‘After Blackadder, for the first time in my life it was dead easy to get in the door’
Tony Robinson on Baldrick, lockdown, his socialism and why he doesn’t miss acting
‘It’s a celebration of life, of other people’: Tony Robinson at Sao Bento train station, in Porto, for Around the World by Train. Photograph: Rumpus Media/Channel 5
Three weeks ago, Tony Robinson completed a six-part series for Channel 5 – it started last night – charting a journey that took him around the world by train. Now, like the rest of us, he is being told not to walk to the end of the street. We were due to meet face to face for this interview, but we have to talk by phone instead. The upside is that we have all the time in the world. “I’m one of those people who a few weeks ago would have looked at my watch and said: ‘Is 10 minutes all right?’” he says. “But now…” He trails off. Everything has been cancelled: shooting on two other series; preparing a pitch for a third. What had been a crowded diary is empty.
“All my performance work went in one day,” he says. “Had that happened at another time I would have been so pissed off you can’t imagine. But when it’s happening to everybody you just think, Oh, this is the way life is now.” What did annoy him was that some of the people postponing those projects thought his age – he is 73 – might mean he couldn’t resume them in the future. “That was distressing,” he says. “It’s just old-fashioned ageism.”
Once I’d done Blackadder, people thought I was one of those people like Stephen Fry and Richard Curtis, who had that kind of capacity for wit and creativity
What is filling his life instead is a six-year-old West Highland terrier he and his wife, Louise, have just brought back from an RSPCA rescue centre in Derby. “It was probably our last long car journey for a year. Who knows?” he says. “She’s called Holly Berry, and our flat [in west London] is full of joy. She’s had a gruelling life, and it’s nice to pour our interest into an animal whose confidence is growing by the day.”
Robinson is an obsessive worker, a fact obvious from a CV that encompasses acting, presenting, writing (TV series, children’s books, an autobiography) and politics – he was on the British Labour Party’s national executive committee from 2000 to 2004. He says he will carry on writing during the coronavirus crisis but also looks forward to spending more time with his wife and will “tidy drawers that haven’t been tidied for at least seven years”.
Fortunately, the series for Channel 5 survived the lockdown. He travels across southern Europe, glories in the street life of South America, takes a train through Mexico and California, explores Canada and heads home via Russia and Scandinavia. It is an epic undertaking, conducted at whistlestop speed, and there are times when he looks knackered.
“It’s a celebration of life, a celebration of other people, a celebration of the world and of adventure,” he says. “Everything is so gloomy at the moment, but I was doing the final voiceover at a time when we could just explode with fun and laughter and my idiocy in the face of adversity, and we need to hold on to that. There’s a limited amount of time during which we can mourn what’s going to happen.”
Among other adventures, Robinson gets licked on the face by a wolf at a polar park in Norway – he looks suitably terrified, not least as the wolf is about a foot taller than he is. He also tries to learn the tango in Argentina, dancing with a woman who is also about a foot taller than him – he accuses me of aggressive questioning when I point this out, though I assume he is not serious. Not too serious, anyway. He is very businesslike, focused and articulate – in every way the opposite of his great creation Baldrick, the originator of many ill-starred cunning plans in the four series of Blackadder that were comic high points of the 1980s.
It is tempting to see Robinson’s career as this golden six-year Blackadder period and then everything else, but he is keen to resist this. He reminds me that immediately after he did Blackadder he wrote and starred in the award-winning children’s series Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. He would also like the history and travel programmes he presents to be treated with a bit more respect. But he admits that Baldrick, which he did for the first time in his late 30s, transformed his career.
“I had been working since I was 12, initially as a performer but later also as a writer and director, but in a very small way. Once I’d done Blackadder, people thought I was one of those people like Stephen Fry and Richard Curtis, who had that kind of capacity for wit and creativity, so for the first time in my life it was dead easy to get in the office door, and that’s all you want really: to pitch and be taken seriously.”
An only child – he reckons that is very significant – Robinson was brought up in northeast London. His father, who worked as a clerk for the local council, was an amateur pianist who doted on his son, and both his parents were keen on amateur dramatics. Robinson never seems to have given a thought to doing anything else but acting – despite being bright and going to a grammar school, he only managed four O-levels and gave up on his A-levels halfway through.
He made his professional debut at the age of 13 in the original production of Oliver! and went to the Central School of Speech and Drama, which is now part of the University of London, when he was 17. He then spent 20 years as a jobbing actor and director, always managing to earn a reasonable living but never setting the showbiz world alight. The Blackadder producer John Lloyd told Robinson that Baldrick would transform his career, and despite an iffy first series that almost led to the show being killed off, it did.
The irony is he didn’t think much of the part of Baldrick when it was first offered to him, and says he only got it because no one else wanted it. Baldrick had been relatively smart in the first series, with Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder the dim one, but the relationship was inverted in series two to brilliant comic effect. He thinks Ben Elton joining as a writer for the second series was crucial. “He could look at it afresh,” says Robinson, “and realised Blackadder had to inhabit two worlds: in one he feels he is very smart, but in the other he’s proven to be a complete tit, which is exactly the model of Hancock and Steptoe.”
When I started presenting Time Team there was some resentment, certainly among the more highbrow papers, that someone who had earned their living as a comedian was addressing serious issues
Robinson says the world was his oyster after Blackadder, and he became a regular on TV comedy shows. Yet within five years he had moved into presenting work. Had the acting and comedy world ceased to be his oyster? “No,” he insists, “bigger oyster in a different ocean. I’ve always been very politically and socially engaged, so it was never difficult for me to make documentaries.” He says he had addressed so many British Labour Party branch meetings that bringing dry subjects to life came naturally to him.
The success he had with the Channel 4 series Time Team, which featured high-speed archaeological digs and ran from 1994 to 2014, marked the changeover from actor-presenter to presenter-actor. Critics were nonplussed by the switch. “When I started presenting Time Team there was some resentment,” he says, “certainly among the more highbrow papers that could never resist a kind of waspish sting that someone who had previously earned their living as a comedian was addressing serious issues. It wasn’t something I ever experienced from members of the public. No one ever came up to me in the street and said: ‘What the f**k are you doing making documentaries when you are supposed to be telling jokes?’”
But doesn’t he miss the acting? “I’ve never really enjoyed doing eight shows a week [in the theatre],” he says. “Doing something repetitiously in that way is a bit of a killer.” Does it bother him that, no matter what else he does, people still think of him as Baldrick? “Not at all,” he says. “It’s a real honour for an actor to have played a character who is so iconic. Maybe if it had happened when I was younger, I would have got a bit more precious about it, but I see it as bloody lucky.”
His remarkably varied career – actor, presenter, public educator, political activist – led to him being knighted in 2013 for public and political service. Some wondered whether it was appropriate for a socialist to accept such an award, but he says that’s a ridiculously “binary” view. “The people who gave me that award were the honours committee, which is one of the best legacies of the Blair government. You are picked out for services to the state; it has nothing to do with the monarchy.”
He also received flak for his marriage in 2011 to Louise Hobbs, who is more than 30 years his junior. When he appeared on Desert Island Discs, on BBC Radio 4, in the same year, he dismissed the attacks as “nasty, misogynistic press” and said: “It’s a shame, really, because it means I don’t want to talk about her, whereas actually what I do want to do is talk about her.”
“It’s foolish to discuss anything to do with that,” he says now, “because it just starts the whole machine whirring again.” The key thing, he says, is that it hasn’t undermined his relationship with his two grown-up children, to whom he remains very close. When I remark that his daughter, Laura Shepherd-Robinson, is a novelist, he chides me. “A novelist?” he says, his voice rising. “She’s a very successful novelist.”
Like many who have worked in comedy – Tony Hancock and Les Dawson spring to mind – Robinson is a deeply serious person. He insists that his lifelong political engagement, born perhaps of his Jewish heritage and a father who loved a dialectical argument with his son, is real and not an actorly pose. “I’m lucky being a performer, because it means a lot of people will listen to me for the first 25 seconds, and for someone who wants to air ideas and political positions that’s a great boon. But I don’t articulate them because I’m a performer. You have a responsibility to do it. I was instinctively very political from about the age of 13 and got involved in CND and anti-apartheid.”
Robinson thinks the lockdown will lead to a fundamental reassessment. When the crisis is finally over, it is unthinkable that the arts can just pick up where they left off, because the world will look completely different
In 2014 he had a public spat with Michael Gove, who was the British minister for education at the time, over whether Blackadder and Oh! What a Lovely War, Richard Attenborough’s first film as a director, should be shown in schools. Gove thought they were unfair to the officer class; Robinson says that in reply he was “very robust about his [Gove’s] failure to understand how teachers use teaching aids – it’s not as though you wouldn’t use Rupert Brooke to study the first World War because children might think the whole war rhymed”.
Robinson insists his politics colours everything he does – even an around-the-world travel programme where he has chosen to travel by ecofriendly train and in which he often alludes to the effects of tourism and globalisation on the local population.
“I see politics in everything I do,” he says. “What I don’t do is agitprop, because I don’t think it works. If you look at Maid Marian, that must have been the most political thing on children’s television at the time. Look at Time Team – all of us were intensely political and passionate about bringing things to ordinary people who hadn’t been to university and wouldn’t otherwise have had them. Look at the documentaries I’ve done.” (Those include the powerful Me and My Mum, in 2006, that dealt with his mother’s dementia and her death in a nursing home.)
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership tested Robinson’s lifelong commitment to Labour, and he quit last year after 45 years in the party, citing anti-Semitism, the muddled response to Brexit and poor leadership. He hasn’t yet rejoined – he says he will “wait and see what happens over the next year or so” – but gets a vote in the leadership election through his membership of Jewish Labour. He won’t tell me how he voted but hints strongly it was for Keir Starmer, the front runner.
He is, however, doubtful whether the centre can reassert itself. “All of us who are interested in politics have been saying the centre cannot hold. I think we’ll feel that in spades by the time we’ve got through this [the coronavirus crisis].” He thinks the lockdown we are now enduring will lead to a fundamental reassessment of politics, and of culture too. When the crisis is finally over, it is unthinkable that the arts can just pick up where they left off, because the world will look completely different. “Sitting in our houses and flats over the next however long it’s going to be,” he reflects, “we have the luxury of reinventing everything.” – Guardian
Around the World by Train with Tony Robinson is on Channel 5 on Mondays at 8pm