CALIBRE talks to Sir Tony Robinson about bringing back Baldrick and Blackadder, working on Time Team, his dreams of rock stardom and potential for Bond villainy
C: Was the experience of writing you new autobiography cathartic?
“Yes, but I wasn’t nearly as aware of the emotions I was going through as my wife was. I’m a bloke – and blokes don’t know what emotions we’ve been through until about three weeks later! But, Louise said she could really sense changes in me as I was tackling different parts of the book: re-conjuring emotions, sadnesses, losses. “It was cathartic in that all of us believe we live an examined life. We believe we know who we are, where we come from, what we’ve done. But in fact, most of the time we plough through the stuff of our lives and then we just park it and leave it semi-digested, rather than opening ourselves up to it. But I did for the book, and I found that a very interesting process.”
C: You have been active in Labour and other union politics since the 1980s; given all the current shenanigans, what do you see coming down the road for the UK?
“I’ve no idea! It’s extraordinary. I think the best we can do as citizens, just like in the rest of our lives, is to try and listen to as much as possible, hold on to as much integrity as possible, be as kind as possible and hone ourselves as much as possible. Because, in a storm, you’ve just got to rely on those human values.”
C: How do you feel about things post-referendum? Do you think anything will change?
“Yes, I do. Any gains will be short term. It’s going to be a protracted mess. I don’t want to think, ‘I told you so’ in five years’ time, because I’ll be swept up in the mayhem just as much as everybody else and, more importantly, my children and grandchildren. But, I still have a feeling that in four or five years’ time, we are going to be in deep trouble.”
C: Has political correctness genuinely gone mad?
“I don’t think the phrase is very useful anymore, because it can mean anything to anybody. It was originally about liberal values being overdone to such an extent that they became ridiculous. But there is a new attitude towards human rights that has developed in America over the last five or six years, and you can see it developing in this country now. It’s people saying, ‘I, as a person, have rights and if you say something that makes me move out of the parameters of those rights, I will ensure you are punished’. I think this is intellectually lazy, but you can see it more and more in England. It’s the terrain of moral outrage that a lot of people seem to be living in nowadays.”
C: People seem to think they have a right to not be offended by things.
“Yeah, exactly. You’ve just said what I should have said, only you said it in about four words. As a comedian and someone who’s interested in politics, and as a parent, I think that’s where the madness lies. The idea that you can’t say something if it’s likely to offend somebody.”
C: Do you think that’s affecting the depth of comedy these days?
“No, I don’t. There are an awful lot of notions that were no-go areas up to four or five years ago, which younger comedians are relishing in tearing apart. You don’t really have to go much further than Amy Schumer to understand what I’m referring to. “There are a lot of things in our lives that are stupid and funny and that we’re blind to. It’s only when you get a really good artist and musician, Victoria Wood or whoever, who suddenly says, ‘Do you realise how fucking ridiculous that part of our behaviour is?’ that you suddenly realise how dumb it is.”
C: Are there any parts of societal behaviour you find ridiculous?
“I feel very strongly about society’s treatment of the elderly, we are incarcerating people and putting them through something which is a kind of lazy torture, an ill-considered torture at the end of their lives. And the ridiculous thing is, they are us. We’ll be them in a short period of time, so even out of self-interest, why would we be doing this? “I sometimes ask myself ‘Didn’t people in the 19th century understand that children going down the mines was a bit painful? Didn’t they understand that putting slaves in chains wasn’t actually a terribly good idea?’ And I bet the answer is, most people didn’t actually consider it, or if they did, they wove it into such a benign explanation, they were able to carry on with their lives. It’s the same with us. Most of us don’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘There are probably 60 people in an old people’s home just down the road, who are living the end of their lives in absolute misery’.”
C: The television series, Man Down, was the first time you have done comedy for a little while?
“Yeah, I actually got a tweet the other day saying, ‘Tony Robinson deserves some kind of award for Daddy in Man Down’. Imagine how nice that was for me, 30-odd years after Baldrick happened. The character of Daddy was a tiny ‘villain’ part, virtually the last part to be cast, because Greg Davies [writer and main character] was wrestling with how to write it, in the same way that Baldrick developed.”
C: Baldrick was originally the clever character in Blackadder.
“That’s right. He was also virtually the last one to be cast because he only had eight or nine lines. The writers knew it was a key part, but there wasn’t a big imperative behind the casting. To receive such a reaction to Daddy, 30 years on, it’s just like I’m reliving those early days of Baldrick. So pleasurable. “Greg, bless his heart, really went out on a limb for me. When he wrote the part he imagined it being played by someone massive; someone who’d be really dominant and wrestle with him; someone who was as big as hell!”
C: He’s about seven foot!
“Yes! Greg is ridiculously high. So to go in the other direction and cast someone who was five-foot-five was a very funny idea, and it’s been an enormous pleasure.”
C: Would you ever play a Bond villain?
“I’d be a fantastic Bond villain! In fact, if you want to make that the headline, I’ll quite happily go with that. The producer of the Bond films, the esteemed Mrs Broccoli, might just happen to pick up your magazine on her travels, and I’ll be in it!”
C: Why is that? What qualities?
“Certainly the kind of villain that I played in Man Down was of Machiavellian proportion, it was Iago. It was somebody with no redeeming aspects to them whatsoever which is, I suppose, what all the great Bond villains are like. “They don’t often question themselves do they: ‘Am I really going down the right path?’
C: Am I doing the right thing with my life?
“In fact, that would be a brilliant Bond villain.”
C: Having an existential crisis before firing the big lazer?
“Yes! It would be as big a change as Daniel Craig was to the franchise, if you did a villain like that – one who asked Bond if he was doing the right thing as he was torturing him.”
C: Have you got any other exciting projects on the horizon?
“I’m doing the coast-to-coast walk for Channel 5. As a Londoner, I’ve always seen Britain in terms of up and down, rather than side to side. For me, just walking from one side of England to the other has been such an eye-opener. I had no idea how fucking beautiful the Yorkshire Dales were. I didn’t have a clue! A 70-year-old who always goes on ‘blah, blah, blah’ about England, and I just didn’t know!”
C: Time Team began in 1994. Did you have any idea it would be so successful and have such longevity?
“No, not at all. At that time I was simply an actor who had done about four documentaries for Comic Relief. But I was really interested and quite liberated by the notion of doing some more. Suddenly I wasn’t being constrained by someone else’s vocabulary, not having a responsibility to the other actors. Almost over night I became an actor/presenter.”
C: Has anyone ever fallen in a trench or anything on Time Team?
“Yes! But when they do they get really blocked by the other archaeologists, because messing up the trenches is absolutely forbidden!”
C: If anyone else were to play Baldrick, who would you choose and why do you think they would be good?
“Dustin Hoffman. I’ve always thought that, as a performer, he was a kindred spirit. Right from The Graduate onwards, I just know why he’s made the acting choices he has. I can’t explain it, but when I see what you’re doing, Dustin, I just get it.”
C: What era do you think it would have to be set in?
“I don’t think that matters. What was important was the relationship between the different actors. In the first series we knew that having a really big character like Rowan ignited the whole thing. In series two it was Miranda [Richardson], in series three it was Hugh [Laurie]. In series four, even though it was very much an ensemble, it was Stephen [Fry], because he was such a grotesque character, around who everybody else danced.”
C: You created and starred in one of the most inventive children’s TV series of the 1980s, Maid Marian and her Merry Men.
“Maid Marian was very important to me. If you can imagine, I’m ten years older than all the other guys in ‘adder, so I wanted to write about different things from them. “I was a dad, I was living in Bristol and taking the kids to school each day, being part of the school run. “The Young Ones was also very important for me. So, I thought if there is a way that I could create something that had that feeling of anarchy about it, but was for kids and deep down had a kind of responsibility about it, but was still naughty enough for kids to see it and have ownership of it, that would be brilliant. It was those drives that made me do Maid Marian, it was very much about who I was at that time.”
C: What has been your worst job in acting or otherwise?
“My worst job was presenting The Worst Jobs in History! For two reasons: firstly because I had to do all of them; secondly because I had neither the physique nor the robustness to do the jobs that ordinary people have done throughout time. In those days in order to survive at all, you had to be adroit and physically fit and internally fit as well. You just had to be robust, and all throughout the whole of Worst Jobs, I was coughing, sneezing, and struggling to turn up at all sometimes.”
C: To change tack slightly, there was a story about you being a big Genesis fan?
“That’s not actually true! It’s one of those funny, ridiculous stories. Genesis kind of passed me by, just because I wasn’t the right generation. I didn’t know much about them at all, but my wife was really into Phil Collins, so I said that I would take her to a Genesis concert in Twickenham and we watched them and everyone was saying, ‘It’s great to know that you’re a Genesis fan, I never knew that’, and their management wrote to me about six months later saying, ‘We’re reissuing Genesis’ entire oeuvre. Would you write the cover notes for one of the albums?’ And I thought, ‘This would be a really challenging thing to do, this is a band I know absolutely nothing about!’ “So, I thought that I would just write the sleeve notes as a writing exercise, and I did and I created this entirely fictitious piece about this St. Paul-on-the- road-to-Damascus moment I pretended to have had when I first heard the album, and so I wrote it and I thought no more about it. I’m thinking, ‘What a smart-arse I am being able to do that’. I was very proud of myself and thought it would just be forgotten, but of course it wasn’t! The opposite happened. FiveLive had got me in to do an interview on the Simon Mayo show and David Baddiel was there too, and Simon said, ‘We’re glad we got you both in because we know you are both big Genesis fans, so lets run a quiz to see who’s the biggest fan’. “Why I didn’t just own up straight away, I don’t know. But I tried to pretend that I knew the answers, and for the first three or four questions, Dave was being really competitive, and banging the answers in. Then he gradually realised that I knew nothing, so he was trying to help me out by mouthing the answers to me. I lost 9 – 1. So, I suppose the lesson is don’t try to be a smart-arse!”
“So, I thought that I would just write the sleeve notes as a writing exercise, and I did and I created this entirely fictitious piece about this St. Paul-on-the- road-to-Damascus moment I pretended to have had when I first heard the album, and so I wrote it and I thought no more about it. I’m thinking, ‘What a smart-arse I am being able to do that’. I was very proud of myself and thought it would just be forgotten, but of course it wasn’t! The opposite happened. FiveLive had got me in to do an interview on the Simon Mayo show and David Baddiel was there too, and Simon said, ‘We’re glad we got you both in because we know you are both big Genesis fans, so lets run a quiz to see who’s the biggest fan’. “Why I didn’t just own up straight away, I don’t know. But I tried to pretend that I knew the answers, and for the first three or four questions, Dave was being really competitive, and banging the answers in. Then he gradually realised that I knew nothing, so he was trying to help me out by mouthing the answers to me. I lost 9 – 1. So, I suppose the lesson is don’t try to be a smart-arse!”
C: Did you ever wish you were a rock star when you were younger?
“Just all the time, what a silly question! What do you mean, ‘Did I wish to be a rock star?’ I was always a rock star in my mind. I didn’t play air guitar, I lived air life! “I was the perfect age for rock music. The Beatles started when I was sixteen, then The Stones. I always had a great passion for John Coltrane and Beethoven, but pop music has been the accompaniment of my life. It’s just a fact and I think virtually every one of my generation would say the same thing.”
C: Do you have a bucket list, or anything you would still like to achieve acting-wise?
“No. My life has never really worked like that. I’ve got an old hippy friend who says: ‘Always plan, but never plan on your plans’. I still occasionally have an idea, which I’ll then take to an independent production company, or go straight to a channel, and hopefully make a programme about something that I’ve never experienced before. But I never set up my own company. The friends that I knew who got their own production companies, became so weighed down by it, that I thought, ‘I don’t want to do that, I’d rather earn not quite so much money, but be a little bit less constrained and freer’.”
C: Touching on your series, Me and my Mum, do you feel there is enough being done to research Alzheimer’s?
“There are a lot of very intelligent and very humane people who are doing this kind of work, but are they still underfunded? Yes. Is enough being done? No. There’s a lot of very good research being done in places like Edinburgh and in Bath. I’m not smart enough to know how much of that work will eventually impact on us finding, as it were, a cure for Alzheimer’s, but I actually suspect the disease isn’t like that; we’ll have to adopt a much more scattergun approach; we’ll see dementia much more as a number of different phenomena. There also isn’t enough work being done on the conundrum of how you care for people with Alzheimer’s. The fact we’re not investing more in our elderly is absolutely nonsensical, and is as much of a blind spot as it was in the 19th century as far as child labour and not giving women the vote, were concerned. “We look at issues like those now and think, of course it’s bloody obvious, why didn’t we do that 50 years earlier? And yet there’s this disgrace in our own society and it hardly impinges on us.”
C: Do you feel it is right for people with terminal conditions to be allowed to bow out with dignity?
“Yes, absolutely. Of course there needs to be protections. I suspect an awful lot of the arguments as to why people shouldn’t be allowed to do so are really… quite primitive. I don’t mean the people themselves have primitive minds, I think it comes from very deep-seated angsts from long ago in human history about issues like cannibalism and mass slaughter. “I don’t think a lot of pro-lifers are really thinking very much about the fact that we have this conundrum, which is that we have invested so much in science to keep people’s lives going, but have no understanding whatsoever how to make those lives happy or meaningful.”
C: Have you ever feared for your own health, in terms of Alzheimer’s?
“Oh, yes. Both my parents lived with dementia and died with dementia, and although we still don’t know how much it’s passed on genetically, nevertheless you’re going to worry, aren’t you? “I know intellectually that, if I walk into a room and think, ‘Why the fuck did I come in here?’ It actually has nothing to do with Alzheimer’s, nevertheless, whenever it happens to me, I do have that terror and think, ‘Oh God, it’s started! Here I am. Park me in the communal dining room in front of the telly’.”
C: You were close with Terry Pratchett, what did you feel about his battle with dementia?
“Having had two parents die with dementiaI I felt enormous empathy towards him. Apart from my work, dementia has been the phenomenon that dominated my life for a dozen years. When Terry was ill, he was planning to give the Richard Dimbleby lecture on assisted dying, which was something he was very passionate about, himself having a form of dementia from which there was no recovery. He asked me to be on stand-by, in order to give some of the lecture in his place if his mind wandered. But, in fact, when I turned up, the producer said, ‘Terry can’t really do this today, could you give the whole lecture?’ So, I gave the Dimbleby lecture on assisted dying on his behalf live on TV, in front of 500 of the great and the good, while he sat next to me nodding and smiling and, I think we generally enjoyed each other’s company throughout. “When he died, I took over as patron of RICE (rice. org.uk), The Research Institute for the Care of Older People, in memory of him. RICE is an organisation set-up in order to both address health issues surrounding Alzheimer’s, and issues for those who care for people with Alzheimer’s.”
C: How was your working relationship affected?
“He was a very private and a very shy man, but we were very close. I didn’t see his dementia affecting him until it was in its latter stages, when it was very obvious, sadly.”
C: How do you feel about your knighthood?
“I absolutely love it. I revel in it. A number of people have said, ‘I don’t understand how you, as a socialist, can accept an honour’. But I cannot think of anything more lovely than representatives of your country, picking you out as someone who should be recognised in some way. I found William a very charming man and I really enjoyed being knighted by him. Does that mean I want him to be the head of the state Church? No, but it certainly didn’t affect me being knighted, nor do I think it affected him knighting me. I just thought, ‘What a bloody lovely thing’. There is an official Honours Committee, about 30 to 70 people, who actually sit down in a room and spend a lot of time mulling over who should be picked out as having made a contribution. In the autumn of your days, to be one of those people who’ve been chosen, is excellent. They can give it to me again if they like!”
C: At the time you were quoted as saying: “I shall use my new title with abandon to highlight the causes I believe in, particularly the importance of culture, the arts and heritage, and the plight of the infirm elderly and their carers,” adding, “I also pledge that from this day on, I’ll slaughter all unruly dragons and rescue damsels in distress. “In your opinion, have you managed to slay any dragons?”
“Maybe I’ve thought about giving a few big old dragons a bit of a swipe, but I’ve decided that actually, if one turns up, I’d do my best to make sure it’s given a very good home.”