Clive Anderson takes his rapier wit to the Edinburgh stage
‘I was Boris’s neighbour, he was VERY energetic… in all sorts of things!’ Clive Anderson on his solo act, the talk-show encounter that makes him cringe… and that rather shouty local politician
He survived a monumental TV bust-up with the Bee Gees, supervised super-sized egos on Whose Line Is It Anyway? and is preparing to perform a one-man show at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, but Clive Anderson has had tougher gigs. He used to be Boris Johnson’s neighbour.
‘Boris lived quite close to us in north London,’ the radio and TV presenter confesses. ‘Just off the Holloway Road, I don’t know if there’s a blue plaque there.
Clive Anderson is a regular after-dinner speaker who has hosted the Baftas and the Olivier Awards – and still chairs the live Whose Line Is It Anyway? shows
‘He has moved now but I remember he was a very energetic person.’ Anderson leaves a masterfully weighted pause.
‘In all sorts of things.’
Disappointingly, the only arguments Anderson overheard were when Johnson was engaged in disputes on the local tennis courts. ‘He would be out on Highbury Fields with the whole family, shouting about the ball being in or out,’ he reports. ‘It was always good-natured, though. He seemed to really enjoy himself. And he played tennis in exactly the way you would imagine.’ Anderson improvises a brief mime that could be an irate gorilla with a fly-swatter or the former Foreign Secretary serving for the match.
‘Boris would stand there bashing the ball hard, thrashing the thing. I don’t think he ran around a lot,’ Anderson chuckles.
Anderson, 66, is fiercely witty company. He sips his Americano and wonders aloud why on earth he has agreed to perform the solo show Me, Macbeth And I for three weeks at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. ‘It seemed like a good idea when I initially agreed to it,’ he says, swallowing softly.
Anderson is a regular after-dinner speaker who has hosted the Baftas and the Olivier Awards – and still chairs the live Whose Line Is It Anyway? shows – but is nervous at the prospect of mulling over the Scottish play, as a half-Scot (his father was Glaswegian) in Scotland.
Nevertheless, he boldly promises that the performance will ‘be funnier than Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy and less divisive than Brexit, Scottish independence and Donald Trump put together’.
Anderson shot to fame in 1988 as the fast-talking anchor of the hugely popular improvisation show whose regular guests, Josie Lawrence, John Sessions, Greg Proops, Mike McShane and Tony Slattery, also became household names.
Suddenly, Anderson was hardly off the TV, like a Nineties version of Graham Norton. ‘Although he’s much better-looking,’ Anderson contends. ‘And he creates a jolly atmosphere which I, generally speaking, didn’t.’
Yet his two successful talk shows, Channel 4’s Clive Anderson Talks Back and Clive Anderson All Talk for the BBC, were appointment viewing, his brusque, intelligent interviewing style a refreshing alternative to the chat show norm.
Clive Anderson’s fateful encounter with the Bee Gees in 1996. ‘I was loading lots of jokes in and it didn’t go down well with them at all – catastrophically, in fact’
Before breaking into show-business as a stand-up in 1979, Anderson practised criminal law for 15 years, studying alongside a young Tony Blair, but never becoming a QC.
Many of his contemporaries at the bar are now High Court judges and Anderson may have gone that route had comedy not worked out. ‘And who’s to say it has?’ he quips.
In an entertainment world obsessed with what passes as acceptable, Anderson often uses his silky legal skills to circumnavigate the terminally offended.
‘I do some jokes at the start of Loose Ends,’ he says of the Radio 4 show he has presented for 12 years. ‘But you have to be more careful now, which in some ways is a pity.’
Regarding the recent Jo Brand scandal, when the comedian, referring to the fad for throwing milkshakes at public figures, controversially asked ‘Why bother with a milkshake when you could get some battery acid?’, Anderson errs on the side of caution. ‘That was quite funny but people are having acid thrown in their faces, it isn’t an abstract idea, so in that context you might not want to broadcast it. And I like Jo,’ he adds.
Anderson’s own comedown from TV stardom was as abrupt as his meteoric rise. He attributes this partially to changing trends. ‘But it’s a question I’m afraid I still can’t fully answer,’ he puzzles.
Anderson hasn’t appeared regularly on our screens for a decade, but his place in TV history is assured thanks to a contretemps with the Bee Gees in 1996.
In the midst of an awkward interview, Barry Gibb, the eldest of the siblings, announced that Anderson had called him ‘a tosser’ and promptly walked off the show, followed by his baffled brothers.
‘I was a bit hyper because we’d just recorded a show,’ Anderson recollects. ‘And I was trying to pursue the idea with the Bee Gees that I was very old and I knew their music before the falsetto stuff but…’ he shrugs helplessly. ‘I was loading lots of jokes in and it didn’t go down well with them at all – catastrophically, in fact.’
Anderson at Buckingham Palace with his wife, Professor Jane Anderson, after she was awarded a CBE in 2016
It was when an angry Gibb addressed his rapier-witted interviewer as ‘pal’ that Anderson sensed trouble. ‘I realised then it was too late,’ he winces. ‘And that Barry had been brooding for a while.’
The regrettable Bee Gees ‘hoo-ha’, as he puts it, is still an agonising watch – Anderson’s expression as the Bee Gees’ depart is a heart-breaker. ‘I thought Clive would be too embarrassed to show it,’ Maurice Gibb would later marvel.
Anderson hasn’t met Barry Gibb since, although he has encountered author Jeffrey Archer, of whom Anderson had asked on a 1990 show: ‘Is there no beginning to your talents?’ Archer ill-advisedly responded ‘The old jokes are the always the best’ before Anderson went for the kill, replying: ‘Yes, I’ve read your books.’
‘There was a long period when Jeffrey Archer wouldn’t acknowledge me, but we’re through that now,’ Anderson smirks. ‘We met at a charity thing – has he ever mentioned that he does a lot for charity? So, we had to chat, and did that British thing of not mentioning the interview at all.’
He hails the late Peter Cook as a talk show guest of some genius. ‘Although I once asked him where the names for his Derek and Clive characters came from and he said, “We just wanted to come up with the naffest names imaginable, er, Clive.” ’
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Anderson lives in Highbury with his wife Professor Jane Anderson, a doctor specialising in Aids treatment to whom he has been married since 1981. They have three grown-up children, Isabella, Flora and Edmund.
At 66, Anderson is now, technically speaking, a pensioner. ‘And if I hang on until I’m 75 I’ll get a free TV licence – oh no, I won’t! That’s been robbed from me!’
He’s afraid that’s all we’ve got time for, but before the final buzzer I must ask Anderson if he’d prefer to have Stayin’ Alive or Tragedy played at his funeral.
‘It would be quite a good gag,’ he giggles approvingly. ‘But I’m not sure how respectful it would be to use a Bee Gees song at what will obviously be a time of national mourning.’
He’s joking, of course – razor-sharp, as ever.
‘Clive Anderson: Me, Macbeth And I’ and ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway? Live’ are both at next month’s Edinburgh Fringe, edfringe.com
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