An interview with Sir Tony Robinson

Sir Tony Robinson is probably  best known for his portrayal of Baldrick, featured in the long running BBC historic comedy TV series Blackadder. In recent years, he has emerged as the face of popular history presenting Time Team, made numerous documentaries and is an award-winning writer of children’s books and television. He spoke to Clare Barber about his cunning plans and his love of the Wirral…  

You’ve travelled the world and worked on some fantastic projects, but what’s your connection to this neck of the woods?

My wife is from here, so the Hillbark Hotel is our second home. We stay there about half a dozen times a year visiting family. We spend quite a bit of time zig zagging around the area visiting Louise’s old friends and stuff.

I have a soft spot for the place. It’s really beautiful. My favourite part is the Wirral coast. I hugely enjoy walking along it – it’s one of my guilty pleasures (they’re always the simple ones, like sneaking a cheese and onion pasty in the car). New Brighton is a lovely spot. In fact I’ve got a great photo of New Brighton by the photographer Martin Parr at home.

I have worked in Liverpool lots of times over the years but not the Wirral. It’s more of a destination really, you must have a reason to go there.

You made 20 series of Time Team and many more historical documentaries including the award-winning “Tony Robinson’s Time Walks”, and “Tony Robinson’s Tour of Duty” about World War One. You’ve even made one about the Wild West! So, what impresses you about the Wirral?

I particularly like the Viking place names, Tranmere, Thingwall, Meols, West Kirby, Heswall etc. A lot of southerners know about the Scottish coast and Cornwall, but the Vikings also came to the North West. There are so many village names in Wirral relating to the Vikings and I’m fascinated by that.

I’ve spent 20 years in archaeology and I don’t think you can ever be finished with the subject even though I’m not making that kind of programme now. It’s a special way of looking at the landscape. You can never lose interest in archaeology when you see the world through those eyes.

I think a lot of the Wirral is under-dug and under-explored, so if anyone finds a Viking mast in their back garden then be sure to give me a call – don’t just dig it up it by yourself!

Were you always interested in history as a child?

I have always been fascinated by history even before I knew what the word meant.  The interest came from my Mum and Dad. I mean, I was an only child growing up in London after the war. I was born in 1946 so WW2 wasn’t a distant memory, and they both had lots of stories about their wartime experiences.

My mum was in the WAAF and my Dad was and RAF fitter in Scotland. They met loads of people that they would never have met if they hadn’t been mobilised. I started to realise that there was a time when I didn’t exist, and I was part of human history. When I realised you could actually get marks at school for this thing called history I was amazed!

What was your childhood like?

Being an only child meant that my mum and dad had time to focus on me. There was always a showbiz aspect in the house because Dad had learned to play boogie piano in the war, and Mum had immersed herself in amateur dramatics. This was an enormous advantage to me.

I became a child actor. My first professional appearance was at the age of 13 in the original version of the stage musical “Oliver!”. Then I went on to drama school at the Central School of Speech and Drama. I spent a number of years in repertory theatre after that.

Do you prefer TV or the stage?

I have a bit of a butterfly mind and I love moving from thing to thing and getting engrossed in whatever my current project is. That’s always the most interesting thing to me. Due to the fact that I work across a number of mediums and genres I’m always finding out interesting things and learning interesting new skills. I’ve been lucky enough to do a wide variety of things outside of acting too and not a lot of my contemporaries get to do that.

Would you consider yourself lucky?

I’m incredibly lucky to have been able to do the things I’ve done! In fact, I think I’m the luckiest person I know! The other day I got off the train and left my suitcase behind, so I ran all the way back to the station and believe it or not, the train was still at the platform and my case was safe and sound, so I just picked it up and jumped back in a taxi! Lucky? I think so.

How about if you had £1 for every person who asked you whether you had a cunning plan?

Yes – it’s certainly become my catchphrase! There’s a reason why I called my autobiography “No Cunning Plan”. People ask me about it all the time but what most don’t realise is that ‘I have a cunning plan’ didn’t become Baldrick’s catchphrase until the third series of Blackadder. Looking back, it all seems preordained, as if Blackadder was always going to be a success. But at the time we didn’t have a clue how it was going to be received.

In fact, the first series wasn’t even that popular! It wasn’t until the second series that it started to take off.

But amazing fun though?

You would assume it was good fun and of course it was intoxicating, but in actual fact it was incredibly focused work. We were all perfectionists. It was like playing for Real Madrid given the quality of the writers and actors you were working with. Every episode was about trying to be funnier, more engaging, more literate.

The bar felt very high. Everyone else was 10 years younger than me, and I realised straight away what calibre of people I was working with, despite a lot of them not really being known to television at that time. There was Rowan (Atkinson) Stephen (Fry) and Hugh (Laurie) who were pretty new to the the industry and Tim McInnerny was at the National Theatre so was known as a character actor but weren’t famous or anything. There were just so much fresh talent there!

I remember being in the lunch queue at the BBC one day – and this was in the days when every programme was rehearsed in the same place in Acton, West London. So you’d see all sorts of people in the canteen – and Victoria Wood, bless her, was behind me and just leaned over and said, ‘You and I will never be Romeo and Juliet, we will always be known as the little one and the fat one.’

What was it like working with the late, great Rik Mayall?

Like a grenade going off! I mean he was just dazzling! He could rehearse something, and it would be like bam! Then he’d just stop and wink at you!

Do you have a most embarrassing moment?

Yes, but it’s not a Blackadder one. The full story I’ve included in my autobiography, but I’ll just say it involves me being locked outside a theatre in the middle of the night with no clothes on!

Since Blackadder, your career has remained hugely varied from being awarded a BAFTA for your TV writing, touring your one-man stage show, to touching on political issues such as your documentary on care for the elderly. How important is it to raise awareness of these issues?

I’ve been an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society since 2008 and this time of year, the depths of the winter, is a terrible time for many elderly people. I found out a great deal about issues to do with the elderly when I was making the documentary “Me and My Mum.”

The problems of loneliness, the cold and mobility difficulties for elderly people are not going away and it’s important that people don’t forget that.

You are politically active and have been a Labour Party supporter for many years. What are your thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition?

Well I’ve always been critical of Jeremy but that’s the beauty of a large party like the Labour party, you can criticise and put your point of view across but at the end of the day you’re loyal to the party. I’ve even campaigned on the Wirral!

I’m starting to wonder how you fit it all in, and I’m not surprised you were presented with the “Outstanding Contribution by an Individual” award by the Museums and Heritage Association. You’ve also written 30 children’s books. Is it difficult to write successful books for children?

The series of books that I’ve been writing for the last 6-7 years is called Tony Robinson’s Weird World of Wonders and it looks at everything extraordinary weird or funny.

It’s not that it’s difficult to write for children, but I like to try and breathe life into what would otherwise be considered a dull subject. Although it’s not that the subject itself is dull, it’s just sometimes it can be told in a really boring way.

You’ve got to scrape away at the tedium in the same way as you would scrape away at a dull brown painted bannister to reveal the beautiful wood underneath. Things aren’t dull, they just seem so and when you find out more about them everything becomes interesting!

What’s next for you then? Is there anything left to achieve!

Well I guess my main ambition is to do more things I haven’t done yet. I wouldn’t mind a character part in an HBO series. I’m starting to feel left out that all my friends have been in Game of Thrones! Nor was I in any of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy – even though he’s a fan and owns an original Baldrick costume!

My next project is for Channel 5, and it takes me all over England exploring the country’s Cathedrals. I’m really looking forward to it. It includes Liverpool, so I’ll be back in my second home soon!