Clive Anderson talks Macbeth, Tony Blair and the Bee Gees ahead of Shrewsbury show
Clive Anderson is typically droll as he promotes his latest show, Me, Macbeth and I.
"It’s guaranteed to be funnier than Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, more historically accurate than 24 hours of fake news, and less divisive than Brexit, Scottish independence and Donald Trump put together," he says.
He might have added that, given it is a one-man show, he can be sure that none of his guests will be walking out.
"It's always the terrible interviews that people remember," he muses, as he prepares for his appearance at Shrewsbury's Theatre Severn on Friday.
He has interviewed former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. His show featuring Peter Cook, who played 14 different characters, is a piece of television history. And that's before you get to him getting arrested in Nigeria. But it's his interview with the Bee Gees that everyone remembers.
"I didn't mean to be cheeky, but with the wisdom that comes with age, I would do it differently now," he reflects.
In 1997 the Bee Gees were on the crest of a wave, enjoying a remarkable comeback. They reached No. 2 in the album charts and had received a Brit award for their outstanding contribution to music. So when Clive got them to appear on his new BBC1 chat show Clive Anderson All Talk, he was hoping for a memorable interview. And he got one.
In the 1990s, Clive's punchy interviews, with his barbed comments and acerbic wit seemed the perfect antidote to the cosy format favoured by Michael Parkinson and the late Russell Harty. But when he interviewed the Bee Gees, his quips fell flat, and Barry Gibb in particular seemed riled by what he perceived as a lack of respect. Halfway through, he snapped "We're getting on like a house on fire, aren't we Clive?", and stormed off the set. His brothers quickly followed.
His two-hour show, an extended version of his 2019 performance at Edinburgh Fringe, will see him talk about his Scottish roots. His lifelong obsession with Shakespeare's Macbeth began when he was denied a prominent role in a school production. He talks about the superstitions surrounding the 'Scottish Play' which dare not speak its name, and why it has come to be associated with bad luck. Which neatly leads into the public's fascination with live interviews that go wrong.
As well as the Bee Gees, people might also recall how Cher got the hump when Clive asked her how much she spent on cosmetic surgery, not to mention the time when Richard Branson poured a glass of water over him.
"I can't actually remember what that was about," he says. "It was certainly more memorable than anything either of us said."
He also examines Parkinson's infamous interview with Rod Hull and Emu, which descended into chaos as the puppet attacked the host. Not to mention Harty's interview with a drugged-up Grace Jones, which culminated in the agitated singer, model and actress physically attacking the host for turning his back on her. Bizarrely, she managed to regain her professional composure to perform a song at the end of the show.
Clive believes the passage of time tends to exaggerate these events in the public mind, and says his Bee Gees interview seemed far less of a big deal at the time.
"As the years go by, I think it looks worse than it was," he says.
"At the time, the studio audience thought the Bee Gees over-reacted to what was a bit of a giggle. But more people will now remember it as that awful interview where I was rude to a much-loved band."
As a young man he trained as a barrister, and vaguely knew Tony and Cherie Blair, who were his contemporaries at the time.
"The work they were doing tended to be more prosaic, whereas mine was more the cops and robbers stuff. But even when I knew him, Tony Blair was wondering whether or not he should go into politics, and it seemed a very short time before he was an MP. And then a very short period of time before he was Prime Minister."
While practising as a barrister, he had a sideline of writing scripts for television shows, and began carving out a niche as one of Britain's first 'alternative comedians'. He is reputedly the first act to have appeared at London's famous Comedy Store, although he doubts the veracity of that.
"It is true that I performed on the opening night, but I doubt very much that I was the first act," he says. As his comedy career took off, he began making TV appearances, and for a short while he managed to combine both his legal career with his television work.
"I very much enjoyed that time, being able to do both," he recalls. "But it very quickly got to the point where I was doing enough television to affect my professional credibility in court, but without the guarantee of getting into broadcasting.
"As a barrister I was self-employed, and that meant that I would have to turn down work because television dates were often booked some time in advance.
"In the end, I started taking periods off work to focus on the television, and the last time I did that, I never went back."
His big break came as the host of Channel 4's cult improvisation show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which ran from 1988 to 1999. This led to him being given his own chat show on Channel 4, Clive Anderson Talks Back, which ran from 1989 to 1996, before he was offered a show on the BBC, Clive Anderson All Talk in 1996.
"Hosting a talk show is not that different from being a barrister," he says. "You ask people questions, and you occasionally try to be funny, in the hope that you will glean a little nugget out of them.
"People used to say that I questioned celebrities as if I was on a current affairs show.
"One of the problems with the Bee Gees was that there were three of them," he says. "So when you talking to one of them, the others are taking in what you have just said."
Has he spoken to Barry Gibb since the interview?
"Funnily enough, Granada asked me to go on An Audience With the Bee Gees, some years ago," he says.
"I wasn't able to make it, but even if I had, I'm not sure it's what they would have wanted.
"But if I ever bumped into Barry in the street – assuming, of course that he remembered who I was – I would say that I was sorry I got it wrong, and would ask him to come back on and finish the interview."
*Me, Macbeth and I will be at Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, on Friday starting 7.30pm