Clive Anderson interview: Whose Line Is It Anyway returns. Or does it?
5th August 2014
Barrister-turned-comedian Clive Anderson was the nation’s darling – and then he seemed to vanish. Now at the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time in over a decade, Britain’s wittiest ‘natural-born pessimist’ explains why. First published in the Daily Telegraph, Aug 5 2014.
“Anyone in the public eye goes quite rapidly from ‘Who’s he?’, to ‘Oh, I love him!’, to ‘Oh, not him again!’. That happens to all of us. If you’re lucky, you settle back into ‘Oh, good, it’s him again.’ ”
Clive Anderson is sitting in the cultivated gloom of a posh Moroccan eatery off Regent Street being incredibly sanguine – remarkably sunny, really – about the fickle nature of fame. In the shadows, he still looks, so far as one can tell, a lot like the golden boy of yore, or at least the one-time poster-boy for Channel 4’s early days of doing things differently. A bit craggier, to be sure, now he’s 61, but the twinkle in the eye is there, the grin comes naturally, the dimply cheeks remain endearingly cherubic and, surprisingly, there is still a lot of hair for a man who appeared to be going bald in the late-Eighties. “It has gone at a slow rate,” he says with a smile. “Some people have overtaken me.” A dash of gravitas? He now has that too.
“I still feel like I’m an 18-year-old in awe of the world,” he continues, in disbelief. But, if time has been relatively kind, the television industry hasn’t been nearly so gentle to the former criminal barrister who made a decisive break for showbusiness after a long, busy, dithery period of having a foot in both camps.
Once upon a time, only two decades ago, Anderson was everywhere, the people’s favourite slightly nervy presenter. He shot to success in 1988 as the twitchy, quick-witted host of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the long-running improvisation game-show that helped usher in the era of comedy’s new cultural dominance. And not long after that became a monster hit, he broke the mould again with a quirky, irreverent C4 chat show that anticipated the teasing, familiar way with celebrities that Alan Carr, Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross have now made almost wearyingly standard.
Anderson always stood at the more Wildean end of the spectrum: witness his notorious put-down to Jeffrey Archer who, needled by the insult “Is there no beginning to your talents?”, retaliated with “The old jokes are always the best”, only to be parried with, “Yes, I’ve read your books!” The self-effacing upstart won the 1991 British Comedy Award as Top Entertainment Presenter. In so doing, he struck a blow for the buttoned-up, strait-laced chap-next-door. Key to his appeal was his apparent incongruity in a world of brazen show-offs. Here was someone who looked more like a city commuter than one of those citadel-storming alternative comedians. It was a counter-intuitive radicalism.
When his chat show moved to the BBC around the start of the New Labour era, it looked as if things could only get better. But, after garnering reasonable ratings and some headline-grabbing moments – the Bee Gees huffed off-set, affronted by his far-from-deferential asides – suddenly, in 2001, he became yesterday’s news. It wasn’t that he lost his lustre, he lost his platform. He wasn’t guillotined – he was left dangling by indecision.
“It was an odd thing,” he recalls. “They said: ‘We don’t want you to carry on doing the chat show.’ ‘Why’s that?’ The audience figures weren’t going down. ‘We’re keeping ahead of the audience,’ they said. The controller wanted ‘something a bit different’ – we made one series of this different thing, by which time the controller had moved on. So they had a new show they didn’t want anymore. That was that. But it’s not a dreadful thing. You’re not there for life. I had my time in the sun. You can’t complain.”
Well, maybe he should have complained. I missed his gauche, jerky presence, and I’m sure others did too. These days, there would probably have been a Twitter campaign to get him back on our screens. Instead, he has to contend with strangers’ consolations. “I get a lot of people who say to me, ‘What has happened to you? Haven’t seen you for years.’ Which is true – I haven’t had a TV show for a long time.”
He does crop up from time to time – a stint on Have I Got News for You here, a foray onto QI there, and he even hosted Discovery Mastermind for a year – but that barely registers. There is the radio of course, where he is a regular presence: he presides over the cultural chat-show Loose Ends on Radio 4 as well as the legal series Unreliable Evidence. “ ‘Oh … radio,’ they say. I’m dead as far as they’re concerned. For most people, I have ceased to exist!”
It is around his radio commitments in Edinburgh that he has scheduled a fortnight’s appearance on the Fringe – his first since a 2001 stage chat-show – which could, were another, less reticent Clive Anderson beating the drum for it, stir up huge excitement. In essence, the public is being treated to the closest thing yet to a live incarnation of Whose Line Is It Anyway? For legal reasons, the improv show has been named, after a slight muddle, What Does the Title Matter Anyway? Although he doesn’t have the rights to trade directly on past glories, enough of the gang who made Whose Line? a hit in the first place – including Americans Greg Proops, Mike McShane and our own improv veteran Josie Lawrence – are going to be on hand to satisfy devotees.
That will be fun, won’t it, Clive? Hmm. Talking things up isn’t his forte, and Anderson is unsentimental about this get-together. When the idea was first suggested, he explains, it was less a case of leaping at the opportunity than struggling to find an excuse to show it the door. “I’m usually a great one for saying, ‘I’m not quite sure whether that works’, but with this, try as I might, I couldn’t think of a reason why we shouldn’t do it.”
He is confident that it won’t make much money and ponders what might have been had Whose Line? enjoyed a live outing back in the day. “You think: why didn’t we do it? I’ve heard stand-up comedians say they only do television in order to create a market for their million-pound tours. When we were big on telly, that was probably the time to do a stage-show.” It’s not quite Terry Gilliam dissing the Python reunion shows, but the pessimism is palpable.
“I’m a natural-born pessimist,” he admits, quite affably. He thinks he has inherited that from his Glaswegian father. “It’s the Scottish Presbyterian this-will-never-work thing,” he says, the flip-side being a similar sense of humour. “He was quite a funny man himself. I remember at his funeral his old mates said, ‘He was always very pleased to see you on television,’ but I don’t remember him saying that very much. If he commented on a programme, he would say something like, ‘I didn’t like the tie you were wearing.’ I could be interviewing the Dalai Lama, the Pope and the Queen and he’d go, ‘Yeah, fine but I thought that joke you did at the beginning was a bit off-colour.’ ”
He may sound Home Counties, have the perfect BBC presenter’s voice, but does he feel Scottish? He does a bit – even though he grew up with his elder sister in suburban Stanmore, Middlesex, his father having come out of the war ‘bombing the Germans’ and headed straight for a stable life, ending up as the manager of the local branch of the Midland bank. He swiftly deflects talk about a dual-identity though. ‘It’s slightly spurious, almost an affectation.’
Perhaps if I’d caught up with him in Argyll, where he has a holiday home to which he, his wife and three children have often beaten a retreat from Highbury, north London, I’d get a more expansive take on things. Throughout, Anderson inclines towards drily discussing career choices and deflecting attention on to others rather than open up about his feelings, which in itself seems interesting.
Does he ever regret abandoning the law? He was called to the bar in 1976, and his last case was in 1991 – that’s a lot of work to have put in to something that came to nothing. “I get the odd sliding-doors moment when I see names of people I know involved in big cases,” he admits. “It used to be barristers, now it’s judges. But there’s no guarantee that my legal career would have prospered in the same way. I suppose it could have done.” He grins. “It could have been me sentencing light-entertainment figures to periods of imprisonment rather than being me having worked with those figures.”
Oh yes: he has interviewed Jimmy Savile, Gary Glitter and Rolf Harris in his time. To his self-deprecating credit, he decides himself a “poor judge of character”. “I looked back on my interview with Jimmy Savile. As everyone knows, there were a lot of rumours going around for a long time about him. His line was a clever one, I suppose. He said, ‘Look, people are always saying this stuff about me. I’ve been famous for years – if there had been anything, the tabloids would have had me by now.’ ” As for the other two, “I wasn’t aware of dodgy stories – certainly not with Rolf Harris. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me that he would be investigated. He was on television my entire life.”
Was Anderson a funny kid when at school, Harrow County School for Boys? A bit of a smart-aleck, he reckons, like a lot of his peers (who included Michael Portillo), but studious. He initially wanted to be a doctor – “I had a few quite pleasant experiences of going into hospital” being the principal rationale – so he did science subjects. “I got about a week into doing A-levels and realised it wasn’t really for me, but I stuck with them. I then imaginatively switched to wanting to be a barrister, a very north-London-suburban outlook on life.”
It was at Cambridge, studying law at Selwyn College, that he fell in with a comedy crowd that included Griff Rhys Jones, Douglas Adams, Jimmy Mulville (who now runs Hat Trick Productions) and Peter Fincham, currently ITV’s Director of Television. He was president of Footlights in 1974. He remembers a night early on doing a monologue as part of the Footlights revue: “I knew that every joke that I had written was getting its full amount of laughs, and I was getting more from reacting to the laughs – that’s when you get the bug.”
He was there on the first night of the Comedy Store in 1979, reputedly the first act (he can’t recall). There were sundry visits to the Edinburgh Fringe, and he wrote for Frankie Howerd and Not The Nine O’Clock News, did TV studio warm-ups too – all this, and being a barrister too. When pushed, he says the most fulfilled time of his life was when he was nipping between two worlds. “That was my favourite period – doing both. I was better at both as a result. It gave me more confidence. In court, I’d be thinking, “In six weeks’ time I’ve got my own chat show.” In my TV studio, I’d be thinking, ‘This isn’t really my world.’ ”
A psychologist might make much of the fact that his mother died in 1982 when he was just starting out and wonder aloud whether that is what lends him that curious ill-at-ease, little-boy-lost air that brings out the maternal in viewers. He doesn’t divulge too much about her, but says he thinks she might have disapproved of his career choice – “I think she would probably have thought it was being too trivial to stop being a lawyer.” Was she artistic? “The only quirky thing,” he says, suddenly tender, “and I’m afraid it hasn’t come on to me, is that if we were on holiday somewhere, or just away somewhere and there was a piano, she could sit down and play show-tunes. You’d go: how do you know how to do that? She couldn’t explain it – she’d never had a music lesson, couldn’t read music. The only thing is that they’d had a piano in their house when they were growing up, and somehow she knew what to do.”
There’s an old-fashioned leather briefcase on the table, rather schoolboyish, groaning with things that Anderson needs to be getting on with. He grimaces – I sense he’d like to be pressing a buzzer, Whose Line-style, and bringing this to a halt. Summing up, how would he characterise how things have gone, where he’s headed? He pauses. “When I first started in broadcasting, Michael Grade described me as a gifted amateur. I think that was a compliment. By now, I should have been able to display the gifts more obviously and become professional. But I think I’m always going to be something of an amateur who drifts in to doing things – gifted or otherwise!”