How we became a nation driven by myths and legends

Ian Hislop with King Arthur's legendary Round Table in Winchester Great Hall.
Ian Hislop with King Arthur's legendary Round Table in Winchester Great Hall.
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We have become skilled at marketing ourselves as a forward thinking nation. Not so, Ian Hislop tells Grace Hammond we are a country obsessed with the past.

As the son of a Scottish civil engineer, Ian Hislop spent his early years in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Hong Kong. By the time he was sent to an English boarding school at the age of eight, he had already seen more of the world than most of his teachers.

“I came home to Sussex, right in the middle of the South Downs, this amazingly beautiful green, rolling postcard of how you might imagine England,” he says, admitting those early years left him with a slightly skewed image of his home country. “I suffered a full on bout of British nostalgia. Being an expat child, you have a vision of what home might be, which may not absolutely accord with what people actually living there think Britain is. It’s quite likely that you get a slightly idealised, heightened view of it.

“What’s interesting is that when I came back to live here, it didn’t live up to those ideals. A lot of satirisits are embittered romantics who want things to be how they think they should be, and are furious that they aren’t.

Hislop was born in Swansea and when it comes to romanticising how things used to be, he isn’t alone. As a nation we have turned nostalgia into an art form and in his new series, Ian Hislop’s Olden Days, the 53-year-old explores the British love of tradition, and how people use or abuse the past to help shape the present.

“You name it, we have an ability to mythologise it,” says Hislop, speaking from the offices of Private Eye, the satirical magazine he’s edited since 1986. “Everybody’s parents start telling their children about their childhood and their sort of olden period. Collectively, we all do it as a country. You end up with this succession of periods when everything was marvellous - from King Arthur to the medieval times, Ivanhoe, chivalry, Henry VIII, Merry England, the Blitz.

The series begins in the 8th-century when the mythology of Arthur and his Round Table was already exercising a powerful force over the country amd over the course of the three films, he reveals how and why, we have continually plundered the past to make sense of and shape the present.

“What’s interesting is the way we do this, and why we do it. A lot of the stories I’m telling are of people like William Morris or Benjamin Disraeli, people who are using [the past] for very specific reasons.

Home for Hislop who has a son and daughter with his wife Victoria, a bestselling author is the village of Sissinghurst in Kent, his very own slice of old England.

“Kent, and Sissinghurst, which has this castle and amazing grounds, are a bit of olden days England for me, I’ll make no bones about it. I love it,” he says. It also provides a respite from the rigours of London life for Hislop, who’s been “vaguely limbering up” for series 47 of Have I Got News For You which returns this week with Jennifer Saunders as guest host.

Hislop still cites Tony Blair as his dream guest host on the show - although it seems unlikely he would ever dare take him up on the offer.

“It might be fun,” the writer and presenter counters. “We could have [Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife] Wendi Deng on as a woman panellist, that’d be good.” He’d also be interested in another series of Olden Days, if the first proves successful.

“Let’s see how this one goes down, you never know with telly. They’re three different topics - the mad old Celt bit, the Middle Ages and Victorian bits, and then the third programme’s all about Morris dancing and terrible paintings of the countryside and what we imagine the countryside is,” he says. “If it goes well, there’s a lot of material there.”

So will we be seeing Hislop in full Morris dancing garb in the final episode? “I refuse to say,” he says. “That, you will have to find out.”

Ian Hislop’s Olden Days starts on BBC2 on April 9.