The cuddly assassin lays down the law
15 March 1999
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"I WAS attracted to the law for all the wrong reasons," explains Clive Anderson, the familiar smile spreading across his face. "I just enjoyed bobbing up and down arguing the toss in a funny costume."
We are sitting in the Gay Hussar restaurant, a Soho institution and enclave of media luvvies. Anderson is at pains to explain, however, it is only the second time he has eaten there and that was also when taken by a journalist.
If anything, the comedian, chat show host, travel presenter and one-time barrister is a little taller than imagined, and appears to have more hair than he does on television.
He also seems less nervous, more assured. It is as though television exaggerates his characteristics, making the 46-year-old appear fatter, balder and edgier.
I fear he may lunge at me with one of his infamous one-liners, the kind of vicious put downs that earned him the nickname the "cuddly assassin". Instead he is sweetness and light. It is as if television brings out his cutting edge. After all this is the man who said to Cher: "You look like a million dollars - is that how much it all cost?" and to Lord Archer: "There's no beginning to your talents."
He is also the man who made the Bee Gees walk off his chat show after he called them tossers - a reference to the original name of the band, Les Tosseurs. Best still, he thought at the time the interview was going well. "In my assessment nothing at all harsh had happened by the time they left," he says, adding: "Now I live in fear of being beaten up by Bee Gees fans."
He stopped "bobbing up and down" in his wig and gown in the early 1990s, but his name remains on the door plaque at 4 King's Bench Walk. He has hardly been off the television since, with series like Whose Line is it Anyway? Clive Anderson Talks Back, Clive Anderson All Talk, Our Man InA, and his current show If I Ruled the World. He got his break on radio hosting a programme called The Cabaret Upstairs, while at the same time plying his trade in London's criminal courts.
Now, he has gone back to his media roots. He is not only back on the radio, but his Radio 4 discussion show is about legal affairs. Unreliable Evidence, now in its second series, has been attracting big hitters such as Lords Woolf and Hoffmann, as well as American supreme court judge Stephen Breyer to its Tuesday morning slot.
Anderson says: "The production company wanted me to do a legal series on the radio. I was hesitant because I had gone into show business to get away from legal topics and, in a way, I am claiming too much expertise to present a legal programme.
"But it does make some use of my background knowledge. I don't pretend to have an in-depth understanding of the law, but I do know the basics.
"The great joy for a hack barrister like me was I can now have a High Court judge or the Master of the Rolls on the show and I am in control. I can now hurry a judge along instead of being bossed around. It is a minor joy, but one that is worth savouring."
That he refers to himself as a "hack barrister" is evidence of Anderson's refreshing lack of egotism. A happily married father of three young children, he says: "My career provided me with a living, but it wasn't such a spectacularly successful career that the world has been robbed of a potential High Court judge." Colleagues, on the other hand, describe his legal talents as "very good indeed", "very bright" and "very hard working".
Greville Davis, a contemporary at 4 King's Bench Walk, says: "He was, and I suspect he still is, a very good lawyer. He was, you can imagine, quick-witted. He was very personable, very good with juries. I am sure he would have done very well at the Bar and gone on to great heights."
Clearly, Anderson has not forgotten the Bar. He is quick to point out that he remains a tenant at King's Bench Walk and is known to pop in for drinks and a chat. After all, the techniques learnt at the Bar have stood him in good stead for his career as chat show host.
"I have always felt there is no particular reason not to do interviews of celebrities as a sort of cross-examination. Not just setting up anecdotes, or always agreeing with a person," reveals Anderson.
"I just think a challenging interview makes more sense. Although if it comes out as a smart arse joke it can annoy people.
"The barrister's experience has helped. Day in, day out, if you are doing crime in almost every case it basically comes down to one side calling the other side a liar. After that it doesn't seem terrible to say to somebody: 'Your film before last was a bit of a flop', or 'the clothes you wore in the 1970s were ridiculous'.
"That is not as terrible as saying to somebody 'you broke into this building' or 'officer you are making this up'. These are hurtful things to say to somebody."
He misses the law, admitting he was happiest when his career at the Bar overlapped for a spell with his new found career in comedy. He enjoyed the variety then, the mix of the serious and the flippant.
As he himself says: "Some people agree you have got out of doing the hard work of law and into the glamorous world of television while others think what a waste to throw away a proper career for the fripperies and stuff and nonsense of television."