand gestures, enunciated vowels and masterful striding across rugged glens and windswept beaches). I watch him smooth a loose strand behind one ear. It’s certainly impressive. What’s the secret to this enviably glossy black mane? Washing it in quail egg yolks? A sprinkling of early morning dew? Regular dowsing with Newcastle Brown Ale? As it transpires, none of the above. In fact, Oliver is bemused by the fascination with his hair (there is even a couple of internet forums which wax lyrical on it).

Despite my persistent cajoling to reveal the intricacies of his haircare regime, he isn’t having any of it.

“I travel a lot and, because I like to keep my luggage down, one thing I dispense with is any kind of hair product,” he insists. “I use whatever is in those anonymous containers in the hotel bathroom. I have a theory anyway that all shampoo and conditioner is actually the same stuff.”

What about the colour -- are those dark locks natural or assisted? Oliver looks appalled. He leans forward towards me. “Look, there’s grey -- a lot of grey.” I examine the crown of his head where I can see some wispy grey hairs.

Would he ever colour it? He shakes his head. “No, I wouldn’t. To be honest, I don’t consider myself to be that interested in how I look. My wife buys all my clothes. She used to be a fashion journalist so she tells me what to wear.”

Designer togs or is he more of a supermarket brand kind of guy? Oliver looks briefly sheepish. “I think a lot of it comes from Gap. You would need to ask her. I’m honestly not that hung up about my appearance. I get my hair done far less often than someone who has a short back and sides. It’s not a big deal. I’ve had my hair like this since I was 19. I don’t even think about it now.”

In person, Oliver, 44, is much more subdued than his exuberant television persona might suggest. In fact, he is so softly spoken I need to lean across the table to hear him over the hubbub of cafe noise. He’s dressed casually in a pink striped shirt and khaki trousers (purchased by his wife, one assumes), a black leather jacket hanging over the back of his chair.

Chunky braided silver bracelets glitter on each wrist and his shirt sleeves are rolled up to reveal sturdy forearms covered with thick, dark hairs. He eschews a cappuccino in favour of “proper builder’s tea”.

We’re here to talk about his new book, A History Of Ancient Britain, which ties in with the BBC series broadcast earlier this year. When asked which of the chapters he found most compelling to research -- there are eight: ice, ancestors, cosmology, bronze, iron, warriors, invasions and Romans -- Oliver suddenly cranks up a gear. His eyes light up, animated and shifting in his seat as he warms to his theme.

“I was naturally more inclined to the earliest parts of the story,” he says. “I was very affected by seeing fragments of bone from Boxgrove Man. It is basically two parts of a shin bone and a couple of teeth which are half a million years old and pre-human -- from an earlier species.

“I found that humbling because half a million years is more like the time frame you imagine for something geological to happen, a river cutting a ravine or sea level rising. These people were living on a land populated by woolly rhinoceros and hyenas, a world completely alien to us.”

Once Oliver gets going it’s difficult to get a word in edgeways. It’s a case of shoehorning in a question whenever he pauses to draw breath. Among his enduring fascinations is the tenacity of the human race.

“My interest in history began at a young age,” he says. “My mum’s parents died before I was born so only my dad’s parents were alive during my childhood. My grandfather had survived the First World War. He was in the Somme and Passchendaele. He had a bit of shrapnel behind his ear that, when you felt it, was like the dull edge of a bread knife. I was fascinated by how this old, white-haired man could ever have been in such a predicament.

“He injured his arm too. The tendons were damaged and locked so his fingers had shut against his palm and it looked like he was holding something. As a little boy it seemed amazing to me that my grandpa’s hand looked the same as my Action Man as he pulled on the trigger of a toy rifle.

“I wanted to know more about the First World War. I developed a curiosity as to why certain events had unfolded the way they had. I was struck by the idea that, if the bomb that injured him had been closer, my grandpa would have been killed and I would never have been born.”

That’s very existential for a child, I venture. He nods. “I spent a lot of time in my teens wondering about the chances and coincidences that have to play out for us to be here. The poet, Mervyn Peake, had written on his gravestone: ‘To live at all is miracle enough.’ I have always been taken with that as a philosophy.”

 

The youngest of three children, Oliver was born in Renfrew and grew up in Ayr then Dumfries. His father Pat was a British Gas salesman, his mother Norma a secretary. Oliver describes his childhood as ordinary, saying he was unremarkable at school. “I did well enough, I got enough O-Grades and Highers to get into university. I had a happy childhood. My parents were proud I went to university, I was the only one in the family to do so.”

He studied archaeology at the University of Glasgow before later trying his hand at journalism as a cub reporter at the Dumfriesshire Newspaper Group. Oliver harboured dreams of breaking all the big archaeology scoops and he smiles now at his naivety.

“Archaeology is terrific fun but getting a career out of it is a different matter,” he says. “There is no money in it. Unless you are part of a university department, there is no career structure. I liked excavating. I spent three or four years doing that before one day I had a realisation.

“I was digging a section of Roman road on Lurg Moor above Greenock, a godforsaken, wind-blasted place, in November. I woke up one morning and thought: ‘I’m going to be 40 one day, I’m going to be poor, arthritic and never able to buy a house.’ I knew I needed to change direction.

“I had a notion I would be like David Keys, the archaeology correspondent at The Independent. I had this highfalutin idea, so I contacted the editor of the local newspaper in Dumfries, who took me on as a cub reporter. Somewhere along the way, I got caught up in the general run of local newspaper reporting and, while I would occasionally write something about an archaeological dig, it was mostly court, council and agricultural shows.”

So Oliver formulated plan B. “At that point the internet was the word on everyone’s lips so I thought that might be the future and went to work for BT.com. I soon realised, however, that I didn’t like the internet very much and it was by sheer good luck that Tony [Pollard] and I ended up doing Two Men In A Trench.”

The show, broadcast on BBC Two in 2002 in which the pair visited historic British battlefields, came about after Oliver and Pollard had organised a battlefield archaeology conference at the University of Glasgow, where they were spotted by a television scout.

Oliver packed in the company car, expense account and job with prospects to embark on his new incarnation as a television historian. In the years which followed he racked up a series of archaeology-based shows before becoming co-presenter of Coast in 2005.

Now dubbed a “housewives’ favourite”, does he get a lot of fan mail? Oliver is momentarily thrown off kilter.

“I don’t really,” he stammers. Perhaps some knickers in the post? Oliver gives me a stern look that says: don’t even go there. “Um, no. I take it all with a pinch of salt. Being recognised came late enough in life that I can see it for what it is. I’m not anything special, I’m just on telly. You would need your head read if you thought that meant you had suddenly become special.”

Moments later, right on cue, an older lady sidles up to the table, all doe-eyed and flushed cheeks. “I made up my mind I was going to say hello to you,” she says, introducing herself as Elspeth. In a flash, Oliver is on his feet, chivalrously shaking hands. “Oh,” says the lady, gazing into his eyes. “I had forgotten your name but then my friend reminded me that it’s Neil. What are you up to in Stirling?”

Oliver flashes a toothy grin. “I live here,” he says. “I’m getting interviewed,” he adds, politely gesturing in my direction. I open my mouth to speak but Elspeth has already turned back to Oliver. “I enjoy Coast,” she says. “Never miss it. It’s quite a shock, just seeing you here.”

Her two friends arrive. “We’re sorry to have interrupted,” says one, shepherding Elspeth, who will no doubt dine out on the tale of her chance encounter for weeks to come, out by the elbow.

Yet for every granny who wants to pinch his cheek, there are those whom Oliver antagonises. His more sanguine critics are fond of pointing out he’s a “TV presenter not a historian”, while he has been likened to a “pygmy on giant’s territory” by Jenny Wormald, honorary fellow of Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh.

“I have never positioned myself as an academic, because I’m not,” he says. “I have a degree in archaeology, not history, and I have never claimed otherwise. A History Of Scotland [in 2009] was criticised by a minority of academics for not being highbrow enough. It was said that I wasn’t a world authority. But that’s to miss the point -- it was meant to popularise Scottish history.

“Jenny Wormald is a world authority on Mary, Queen of Scots. If we had been able to tell her something about Mary, Queen of Scots that she didn’t already know, there would be something funny going on. Of course it was simple stuff as far as she and other academics were concerned, but the idea was to turn people on to the subject, which it did.”

He may take a fair bit of ribbing, but Oliver appears to be a good sport, not least by laughing off the crushingly cruel parody of him on BBC Scotland’s comedy sketch show, Only An Excuse. “I don’t think they even named me. There was simply the assumption people would know who that twat was,” he says, grinning. “That’s great flattery, to have reached the level of recognition where someone can imitate you and people go: ‘Oh, that’s the guy off of Coast.’”

He and his wife, Trudi, 42, have three children, Evie, eight, Archie, five, and Teddy, three. Asked how the couple met he rubs his hands together. “Ah, therein lies a tale,” he says. “We met at university when I was 19 and she was 17. We were together for ages but then broke up. We met again by chance nine years ago. I bumped into her brother in Buchanan Street in Glasgow and a few weeks later she and I were back in touch. So we have known each other for 25 years, been together for nine and got married on October 10, 2009.”

The family are regulars at Stirling’s castle, old town jail and Renaissance royal palace. “We are starting to see what the kids are interested in, the subjects they like, whether they are academic, practical or sporty,” he says. “At the moment Archie wants to be an explorer and Evie wants to be a fashion journalist. Teddy, when we last investigated, wanted to be a gorilla.

“I despair as to why anyone wants to watch a bunch of multimillionaires kick a ball about on a weekend. It’s beyond me. I would be disappointed if their heroes were Premiership footballers. I hope they come up with something more imaginative than that.”

I’m curious about his presenting style. Is there a deliberate performance element to it? Oliver shakes his head. “If I’m genuinely very excited about a subject, I do get a bit worked up. I can’t help it. Maybe that is a performance. I’m providing the narrative to a ‘once upon a time there was a bad, bad man’ story.”

I appear to have struck a raw nerve with this. In the car, five minutes later, it still seems to be weighing on Oliver’s mind. “The other thing is that you are battling against the elements,” he elaborates. “You have the sound guy asking you take it up a notch to be heard over the wind or crashing waves, so it can lead to it sounding a bit like this” -- he segues into that famous enunciating brogue -- “while not intentionally starting out that way.”

He recently completed filming a four-part BBC series, The Last Explorers, covering the lives of Scots polar adventurer William Speirs Bruce, missionary David Livingstone, conservationist John Muir and merchant Thomas Blake Glover. Travelling to Antarctica, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, the United States and Japan, Oliver had some hairy adventures.

“The most terrifying was spending a month on a 50ft yacht sailing from Port Stanley to an archipelago called South Orkney,” he says. “We were alone, days from help and in force seven and eight winds and mountainous seas, with the ever-present threat of hitting an iceberg and disappearing off the face of the earth. It was exciting all right. I had a hunch that sailing to Antarctica wouldn’t be a picnic, but I had no idea how vulnerable it would feel.”

As we finish the interview, I’m holding out for a last-minute titbit on his hair. It doesn’t come. Earlier I had asked if Oliver would ever cut his tresses. “No, I like it,” he says. “You could say it was a trademark. It’s in my interests for people to recognise me. If I become established in people’s minds as that long-haired Scottish guy, then that can only be a good thing.” You get the feeling, though, he hopes there will be more to his legacy than that.

A History Of Ancient Britain by Neil Oliver is published by W&N, priced £20. Books Q&A: Neil Oliver

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