As I sit sipping a green tea adding the finishing touches to an essay on a grey and dismal Tuesday morning I suddenly receive a call from an unknown number. Answering my phone, the voice at the other end of the line is one I don’t immediately recognise, although for some reason it seems strangely familiar. And so it should – it’s a voice I have heard hundreds of times before, uttering hilarious lines about names on bullets, reading children’s stories and discussing where to dig new archaeological trenches. Over the last few decades Tony Robinson has firmly established himself as one of the titans of British television.
Robinson began his career on the stage, rising to national prominence for his role as Baldrick in the much loved BBC series Blackadder, and going on to present the hugely popular Time Team as well as to serve on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. He only has twenty minutes or so before he has to head to a meeting, and so I suggest we dive in at the deep end and begin with the Baldrick years.
Leaving school at sixteen to attend the Central School of Speech and Drama before spending years as an actor and director in theatres across the country, Robinson’s background was strikingly different from that of the rest of the Blackadder cast. I ask what affect this initially had on the group dynamic. “Certainly all the others had been to Oxford or Cambridge and had known each other for years” explains Robinson, adding that “[they had] probably shagged each others girlfriends” of which he recalls that there seemed to have been about three between them. “Walking into a charmed circle of young men ten years younger than me could have been overwhelming,” he continues, “if it weren’t for their incredible courtesy.” This confident courtesy made him feel “at ease from day one”, even though he admits he was at times “quite intimidated by their vocabulary and speed of thought.”
So were they aware at the time that they were creating what would become a British comedy classic? “Not at all”, he replies, adding that they had been far too engrossed in the work of crafting each episode to give much thought to any kind of future legacy. I ask what the exact nature of this work was. “We spent most of the time scrutinising the text” says Robinson, “which as an avid reader and lover of television is something I’ve always instinctively done. We had very few rehearsals in the way actors would normally do.” This was a habit that he admits frustrated many of the actors brought in for individual episodes. He recalls how they would spend hours trying to “get a nob joke down from six to three lines”. “Everyone was a paranoid perfectionist”, he continues, “I remember Hugh [Laurie] in particular just before taking an episode before a studio audience saying ‘Oh god, we’re going to be caught out.’ It was a fantastic experience- I learnt more about text than I thought I ever would.”
I raise the issue of whether the cast picking over their lines so meticulously had any effect on their relationship with the writers, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton. “Very much so”, he admits, explaining how Curtis would joke that his publishers would praise him as “the best young writer in Britain” whilst his cast would make him feel an idiot. “Richard felt that by the end of the week we had picked the show to pieces and built in again in our own image”.
I ask if he remembers one series with a particular fondness. Robinson replies that his enjoyment of each series depended largely on “how well we solved the problems set by that particular series”. He freely acknowledges that the whole cast had “no idea what [they] were doing” throughout the first series, a statement that may not come as too much of a surprise to many fans of Blackadder. “The most difficult challenge presented by series two was how to portray the character of Elizabeth I”, he continues, attributing the success of the Tudor setting to “Miranda [Richardson]’s superb instincts”. Series three was set in “a period which hardly any viewers knew anything about” and of course with series four they were attempting to create “a comedy about the biggest human tragedy of the first half of the twentieth century”. Robinson reckons that his favourite series is “probably Blackadder the Third”, adding that he has always loved Hugh Laurie’s hilarious portrayal of the foolish and flamboyant prince.
At this point I feel the time has come to pop the big question- have we seen the last of Blackadder? Or is a future return to our screens a possibility? “All of us toy with it as a possibility. The reality is that in order to pay for our retirement homes we’ll probably have to do one last special in twenty years time.”
Intrigued by this revelation I ask which historical period Robinson would most like to be the setting of any future return. “There’s an infinite number of times in history that would make one superb episode”, he muses, suggesting the Wild West, prehistoric Europe and- my own particular favourite- the British Raj as possible locations in which Edmund and co. might find themselves. However, he explains that it would be much more difficult to find a period of history in which it would be possible to set a six episode series. “Ben [Elton] would turn to the ladybird books as there were almost invariably six chapters on the major themes.”
A mention of children’s literature leads to a discussion about the relationship between Blackadder and his work in children’s books and television. Robinson sees very little distinction between them in terms of approaches. “Blackadder always had a playful, fresh and young attitude”, he says, adding that he believes this is the reason why “Blackadder goes Fourth is used by teachers teaching the history syllabus. “Roald Dahl, the Brothers Grim, and Hans Andersen all dealt with profound human issues using vocabulary that was accessible to both children and adults – I was trying to do the same thing with Maid Marian and her Merry Men. I think this is why Blackadder doesn’t look tired in the way that other comedy of the period does look tired.” I ask whether it is on account of his great love of history that so much of his work for children is set in the historical or legendary past. “Without wanting to sound presumptuous” he points to the examples of Shakespeare and Brecht using “tried and tested narratives” as a vehicle for their creative talent as his inspiration for reworkings of old stories such as the Homeric epics or Robin Hood. Robinson’s Maid Marian and her Merry Men is a fantastic children’s sitcom which tells the story of Robin Hood as a musical comedy.
It is by now becoming apparent that I have very little time left before Robinson’s meeting, and so the conversation is steered in the direction of his politics. Given his commitment to the public presentation of historical and archaeological heritage, I ask where he stands in the current debate over the teaching of History in British schools, in particular Michael Gove’s strong stance on education reform. “I’ve always been of the opinion that teaching should be left to the teachers.” he responds, “It’s inappropriate for politicians to be involved.” He also takes strong objection to the idea that education is becoming increasingly commodified and economised. And he is riled by the fact that schools and universities are simply the means to a financial end. “[It’s] a lousy idea that leads to very bad education. The reality is that none of us know what skills will be needed in five years time.”
He has been the recipient of many honorary degrees, with Masters from Bristol and the Union of East London, and an honorary doctorate from our very own Oxford Brookes. Robinson is also very much a union man, having served as Vice President of the actors’ union Equity and on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. “The problem with this new right idea that their primary test as politicians is to reduce debt by reducing the state, is that the first things to go are all the protections working people fought to establish. The primary task of the trade unions is to ensure those people at work are protected from danger, risk and exploitation.”
It’s been a fascinating conversation, my tea has long since gone cold, Robinson needs to get to his meeting and I really ought to get back to my essay. He may have played one of the most famous comic idiots of all time, but in reality Robinson could not be less of a Baldrick. He’s intelligent, incisive and quick-witted. It really is little wonder he has become such a household name and a name that is recognised with warmth and respect. Roll on the next Blackadder special.