Culture

Clive Anderson: 'I think it's good not to be a sycophant'

Clive Anderson was a comedy late bloomer who led a double life between the TV studio and court room before landing his own chat show

Clive Anderson

Image: Karwai Tang/WireImage

Clive Anderson was born in 1952 in Stanmore, Middlesex. He attended Selwyn College, Cambridge, where, from 1974-75, he was president of the university’s famed amateur dramatics club, Footlights.

On leaving university, he became a barrister and specialised in criminal law. But his love of comedy remained and he wrote for BBC Radio 4’s topical sketch show, Week Ending. from 1975-77 and BBC Two’s Not The Nine O’Clock News from 1979-82. As a stand-up. Anderson became the first comedian to tread the boards at alternative comedy hub, The Comedy Store on its opening in May 1979.

Anderson found fame as the host of Channel 4’s improvised comedy hit Whose Line Is It Anyway (1988-96) and his own chat show, Clive Anderson Talks Back (1989-96, also Channel 4). In 1996, he defected to prime time BBC One to host Clive Anderson All Talk, which ran till 1999. He remains a familiar presence on our television screens and as the regular host of BBC Radio 4’s magazine show, Loose Ends. Anderson is currently performing in a run of his first one-man stage show, Me, Macbeth & I.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, Anderson looks back on his early performing days, his double life as a barrister and the birth of his first child.

Around the age of 16, I changed a bit. Until my early teens I was quite into sport. When puberty kicked in I, like most people, got interested in girls. Which led to me joining the drama club at the all-boys grammar school I went to [Harrow County School for Boys] and doing a lot of Shakespeare plays and comedies, because doing plays meant becoming involved with the girls’ school. So I know full well my first impulse to act was motivated by wanting to meet girls. 

When I was young, I had a few little stays in hospital. So when I was asked, What do you want to be? I said a doctor. Well, there aren’t many parents in the world who don’t think that’s a good idea. But I got about three weeks into doing sciences and thought, this Chemistry really isn’t for me. I was at a bit of a loss, then after a while I thought, I know, I’ll be a barrister. That’s all I could think of, which betrays very little imagination on my part. So if I could talk to my younger self, I’d say, don’t just drift along saying you want to be a doctor to get the adults off your back. Think it through and study the subjects you actually enjoy, like History, rather than ones you think you should like. 

I still remember a school Christmas show I did with my friend Geoffrey [Perkins, BBC/Hat Trick writer and producer of Spitting Image, Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Father Ted, who died in 2008]. We put together a comedy sketch where he was the host and I was the guest – rather crazy, I’m not sure it would stand up to reexamination. But we were quite pleased with it, and we really enjoyed doing it. He became a very important TV producer and BBC executive.

Being funny was how I communicated with people, probably to a fault. But I was also, if I’m honest with myself, too sensible for my own good sometimes. I could always see the grown-up point of view. So if I was giving my younger self advice, as well as sensible advice about working hard, I’d say, play harder too. Both my parents were quite reserved. I’m quite like my father – he liked to joke but he wasn’t a crazy guy, he was quite restrained. My mother was quite careful with money. She didn’t want to waste money, so we didn’t have expensive holidays or throw money around. You inherit some of these qualities without realising it. I was a bit buttoned up and I think I probably still am.

I think I got my career the wrong way round. When I was in my twenties I should have started off in comedy, where being young is quite an advantage. Instead I became a lawyer, where being young isn’t especially helpful. After a while I drifted into comedy and broadcasting, where there’s no point starting older because you’re already looking a bit tired and washed up.

John Sessions, Clive Anderson and Stephen Fry
1988: With BBC Radio 4’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? co-stars John Sessions and Stephen Fry.
Image: Tony Timmington/Radio Times via Getty Images

I think my putting off the comedy career was possibly a failure of confidence in myself, but it was also because there wasn’t an obvious route for me to go down. Some of my friends became things like TV producers, but I didn’t really want to do that. And I wasn’t a good enough actor to be on the stage. Until the Comedy Store started in London, and I took part in the first night, there wasn’t an obvious route for people like me. 

For a short while, maybe two or three years, I was doing comedy and I was also still a barrister. I was filming Whose Line Is It Anyway? at weekends, then when the chat show came along I took off maybe two or three months then went back to the day job. I quite liked that period of time in a strange way, it was a handy way of being balanced in life. It kept me quite relaxed in court, thinking, well, my own TV programme is starting in a few weeks so I’m out of here anyway. But it couldn’t last forever. I took maybe two years away from the bar, and thought I’d probably go back to being a lawyer after that. In my pessimistic way I feared I’d do just enough television to destroy my credibility as a lawyer, but not quite enough to get a career going. But those two years became forever. 

I was very keen to make sure the chat shows [Talks Back and All Talk] were as funny as possible. There were plenty of chat shows when the host just said, tell us that great story about the lovely director in your film. But I was keen that my show was super funny. And I enjoyed a sort of ping-pong match if both I and the guest were being funny. But I can see now it didn’t always work. Maybe I could have just eased off a bit. But who knows, if I advised my younger self to go easier on guests I might destroy the whole show. Like a very camp chat show host telling his younger self he was too whimsical. So I think you’ve probably got to go too far in one direction before you learn when to ease off. 

Clive Anderson with his family
2016: Supporting wife Professor Jane Anderson after she was made a CBE, with children Flora, Edmund and Isabella.
Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

I’m sounding a bit defensive aren’t I? I’m reminded all the time of that Bee Gees interview [in 1997 the band walked out of the All Talk studio when he continuously made jokes about their music]. I really thought we were having a jolly time, a bit of banter to get us all in the mood. But I obviously quickly realised it had gone wrong. And it probably hasn’t aged well. Back then I think half the people watching thought I went too far, and the other half thought the Bee Gees were overreacting. I certainly think it’s good not to be a sycophant. It’s a fine line to tread and you can’t please everyone.

My level of fame has eased off a bit obviously in the last few years, but even when it was at its highest… I wasn’t exactly Mick Jagger. Some people would say hello, some would point at me or shout at me. But it wasn’t in your face the whole time. The only real drawback is if you, say, trip over a kerb, for most people they’re just a bloke tripping. But if I do it, people might take a photo or say, do you remember that guy Clive Anderson, he used to be quite famous? I just saw him tripping up over a kerb. 

The play Winner’s Curse at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, London
2023: Performing in the play Winner’s Curse at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, London. Image: Stephen Chung / Alamy Live News

If I could have one last conversation with anyone – this might sound ludicrously sentimental but it would be my mother. She died at a young age, in her early 60s, when I was 29. She had a heart condition and she had maybe three operations at various times in her life. I can’t quite say we got blasé about it, but I just thought she was going to have the operation and then I would visit her in hospital. I couldn’t see her just before the operation, and even if I had, we wouldn’t have said goodbye, we’d have assumed we’d see each other soon. That everything would be all right. But she never came round from the operation. So if I’m going to have a wish about seeing someone again, I’m not going to waste it on talking to somebody else. 

If I could re-live one time in my life, it would be a day when I was contriving to do a lot of things. I went to court in Oxford, a tiresome two-hour journey from London – I don’t know why I did that because the day before my wife had a false alarm that she was going into labour with our first child! That evening she actually did go into labour. We were up all through the night – I was there the whole time next to my wife, taking in the excitement and wonder of it all – and the next morning she had our first child. That is a magical moment; you don’t quite believe there is a human being in there until it comes out. Then I went straight to a recording of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, having had no sleep whatsoever. So that 24-hour period – from being a lawyer getting a case settled, to recording a comedy show, encapsulated my life at that time. With the most exciting bit obviously being the baby born in the middle of it. 

Tickets for Clive Anderson’s Me, Macbeth & I UK tour are available at socomedy.co.uk 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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