TV preview: Ian Hislop’s Olden Days

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As the son of a Scottish civil engineer, Ian Hislop spent his early years in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Hong Kong, before being sent to an English boarding school at the age of eight.

“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,” the Have I Got News For You star recalls.

“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.”

The Swansea-born presenter isn’t the only one guilty of romanticising things, however. In his new BBC Two 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.

“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.”

In addition to the three-part Olden Days series, Hislop has fronted documentaries on railways (Ian Hislop Goes Off the Rails), the Scout movement (Scouting For Boys) and the First World War (Not Forgotten). He credits the highly popular Have I Got News For You with helping him get the green light for his somewhat loftier TV projects.

“I remember going to the commissioning editor and saying, ‘I really want to do a programme about Victorian philanthropists’ [the 2010 series Age Of The Do-Gooders] and I could see the look on their face thinking, ‘Oh no’,” he says with a laugh.

“I do get a chance to do things that interest me, and I hope interest everyone else, though you’re never sure. It’s greedy really, isn’t it? I just enjoy it all, so I try and do it.”

It’s not surprising that Hislop has proved a hit with viewers over the years. He has an incisive wit - as his Have I Got News For You quips and previous writing work on razor sharp puppet show Spitting Image demonstrate - but he’s also warm and genial, with a willingness to chuckle at any opportunity.

And he’s clearly very proud of his “quite brilliant” wife Victoria, bestselling author of The Island. “She’s in Cyprus at the moment researching a new book. She’s much more successful than I am - I’m the ‘plus one’ now!”

Home for the pair, who have a daughter and son in their early twenties, is the Kent village of Sissinghurst.

“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. It returns to BBC One this week (Friday, April 4) with Jennifer Saunders as guest host of the first episode.

While TV panel shows are regularly accused of being too male-dominated, Hislop is quick to defend his programme. “I think we’re a lot less guilty than other people anyway, because we do have quite a lot of women on. We’ve got a woman producer, but it’s very hard to get people. You don’t want to get people on who aren’t ready or up to it, and she doesn’t want to put token women on, because then when you have really good people, they say, ‘Oh they’re only on because they’re a woman’.

“And you can hardly have Kirsty Young or Jo Brand or any of those people on and then say, ‘Well, it’s only because you’re a woman’. They’re on because they’re really funny.’’

Ian Hislop’s Olden Days, BBC2, Wednesday 9pm

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