Interview: Neil Oliver | Living North

Interview: Neil Oliver


Neil Oliver
The celebrated archaeologist, historian, author and broadcaster is swapping his shovel for the stage, as he prepares to embark on his first ever theatre tour

How are feeling ahead of your first ever UK theatre tour?
Thrilled and nervous! I’ve often talked about books in front of an audience, but this tour is on a different scale. I’ll be travelling all over the country and the thought of it is quite daunting. But I’m also very fired up about it all. The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places is my love letter to these islands – I’ve felt the need to say something, write something, for a while now. I just hope folk will enjoy it.

The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places is the title of your new book – why did you want to develop this into a theatre show as well? 
While big rooms full of listeners are intimidating, there is also nothing quite like getting live feedback. Of all the books I’ve written, I think it’s fair to say this one is closest to my heart. It’s not a history book, as such – more my impressions of the history of these islands based on nearly two decades of travelling around, seeing so many unexpected places. Because I care about it as much as I do, I want to see if people share my feelings. A tour is the most immediate way of doing that.

You’ve mentioned that you fell in love with the British Isles all over again when filming Coast – what is it about them that you love so much?
Impossible question! So much to say! If I had to sum it up, I think it’s the depth of history here. These islands have been inhabited by our species, on and off, for at least a million years. There’s not a square foot we haven’t touched. So much has happened here that has affected not just our little archipelago but also the whole world. I feel it is easy to overlook the significance of this place, its unique nature and contribution. If I’m honest, I’d say these islands are the most important place on earth, but that’s probably just me!

What first inspired you to study archaeology?
I’ve always wanted to understand things from the beginning. History only takes you so far – we’ve only been writing things down for a few thousand years. Archaeology is the set of tools that lets us look back into the deep time of our species. It also lets us touch and have actual physical contact with the past. I find that so powerful, close to magic.

What was it that first made you want to bring together your love and knowledge of archaeology with journalism? 
Both disciplines are fired by nosiness! Archaeologists dig around in the rubbish to try and understand what people were doing hundreds or thousands of years ago. Journalists dig around to try and understand what people were doing this morning. Both are also about story telling, and I do love telling stories.

What would you say are some of the highlights of your theatre show?
That might not be for me to say! It will be a personal, intimate account. I would like to think that the audience might come away with an understanding of why these places matter to me. I’ve written from the heart and I will be speaking from the heart. There is no such thing as one, definitive account of history, that’s my point of view. I don’t claim to be right about everything – or even right about anything. What I want is to inspire people to feel something about history, about these islands.

Is the history of anywhere in the North East and Yorkshire mentioned as part of the 100 Places you pick out?
I don’t want to give it all away! That said, I may talk about Hadrian’s Wall and Durham Cathedral. I may talk about Lindisfarne, Scarborough, Bamburgh… You’ll just have to wait and see!

Where in the world would you most like to visit, that you haven’t already? 
I like the northern and southern extremes. So I’d see more of Antarctica, Southern South America, but I’d also love to spend some time in Mongolia, Siberia and the Arctic.

What’s your favourite book?
That’s too hard! I could name dozens. If I had to pick just one, I’d say Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut. There is a line in there – ‘Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time’ – that gives a sense of my need to understand how people lived and felt in every time in history. I sometimes think I’m unstuck in time too.

What are you hoping audiences will take away from your theatre show?
A renewed love of our country. Not patriotism, as such. Love.

What’s next for you after the tour’s over? 
A long sit down and a cup of tea!

Neil Oliver The Story of The British Isles in 100 Places will be in the North on the following dates:

1st October – Harrogate Theatre
3rd October – Hull New Theatre
14th November – Newcastle City Hall

For more information, visit:

Published in: September 2018

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