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.
“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 Have I Got News For You demonstrates - but he’s also warm and genial.
* Ian Hislop’s Olden Days begins on BBC Two next Wednesday, April 9