Chapters In My Life: Andi Oliver
Chapters In My Life: Andi Oliver

Chapters In My Life: Andi Oliver

In the 80s, Andi Oliver fronted the post-punk band Rip Rig + Panic with Neneh Cherry. Today, at the age of 58, she is better known as a celebrity chef, restaurant owner and one of Britain’s most prolific television presenters, appearing on popular shows like the Great British Menu and The Sky Arts Book Club. With a third series of the latter due to drop this autumn, she talks us through the key moments in her life.

Chapter One:

Growing Up & Moving Around

I was born in London, but my father was in the RAF, so we moved around. We lived in places like Kent and Norfolk, and Cyprus as well. When I was 11, we settled in Suffolk, but growing there as a young Black girl wasn’t the easiest. My older brother also had sickle cell anaemia and it loomed large over our family. He had attacks all the time and his life expectancy was only 13. We all grew up knowing it was probably going to take him early. In the end, he died when he was 27 and when I was 25. It was sad and terrible, but I look back on it now and think how grateful I am for the time we had together; I’m so glad I had him as a brother. He was a great brother – a terrible boyfriend, mind you – but at the core he was a good person.


My father wasn’t the greatest husband and I credit my mother for being so strong and amazing throughout my childhood. He was a philanderer and, in hindsight, he probably had some sort of mental health issues – possibly bipolar disorder, only no one talked about that back then. My mother is coming to live with me next year, which I’m really looking forward to. We’re still very close. She taught me some amazing lessons early on – mainly to be yourself and not follow the pack – and they’ve stood me in good stead. Now, I’m very lucky to be with a wonderful man myself, and I can’t help but think that’s because I’ve learnt so much from her and been lucky enough to have had the right help and guidance at the right time.

Chapter Two:

Breaking Into The Music Industry

I was a terrible student at school – let’s just say I have a bit of an issue with authority! I have got an enquiring mind, though – I love to read and learn – but it was the structure of school that didn’t agree with me. I left when I was 16, which was unusual because it was typical for people in my family to go to university. Today a lot of them are academics. As for me, I’ve always had more of a tendency to fall into things, especially when I was younger.

Music was a bit part of family life; my father might have been a bit of an a***hole but he had an amazing vinyl collection! Even so, it never occurred to me that I might be in a proper band one day. When the opportunity did present itself, I just went for it. That probably describes most of my early career; there was never any grand plan. Life in the band was pretty wild and it came with a huge emotional and social education. It was so eye-opening being around all these creative musicians. We came out of the punk era, when there was a lot of freedom to explore your creativity. Interestingly Neneh [Cherry, Rip Rig + Panic bandmate] and I did an interview recently and we were asked to describe the music industry back then – but we both said we didn’t really think about it at the time. We were just having fun and finding ourselves – we weren’t making music in the commercial way lots of artists are forced to nowadays. Sometimes, I think naivety can be a blessing – and I’m very grateful we didn’t have to deal with the constant exposure of modern-day social media.

Chapter Three:

Becoming A Mother

My daughter Miquita [Oliver – television presenter] was born in 1984. I was only 20 and the thing about being a young mother is that you’re very adaptable. I hadn’t really had that many years of being a grown-up myself, so it didn’t feel like I was losing anything or giving anything up. I just strapped her on and we went on the road. Neneh was the same with her daughter [pop singer Mabel]. Our gigs then were only about an hour and 20 minutes, so I never really felt like the two things were mutually exclusive – sometimes life is stretchier than you think it is. I see a lot of my friends who have had children later in life be more rigid but maybe they feel pressure to prescribe to what society expects them to do. Back then, there weren’t any online mummy forums telling you what to do!

Becoming a mum saved my life. Before I had my daughter I was, in some ways, quite self-destructive. Having a child slowed me down and made me learn the importance of responsibility. Before her, I didn’t have that sort of drive or focus. Miquita following me into entertainment wasn’t part of any ‘plan’ – I’m no stage mum! Around the time she was 15, she was having a tough time at school, so I’d pulled her out while we came up with another solution. In the meantime, a friend who worked in the production team at Pop World phoned me to say they were struggling to find a co-host and asked whether Miquita would be interested in auditioning. I asked her if she wanted to give it a go and the rest, as they say, is history.

Chapter Four:

Transitioning Into Radio & Television

I didn’t make any huge career shifts of my own until I was about 35. I was still dabbling in music when people started asking me to do things, like the television show Baadasss TV alongside [rapper] Ice-T. There was never a day when I stopped doing music and moved entirely into broadcasting. The two really did overlap for a while. Off the back of some of my early Channel 4 work, I was given an afternoon arts and entertainment radio show on Greater London Radio, which I loved. It was an interesting experience because it taught me how to interview people and what it was like to constantly have your finger on the pulse. Hosting on the radio, you really come to understand what matters to people and what everyone’s talking about. I talked to writers, actors, musicians, playwrights – anyone involved in artistic expression – and I’d never felt so engaged with the world. To this day, I think radio is one of the most intimate mediums we have.

Radio comes with the freedom of not being on camera, but I would never describe myself as camera shy. In fact, lots of people ask me how I come across naturally on screen, but I can’t really explain it. I’ve just always felt comfortable on camera. I think where some people fall down is they think too much about putting on a certain persona or being someone they’re not. They end up ‘acting’. I’ve never subscribed to that and it’s served me well. I only ever show up to work as myself.

Chapter Five:

Embracing My Passions

I’ve always loved books and food, but I’ve never specifically pursued shows or projects which focus solely on these passions. It’s just fortunate that’s what’s come my way. My mother used to take me to the library every week when I was a child and I’d come out with endless piles of book. I’ve said it before but growing up in Suffolk wasn’t the easiest and books saved my life. Reading reminded me there were so many other places in the world and plenty of other people with very different lives to mine. It taught me what it was like to walk in other people’s shoes.

Chapter Six:

The Next Chapter

When The Sky Arts Book Club came up, I jumped at the chance to do it. I happen to think Elizabeth Day is one of the most glorious human beings in the world, as is Simon Savidge, and working with the two of them is a dream come true. It’s not always the case that you love the people you work with, but I’m lucky in that respect.

Another thing I’m really excited about is the release of my cookbook next year. The Pepperpot Diaries: Tales From My Caribbean Table comes out in April, and I can’t wait. It’s not a traditional cookbook – I wrote most of it during lockdown, so it’s more like a journal with essays about where I am, what I’m reading and what’s going on in and out of the kitchen. This month, I’m filming another series of Great British Menu and I’m starting to work with a collective that aims to promote culinary excellence on a global scale; I’m hoping to collaborate on a series of cultural exchange dinners next year, with the first one happening in Barbados. I can only speak for myself, but it’s been very rewarding to be able to give a platform to people who have previously been denied equal opportunities. I’m aware not many people look like me on the telly, so it’s something I take seriously.

All of my projects are about truth-telling. It doesn’t matter what you communicate or how – on the radio, in words, on television, through music – as long as it’s coming from the heart, that’s all that matters. I’ve never boxed myself in or seen the entertainment industry as linear – it’s never been, ‘Oh I cook’ or ‘Oh I write’ or ‘Oh I sing’. Just remember, creativity is what counts. Then you can communicate it any way you want.

The third series of The Sky Arts Book Club will air on Sky Arts and Freeview every Wednesday at 8pm starting 7th September. There’s a Christmas Special on Wednesday 14th December at 8pm; July’s Summer special and all series are now available to view on Sky Arts, Now and Freeview.

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