Brian Beacom

LESS than a minute after meeting Clive Anderson I’m aiming a slap at his 66-year-old head. Not the best way to begin an interview, I can hear you thinking, but here’s the context: we’re outside a pub in Islington, meeting to talk about his upcoming Fringe shows (more of later) but the front man of TV’s Whose Line Is It Anyway and Radio Four’s Loose Ends, has arrived all hot-shuffle and half an hour late. “If someone had kept me waiting this amount of time I’d be rather cross,” he says, full of apology, which I take to mean he’s prepared to be chastised. Thus, the mock slap. And to be fair, he ducked and laughed.

The playful slap, however, was also a subconscious tester. The best interviewers are almost invariably the worst interview subjects (they can see the questions coming and the resultant headlines) and Anderson, today wearing a dark suit and shirt and carrying a stiff, heavy briefcase of the type used by 1970s' solicitors and spies was, of course, once a barrister. Will he be open to a little cross examination? Will he reveal the sense of fun he expected of the likes of Cher, of whom he once asked: "You look like a million dollars. Is that how much it cost?"

We’re now in the beer garden. Anderson sips his IPA and smiles when asked the first question. His "Presbyterian" bank manager father, as he was once described in a magazine feature, was from Glasgow. Does the inclusion of the ‘P’ word’ suggest a strict, joyless soul who would have reach for his Old Testament Bible at the mere thought of his son working in a medium that is a couple of rungs up from vaudeville? “Well, my father was always referred to as a bank manager,” he says, “but when I was growing up he was a bank clerk who moved to Highbury in 1938. (Where Anderson lives now.) He eventually became a bank manager, but he wasn’t Captain Mainwaring-pompous. He was quite funny. And while we did attend the Presbyterian Church of England, it was really a meeting place for ex-pat Scots who moved to London.”

He smiles and says: “A friend has been researching my genealogy and it turns out that my great-grandfather was in fact a Presbyterian minister with one of the Free churches in Govan. I tried to do more research about him online last weekend and I strayed onto the Free Presbyterian Church website, looking for more information. But they told me that perhaps a Sunday wasn’t the best day to do research.”

He breaks into his familiar laugh: “Even the website keeps the Sabbath.”

Anderson’s dad did well enough to send him to Harrow. Did this herald success and the expectation of studying Law at Cambridge? “Well, I didn’t go to the public school,” he gently corrects. “It’s a popular misconception. I went to Harrow County School (a good grammar school). And even if my father had the money for public school he wouldn’t have parted with it. When we were growing up we had to tape music rather than be allowed to buy single records. He was . . . ” Careful? “Yes, careful. And my English mother, they met in the RAF, was from a poor family.” A joke can’t sit still in his head. “The Second World War had to come about to produce me. Although I don’t think I justify the hostilities.”

What was the teenage Clive Anderson like? “Much as I am today, only with a thinner waist line and thicker hair.” Anderson laughs a lot. His humour is often dark and sardonic – rather Scottish? “Possibly. My dad came out with a lot of jokes. But like him I use humour to puncture, to avoid conversation.” To avoid others asking questions of him? “Yes, to avoid difficult questions like this one,” he says, deadpan.

Tiger-like biting on television, but kitten-soft in real life? Anderson certainly admits to being natural pessimist. Not quite in the John Laurie-Dad’s Army "We’re doomed" mould but the one-time stand-up, comedy writer and panel show host has never skipped gleefully along the yellow-brick road in the direction of showbiz career. That’s why he straddled two jobs – a barrister during the week and a stand-up/writer/ presenter – at weekends, for some years. “The opportunity came up when I got the chance to front the radio programme Whose Line Is It Anyway? which then transferred to television. But I can remember actually saying it was best for Whose Line to remain on radio another five years before transferring. You see, I thought I’d do just enough telly to disrupt my legal career, but not enough to get going. But Channel 4 decided to keep me. And even when Dan [Patterson, his producer] said later I should do a chat show I said, ‘Let’s let Whose Line bed in.’

"Luckily, I was late for the meeting to decide all that – I’d been held up in court – so thanks to the jury coming back late I had a chat show.” He adds, grinning: “Thankfully my little hobby developed and I had 10-15 years where things fell into my lap.”

‘Things’ such as Clive Anderson Talks Back, which ran from 1989 for seven years. “Then when I was at the height of my, you know, fame I tried not to do too many things. It was suggested by a BBC controller I do Holiday and programmes like that, but I supposed people didn’t want to see me all that much. Looking back, that was a mistake. I should have taken it while it was there and cemented myself in.” He adds: “But I’ve been doing a few documentaries over the years, such as my latest for the Smithsonian Channel, about ancient sites around Britain.”

Hang on, Clive. This reluctance to seek the spotlight contrasts with being president of Footlights at Cambridge, where you once admitting being “seduced by laughter.” Doesn’t this suggest someone paddling in the direction of performance? “I’m not being disingenuous but when the Comedy Store started [in 1979] I’d do 10 minutes of stand-up. But already others were banding together to form the likes of the Comic Strip, and I guess I wasn’t attractive enough to be invited.” Did this disappoint? “Well, I didn’t feel . . . well, this may sound naïve but it didn’t really bother me. I did the warm-ups for Smith and Jones on TV, and every now and then Mel would say I should do my own show. But that never occurred to me.”

Anderson wrote the smart, sharp, sometimes risqué, TV head-to-heads for Smith and Jones. “That suited me well,” he says. He also delighted in writing for Frankie Howerd. “That was an absolute joy, but he was an anxious performer. He’d get you to write stuff and then drop it and go back to what he’d performed in the Fifties.”

Howerd had a rep as being rather lascivious with young men. Did he ever chase you around the table? “Yes, a little,” he says, grinning. “Frankie was always interested in expanding his realm. But I loved working for him. He had great comic delivery. So much funnier than these computer-generated comedians of today.”

Anderson learned a great deal from the likes of Howerd, from chums such as Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones. And when he did take his chance as a TV host became very much his own man, his schtick being the upbeat, cheeky, sometimes rude questioner, the deliverer of sharp one-liners. We loved it when the all-too serious Bee Gees stormed out of the studio in 1996. It was fun to see Piers Morgan reduced to petted-lipped schoolboy on Have I Got News for You. ‘What do you know about newspapers, Clive?’ the then News of the World editor demanded, only for Anderson to counter, ‘Almost as much as you.’ And it was a delight to hear him ping pong with Richard Branson, resulting in the Virgin boss pouring water over Anderson’s head. "I’m used to that. I’ve flown Virgin," quipped Anderson. And he once wound up Jeffrey Archer with: "There’s no beginning to your talents." Archer tried to come back with: "The old jokes are the best," only for Anderson to reply: “Yes, I’ve read your books."

Does he need to get the last word? “Yes, that’s sort of a failing,” he admits with a wry smile. “Then it becomes more of an argument. But I guess it’s like playing tennis. You’ve got to get the ball back.”

Yet, while we love the Anderson quippery an interviewer once claimed he liked to keep emotion out of an interview. Is that fair? He takes a sip of his IPA. “I’m not aware of that. I want interviews to be good. But if someone is talking about emotion, deep aspects of their life, I’d like to think I can go with it. And a lot of what I do is short 10-minute chats. I sort of envy those who do podcasts and have the chance to explore.”

One writer described Anderson as . . . “Dour?” he cuts in. It said he didn’t like to share cars for any length of time because he was uncomfortable with small talk. “Well, that is absolute nonsense," he says, his hackles rising. “I like to dive into other people’s lives. And I think this interview was the one where I’d been out to lunch beforehand and I had to have my photo taken, drinking a cup of coffee. To get the right pic, I’d drunk about six cups of coffee. So when I did the interview, the journalist asked me if I wanted a coffee and I refused and she wrote ‘He’s very difficult . . . keeps you at arm’s length. He won’t even have a cup of coffee. . . ‘” He laughs. “Now you’ll be thinking I’m pleading about my terrible life. ‘Journalist says something mildly unkind.’”

For the record, he enjoys talking to taxi drivers. “I was making a programme the other day in Yorkshire when the driver told me he used to be a stripper. It was a great story. And I think he may have actually said, ‘But the bottom had fallen out of the market’.”

Yet, while he loves to explore the minds of others, he’s not so happy to talk about himself. For example, when the question about whether he had once been punched in the stomach by an interviewee is thrown at him, he replies, “You know about that?” in slightly disappointed voice. Yes, but who was the puncher? What was it about? “Well, that was Brian Clough. At the beginning of the interview he punched me on the stomach. It wasn’t quite hard enough to leave me in pain and winded, but it wasn’t soft enough to allow me to laugh it off. He was a bit eccentric. I don’t think he was threatening to attack me – more an extreme version of the very strong handshake.”

The Clough interview highlighted how tricky the job can be. “You have to ease the subject into revelation. Brian had made some controversial remarks about Liverpool fans at Hillsborough, which I, eventually, asked him about. But then I got some complaints from Liverpool fans saying, ‘You should have asked him about that first.’ But you can’t begin a TV interview with that.”

We’re an hour into our chat now, Clive. Time to ask who has been hard to work with along the way? Stephen Fry, Tony Slattery, for example on Whose Line? “That’s a very abrupt question,” he says, in magisterial voice. Come on, Clive. “Well, I wrote for the likes of Spitting Image, and you do have some stuff rejected, but I wasn’t in the room to have it thrown back in my face.”

That’s an evasive answer. Here’s another question. Does the pessimist within allow him to assume people will come to see him in Edinburgh, for his Whose Line reprise and his one-man show, Me, Macbeth and I. “I don’t know,” he says, with an exaggerated grimace. “It could all be great. But I’m always anxious. After I leave here I’m going to make a radio programme about the law. I always think we’ll run out of material, yet we never do.”

What’s the Macbeth show about? “It gives me a chance to explore various themes.” Such as? “Well, I can talk about Scottishness and Englishness – I identify with Scottishness although I don’t think audiences will see me as Scottish. And it’s about the truth of Macbeth.” He grins: “But it could also be about telling anecdotes about my career.”

Which he won’t reveal, saving them for Edinburgh. So let’s try another question. Was your wife Jane (they have three grown-up children) accepting of your eventual decision to jettison the legal career? “Yes, it was quite brave of her.” You still have Loose Ends. The legal show. The documentaries. The live theatre work. But does she ever say to you, ‘What are you doing today to justify your existence on this planet, Clive?’ “Not quite,” he says, smiling, “but as a doctor with a very busy day, she may ask what I’m doing and I’ll say a bit of reading, making a few phone calls, but you’re aware she can turn around and say, ‘Well, I’ve had to deal with six dying patients’.”

What’s becomes evident is that Anderson shelters from the big questions, he’s a natural worrier, a little anxious, a little risk averse. For example, what can I tell readers about Clive Anderson they don’t know? “I don’t think I have an answer to that one.” Yes, you do. Pick one. “I once did an interview with David Frost and I said to him, ‘You always ask your subjects how they would wish to be remembered.’ He said: "Yes, I asked Kissinger that question.’ And although he had asked everyone that question, he had no answer for me.”

So, Clive Anderson, master questioner, has no answer? “I must remember some of your questions and use them,” he says, pulling out the flattery card. Come on, Clive. Have a go at answering. “OK, I’m much nicer than people think I am,” he says, grinning. “I’m actually Mr Amiable.”

What’s inarguable is he’s good fun. As mischievous as he was as a schoolboy. And the Fringe shows will most certainly be a hoot.

Clive Anderson, Me, Macbeth and I, is at Assembly Studio 3, Edinburgh, from August 3- 25. He will also host Whose Line Is It Anyway? from July 31-August 26 @ Underbelly McEwan Hall, Edinburgh