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1st November 2012

Anderson steals the show on Foundation Day

Andrew Williams meets comedy writer and broadcaster Clive Anderson ahead of his star turn on the University’s annual Foundation Day

On paper, the University of Manchester’s Foundation Day harbours all the components of a stuffy, earnest affair. The annual occasion, a celebration of the fusion of UMIST and Victoria University of Manchester, is undoubtedly a worthwhile tribute to the founders of one of the country’s foremost academic institutions, but the mood music of the day is contingent upon the personalities involved. A lecture delivered by a distinguished guest sets the tone for the evening, which sees the conferment of honorary degrees upon a seemingly arbitrary collection of academics, businessmen and scientists.

Two factors looked set to ensure that the most recent edition, which marked the eighth anniversary of the University’s inauguration, would be more light-hearted than usual. Firstly, the presence of a mop-topped serial womaniser had caused quite a stir. Simply Red frontman Mick Hucknall would become Dr Michael, recognised for his dubious contribution to music rather than his undeniable support for the contraceptive industry.

“He’s not high on my list!” admits Clive Anderson, the man tasked with delivering the 2012 Foundation Day lecture – and a second reason to be cheerful about the evening ahead. “But I suppose a high achiever in another area jollies it up a bit. My musical appreciation is pretty feeble anyway.”

Anderson strikes me as an inspired choice to kickstart proceedings; with a 25 year career as one of Britain’s wittiest broadcasters behind him, I suspect that his lecture will be anything but dull. A barrister by trade, Anderson stepped into an altogether different field in 1979 when he became the first act to perform at the Comedy Store in London. His incisive writing caught the eye, and a foray into radio followed.

Yet Anderson is perhaps best-known for presenting Channel 4’s ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’, arguably the original comedy panel show. You might think that a decade spent presiding over some of the sharpest improvisational comics on both sides of the Atlantic would have encouraged the 59-year-old to deliver today’s lecture ‘on the hoof’, but Anderson is not about to step up to the lectern unprepared.

“I was asked to give a lecture, so unlike normal I’ve written it out, I’ve written it down,” he says, clutching a thoroughly organised file of notes befitting of his status as a Cambridge law graduate. “I’ll be delivering it as though I know what I’m talking about, which is a bit of a stretch to be honest!”

Given his dual careers in law and television, it is quite fitting that Anderson’s lecture should be entitled, ‘is it time to have TV cameras in court?’ His central thesis – that the law is cripplingly slow at adapting to change – is more pertinent than ever in an era which has seen Twitter transform hundreds of millions of social media types into amateur reporters. Though the Lord Chief Justice recently ruled in favour of allowing people to tweet from court, a 1925 Act of Parliament forbids courtroom artists from putting pen to paper until they are outside of the courtroom. It is one of many legal absurdities that Anderson intends to highlight in his lecture.

“The biggest problem with the British justice system, and the one that I find most frustrating, is what Shakespeare called the ‘laws delays’ – the fact that getting a decision from a court takes such a long time,” he explains.

Anderson continues: “If you’re anything like an ordinary citizen sucked in to a legal dispute, it’s a nightmare. There are very few areas of law where I, as an ex-lawyer, would say, ‘I suggest that you institute court proceedings’. In almost every area I’d think, if anything, just try and avoid court at all costs.”

Though sceptical of the willingness of the justice system to haul itself into the 21st Century – Anderson notes that judges continue to wear wigs made of horse hair because that was the done thing 300 years ago – he argues that, “it would be a good idea to televise court proceedings. I don’t think I thought so fifteen years ago, but now I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t see what goes on inside courtrooms. People look at America and unfortunately quite often look at the outrageous examples and say well, there, it’ll all be like the OJ Simpson trial, like a circus. But that isn’t necessarily the case.”

It is a touch ironic that Clive Anderson is best placed to comment on one of Britain’s biggest ongoing legal cases not as a qualified lawyer, but in his capacity as a BBC employee. The Jimmy Savile scandal has seen over 300 alleged victims come forward with claims that they were abused by the former Top of the Pops presenter, yet Anderson is as bemused as he is appalled by the affair.

“My initial feeling is that the whole career and everything to do with Jimmy Savile is a complete mystery. I know everyone is now piling in and saying, ‘oh I never liked him,’ but I’ve never heard anybody say ‘I must rush home and see a programme because it’s presented by Jimmy Savile,’ yet he seemed to have loads of followers.”

“I’d certainly heard the rumours,” he says. “In fact the closest I was to him was that I interviewed him once on my chat show… but on a sort of entertainment chat show, when you’ve got somebody who’s a popular figure and yet you’ve heard rumours, you’re not in a position to substantiate it.”

“He used to say when challenged on this, ‘look I’ve been a famous person for ten, twenty, thirty, forty years. If there was anything to this, where is the exposé in the News of the World? Where are the newspaper stories generally?’ And it’s a strong point.”

Anderson laments that the scandal has taken its toll on his employer’s reputation. “I think the BBC have to take a hit on this, in the sense that he was a big BBC star,” he says. However, he is keen to stick up for the Beeb in the face of what has become a huge media storm.

“I’ll accept that there’s a certain amount of justified criticism but in general I’ll stick up for the BBC because it has it’s structural weirdness, its structural problems, but overall I speak not so much as an employee, more as a viewer and a listener, as an advocate of the BBC, even if that’s sometimes against the odds, because it does produce fantastic stuff.”

Needless to say, Anderson’s Foundation Day lecture is a triumph. He alludes to the Savile scandal at various points during his talk, and it is a testament to his comedic aptitude that he tickles the crowd rather than offends. A show of hands at the end of the talk reveals that Anderson has overwhelmingly persuaded the audience of his point of view. As University Place empties, I reflect that Clive Anderson turned what could have been a tedious formality into an amusing and informative afternoon.

Clive Anderson presents Loose Ends, every Saturday at 6.15pm, on BBC Radio 4

Andrew Williams

Andrew Williams

Andrew Williams is The Mancunion’s Features Editor, having previously edited the Politics section of the paper. A PPE graduate, he is studying for an International Relations MA in a last ditch bid to cling on to his student days.For rants about football, obscure pop culture references and wine-induced streams of consciousness, you can follow him on Twitter @andyonpaper

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