Neil Oliver's live shows are based on a prolific career of making the past come alive on television and in print.
Neil Oliver has also done a bit of telly. Quite a bit of it, in an accidental career that has made him and, well, his hair famous in Britain, Australia and – since he began fronting TVNZ’s Coast New Zealand – here as well.
The history series he’s done at home, mostly for the BBC, make his New Zealand gig – he’s just finished filming a third season – look like a working holiday. There was the original British series Coast and an Australian spin-off, but Oliver’s ever-expanding CV also includes presenting the epic 10-part documentary series A History of Scotland, as well as various studies of ancient Britain, the Celts, the Vikings, British battlefields, famous Scottish explorers and the Scottish roots of the Ku Klux Klan.
Many of the above have come with tie-in books. He’s also written a novel, Master of Shadows, a piece of historical fiction about a Scottish engineer caught up in the 15th-century siege of Constantinople, and he’s just finished its sequel, which is set against the War of the Roses.
So, when the 50-year-old appears on stage this month in New Zealand for a couple of live shows, he’ll have more to talk about than that nice time he spent filming in Fiordland and the Bay of Islands. And he is sure to have some good answers to any audience member inquiring what he thinks of New Zealand. (For the record, the Listener forgot to ask.)
Still, turning what he does on television into infotainment live on stage has its challenges. Standing on a seaside clifftop while waxing lyrical about the geological, geographical, historical or archaeological significance of his surroundings is one thing, but fronting up to your fan club in person is quite another.
“People do have a misconception that someone on telly is used to an audience. But the type of television I do is quite intimate. It’s a cameraman, a soundman, a director. I am not necessarily used to an audience any more than you are.”
Sitting in a central Auckland bar on a hot December afternoon, Oliver is a friendly, if earnest, presence, more animated when the talk turns to the history of things other than himself.
“I am a naturally shy person, really,” he says. “I never tried to get into telly. My wife finds it almost funny that I am doing what I am doing, because she knows what I am like, which is basically reticent, so that when I am thrust into the spotlight, she finds it almost surreal.”
The spotlight’s beam has been getting steadily brighter since Oliver, having left the University of Glasgow, worked as a freelance archaeologist, then a newspaper journalist and co-presented (with mate Tony Pollard) the battlefield series Two Men in a Trench. Initially inspired by a shared affection for the movie Zulu, the pair set up an archaeological project on the site of the Battle of Isandlwana in Zululand (now KwaZulu-Natal) in South Africa, where British troops were defeated by the locals in 1879. A London production company liked the idea and soon the pair were off poking around for arrowheads and musket balls across the UK as well.
Oliver had stumbled into a career in popular-history television, which has continued to provide him with opportunities to stand in front of a camera in all sorts of places, his long hair tousled by the wind, talking in his Scottish brogue about all sorts of things.
“Like everyone, I complain a bit from time to time about being too busy. But I generally try to remind myself that I am very fortunate and very privileged to be doing what I do. I travel. I see a lot of the world. I meet interesting people. I dip in and out of other people’s lives. From a work point of view, I don’t have too much to complain about. On the occasion I do feel sorry for myself I remind myself I could be working down a coal mine.”
Oliver has become something of an unofficial cultural ambassador for Scotland, a status recognised by his appointment to the presidency of the National Trust for Scotland, a conservation organisation that manages a vast collection of castles and historic sites and great chunks of landscape.
He’s an unusual fit for that role – past presidents have usually been members of the landed Scottish aristocracy – and his appointment was not without controversy. His scathing columns on the Scottish National Party and a proposed second independence referendum, and his preference for the status quo, have made him an unpopular figure among SNP supporters (he quit Twitter in 2016 after receiving personal abuse). Reportedly, 170 of the trust’s 380,000 members resigned after his appointment.
He’s there, he says, to raise the organisation’s profile, “to be a slightly more recognisable public face. If the national trust is trying to garner publicity, [people] might recognise me and be more curious.”
Unsurprisingly for someone who wrote a history of Scotland starting with its geological creation, Oliver takes a long-term view on the issue of Scottish home rule.
“My thing is where do you start? Before there was a Scotland and an England there was a Britain. So when do you start the clock? Where do you go back to when you say, ‘This is how it used to be’? The whole conundrum I find endlessly fascinating.”
Aye, during his times in Australia and New Zealand, he had plenty of folk wanting to tell him about their Scottish heritage.
“People say, ‘You are so lucky because you have got all that history’, and I hadn’t seen it from that perspective before, because as far as I am concerned, the Scottish people here are connected to the Scottish story.
“It seems as though the mindset here and in Australia is as soon as their predecessors arrived, it’s back to year zero. But I say to them, ‘You are connected to William Wallace or Bannockburn or the Jacobites to the same extent that I am. Just because your family migrated 10,000 miles doesn’t separate you from anything chronologically. Geographically you are separated. But the mindset that that is someone else’s history now is wrong.”
This article was first published in the January 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.