Clive Anderson

Clive Anderson has no idea where he’s going. Or, for that matter, how he got to where he is. Throughout our lengthy interview, he repeatedly stresses just how wildly unplanned his entire career has been. Indeed, before we even get started, he offers a warning: ‘I may come across as a rather indecisive and drifting kind of person, actually because I am.’ Yet upon inspection of his career, ‘indecisive and drifting’ would be the last words to come to mind. Instead, over the past twenty-five years he has forged a consistently successful career that has seen him rarely absent from radio or TV. His stints on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Clive Anderson Talks Back, Have I Got News For You and many others have made him a familiar face to audiences in Britain and even across the world – he chuckles to recall how many of his American guests will tell him, “God, halfway through I suddenly realised you’re that bloke who used to present Whose Line!” Yet despite such success, Anderson sees his career as having crept up on him.

In his earlier years at Selwyn College, Cambridge, he seemed destined for a comedy career. He served as a member and president of the Cambridge Footlights alongside Griff Rhys Jones, John Lloyd and Douglas Adams, and it soon took priority over work: ‘It became my main preoccupation… but it had a sort of time-consuming aspect to it. You’re writing and rehearsing at exactly the time you’re supposed to be concentrating on your work, so it’s not ideal.’ But if you fail at exams, I suggest, at least you could blame the Footlights. ‘It’s a convenient thing to blame. I think I’d have been capable of wasting my time without Footlights, but [without it] I might have done a bit better.’

Yet despite such a tempting distraction, Anderson emerged from Cambridge intent on becoming a lawyer, and laid comedy to bed. He sighs, ‘I think it was sort of a failure of imagination, in a way… it didn’t really strike me that there was a world that needed me to be an actor or a stand-up comedian. I did want to be a barrister, so I did that.’ At least for fourteen years, and even then his Footlight days weren’t quite dead: ‘I did keep up comedy always through my life, in that I used to write sketches and jokes for radio and then TV programmes. I always had a little bit of a connection with the world of comedy, but I didn’t really pursue it very much. It was like a little hobby that occasionally paid money.’ During that time, he was like a mundane superhero, leading quite disparate double lives: ‘First of all, I would just be doing TV stuff [on] weekends, and then I’d be a barrister during the week. And in a way, I quite wanted it to carry on like that. I don’t think we’re all necessarily designed to be specialist to the extent of doing one thing the whole time. But I found it just too difficult, time-wise… But I didn’t really throw down my horse-hair wig and say, ‘Right, I’m stopping doing it.’ I continued to do it for a while, until I realised, ‘Ooh, well I’m not really a barrister any more.’’ I ask if he’s ever considered returning to law and he admits, ‘I always thought I would… [But] now sufficient time has gone by that I’d have to start and retrain really. They keep changing the law, so I’d have to mug up.’

For Anderson, the gradual shift into comedy and presenting was entirely accidental and, in many ways, he didn’t take it entirely seriously: ‘when I was doing the telly, I’d be thinking, ‘Well, I’m not really a chat show host, I’m actually a barrister. I’m just doing this for a bit of a laugh.’’ In a way, this shows itself onscreen – he has a distinct lack of egotism or vanity, a quality increasingly rare in the media. He pauses. ‘I’ve experienced TV cameras, and they’re quite brutal in that they do reveal your emotions – every emotion playing across your face. And I certainly don’t usually watch my own programmes, because I don’t really like what I look like on television. I’d like to preserve the thought that I might look slightly different in real life, but I think that’s just a delusion really.’ Another pause. ‘I’m not boring you am I? I feel like I’m just rambling on…’ I’m quick to reassure him otherwise, but he’s soon expressing another concern – over-exposure. Last summer was particularly frantic, as he unexpectedly found himself hosting three different shows simultaneously: ‘If you’d asked me this time last year, ‘What are you up to?’ I’d have said, ‘Oh, nothing much on.’ And then very quickly I did a programme about bridge for Sky Arts, then I did, also for Sky Arts, the Antony Gormley thing [One and Other, a weekly show about Gormley’s fourth plinth] and the Proms, and I found myself doing five programmes a week in the summer, when I was expecting to take it easy or maybe even have a holiday. So this is why I think my career planning’s a bit weird, because I go from relatively quiet bits to frantically busy periods… If that happens, then suddenly it’s, ‘Oh God he’s everywhere! What’s he doing? Why is he on my screen again?’ Or if not, it’s suddenly, ‘Ooh, what’s happened to him? He’s completely disappeared.’’

In many ways, Anderson paints a picture of himself as plain lucky, and rarely attributes his success to his own skill: ‘I’m not a great mover and shaker – things seem to happen to me, good or bad… the next thing I do will almost certainly be something that somebody’s suggested rather than something I’m hammering on the door [about]. I’m not very good at banging on the door and saying, ‘Look, this is what I should do.’ I find that a difficult process, and it doesn’t get any easier, for some reason.’ Yet the longevity of his career is not a reflection of mere luck, but rather of talent. His rapid wit is renowned and feared in equal measure: when interviewing Jeffrey Archer, he proclaimed, ‘There’s no beginning to your talents,’ to which Archer sneered, ‘The old ones are the best.’ Without batting an eyelid, Anderson immediately retorted, ‘Yes, I’ve read your books.’ When I bring this up, he reacts with glee: ‘The thing about Jeffrey Archer – as I think events have proved over the years – is that I was sort of in the right with that… I was probably being more aggressive than most people would have been with him, but I think in that case it was probably worthwhile.’ Perhaps ‘aggressive’ is right; in one interview, Richard Branson ended up pouring water over him, while, infamously, the Bee Gees stormed out mid-interview after a few too many jibes. That, at least, was anything but intentional: ‘I just stumbled accidentally into asking the wrong things… I realised when they left that I’d trampled on a few nerves, but I didn’t do it intentionally. Well, that makes it worse doesn’t it?’

Such unintentionally memorable incidents are rare, however. Instead, he has spent much of his career meeting and interviewing the comedy greats, many of them his personal heroes, from Frankie Howerd – he wrote material for this ‘comedy hero’ – to Peter Cook. An encounter with the latter led to an inspired special edition of his chat show, wherein Cook was the only guest and appeared as four different interviewees. It’s worth finding on YouTube. ‘I particularly liked that programme because it was great to work with Peter Cook in a proper comedy context… he didn’t really like talking about himself, he liked improvising and jollying away.’ Was it a thrill to be improvising alongside one of the funniest men who ever lived? ‘Oh, it was fantastic. From when I was a boy, he was one of those comedy heroes… I get a big thrill out of all those comedy people.’ With such an impressive track record, and Jonathan Ross’ impending departure, I suggest that there’s a gap he might fill, but Anderson is quick to dismiss it: ‘I think if the BBC wanted me to replace Jonathan Ross, I think they’d mention it, put it that way.’ It’s a shame, as the dry wit for which he is famous would make a welcome change to the slightly more laddish, even juvenile, humour of Ross. But Anderson has no such doubts of the man’s skill: ‘I’m sure Jonathan Ross will crop up somewhere else as well, whether it’s on ITV or Sky or something. I doubt we’ve heard the last of Jonathan Ross.’

Currently, Anderson seems to be mostly confined to the radio, which he admits isn’t always ideal: ‘To be brutal, it’s not as well paid on the radio as it is on television, [and] it’s not as high profile… [But] it’s not really within my control.’ Still, many political journalists experienced a sense of déjà vu with the Second Prime Minster’s Debate, wherein Adam Boulton, stuck behind a desk as moderator, looked like an eerily similar – albeit somewhat heavier – version of Clive Anderson. The man himself doesn’t see it: ‘I think it’s rather a cruel thing to say that he looks like a fat version of me! I’m sure that’s one of the worst insults I can imagine anyone giving.’ Nonetheless, he does feel that he was present at the debates, at least in spirit: ‘[The moderators] just had to say, ‘Mr Clegg! Mr Cameron!’ And so it was a little bit like Whose Line Is It Anyway? ‘And now I want that in the style of someone who does want to get elected.’ ‘Mr Brown, now do it with a smile on your face, to see if you can maintain it for more than a couple of minutes.’’ He laughs at this, but once again seems nervous of seeming at all self-obsessed, or even incoherent, adding, ‘forgive me if I ramble on too much… please put it into sentences so I sound halfway reasonable.’

Such hesitancy is in stark contrast to his more confident onscreen persona, and while he has not been on television as regularly in recent months – his current regular slot is presenting Loose Ends on BBC Radio 4 – it seems doubtful that he’ll be away for long. For all his self-deprecation and even self-doubt, Anderson remains a quick wit and a reliable host, and it has always been skill rather than luck that seems to have sustained his career. He admits that he currently has ‘three or four projects which are in the ‘let’s go to lunch’ stage or ‘I’m just showing this to the controller’ stage,’ but quickly adds, ‘they sometimes come to nothing… I’m slightly nervous about talking about anything that isn’t set in stone.’ He needn’t worry. With things as they are, it doesn’t look like he’ll be retraining as a lawyer any time soon.

[Originally published by Cherwell, in print and online, on 27/05/2010: http://www.cherwell.org/content/10462]

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