Interview: Natalie Haynes, ex-comic and author of The Ancient Guide to Modern Life

THE journey to meet Natalie Haynes gets off to a bad start when my taxi driver informs me I must now pay £1 on top of my fare for the "privilege" of being dropped off close to Edinburgh Airport. How uncivilised, I'm thinking, how barbaric - and this is what Haynes' new book does.

It gets you thinking about the modern world in relation to the ancient one, what the former owes the latter and also what can't be blamed on the Greeks and the Romans. Such as, I'm pretty sure, that 1 charge.

A few hours later in the Great Court of the British Museum in London, the comedian sympathises but reminds me that I would have had a much harder time of it 2000 years ago. "The traditional penalty for parricide - the murder of a close relative - was having your skin scourged, then being sewn into a bag with a dog, a rooster, a snake and a monkey and thrown in the Tiber. The panicking animals attacked you and you drowned." Confirmation that she's the Classics scholar and I'm not.

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Double-first, I'm reckoning. "No, 2:1. I spent too much time with the Footlights at Cambridge. I decided to try comedy because I had a crush on a boy who was very funny and I wanted to impress him. We went out for five weeks and then he broke my heart into a thousand shards. But I got a career out of that.

"The first time on stage, it was what I imagine heroin must be like. Or that moment when you kiss someone you've fancied for ages and you're not sure if they like you, then find out they do. It takes ages for that sense of validation to wear off."

But wear off it did. Technically she's an ex-comedian now, though BBC2's The Review Show, where she's one of the cultural pundits, still refers to her as one. This is a programme that needs all the laughs it can get and Haynes, 36, is never shy about admitting her weakness for "slightly lame comedy cop dramas". Murder Inc is right up there with Medea as far as she's concerned, and a signed photo of Dick Van Dyke sits on the desk where she wrote The Ancient Guide To Modern Life.

Just as she shuns 8 out of 10 Cats and its like for being telly schedule grouting, Haynes is not merely yet another funster who's written up a few gags for Christmas. The Romans may have been plumbing gods but The Ancient Guide... is far from being a "bog book". It's got a cover quote from Andrew Motion ("Irresistible") and has impressed her old director of studies. "He said: 'Either you've got a very good memory, Natalie, or you've actually done some work this time!'"

A Classics geek, she finds the link between David Beckham and Trimalchio, hails The Wire as the "purest Sophoclean tragedy" and confirms that Juvenal was the first stand-up. But, once enlightened, readers are then afforded the space to make their own comparisons between ancient and modern, and to make the joke about the emperor Simonus Cowellus.

Birmingham-born, Haynes taught Classics for a while, at Harrow no less. "Back then, you could swan into an English public school with no teaching qualification. Both my parents are teachers but I did it for the money to fund the comedy - that's terrible, isn't it?" In the act she brought to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe five years in a row she told how she was sacked for having an affair with one of her sixth-formers. True? "I couldn't possibly comment," she smirks.

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Haynes loves her visits to Glasgow for The Review Show and has developed intellectual crushes on most of her male colleagues, including Paul Morley and the Rev Richard Coles, but she admits the programme is ripe for send-up. Pity there's no Monty Python around these days, I say - these guys were always making fun of intellectually constipated types sat on modernist furniture. "Well, Adam and Joe have lampooned the predecessor of our show using fluffy toys - Tom Paulin as a tortoise was hilarious. You shouldn't live in fear of satire, which was, of course, invented by the Romans. But if we were to always be insincere and ironic so as to be beyond mockery, that would be the dullest of existences."

Haynes makes no apologies for being brainy. "As a comedian I was always being told I talked too fast, used too many long words and patronised audiences, but I wasn't the one suggesting they were too stupid to keep up." She's become even more passionate about the Classics since they started to fall off the school curriculum and The Ancient Guide... sounds like it's got TV potential. "We're talking about that," she says, having already presented a Radio 4 show, OedipusEnders, asserting that all soaps are based on Greek tragedy.

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She met her comedian boyfriend Dan Mersh on the Fringe ("You'll know him as the face of Kellogg's Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and the voice of the Carex soap bubble") but not all her memories of Festival time are happy ones and she hated all the performer angst. "Everyone has a layer of skin less and no one has the energy to be tactful." Being scourged by Edinburgh must be unpleasant, but she'll remember that things were much worse in Roman times. v

The Ancient Guide To Modern Life is published by Profile, 15.99

• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on November 7, 2010