The Interview: Actor, writer and presenter Sir Tony Robinson talks to YM Liverpool
Having worked in theatre, Sir Tony Robinson rose to prominence in the 1980s as Baldrick in TV sitcom ‘Blackadder’. He continued to be a popular fixture on our screens fronting history shows such as Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’.
Ahead of his forthcoming appearance at Liverpool Literary Festival, he chats to YM Liverpool about his long and varied success in presenting, acting and writing as well as his upcoming projects.
Interview by Matthew Smith
You’re appearing at Liverpool Literary Festival in October. Can you tell us a bit about what audiences can expect?
The event will be focused around my autobiography which is called ‘No Cunning Plan’.
I’ve always felt that where I am today and who I am today came about less because of a well-planned strategy but more through a series of circumstances under which I’ve had very little control.
You’ve written children’s television shows and books. What is it about writing for children that appeals to you?
I don’t really know the reason for that, and I suspect a lot of children’s writers will admit that too.
I started to achieve a degree of success at a time when I had two young children. I thought it was important to write about the things that matter to me most and as a parent I couldn’t think of anything that mattered more.
When I trained as a theatre director I’d been working in children’s theatre so I was familiar with children’s plays and children’s literature and a lot of the theory around children’s development.
I had been working at the National Theatre on a very long and slightly cumbersome Greek tragedy and I would tell my young daughter the stories of the Greek gods and heroes which she consumed voraciously.
I wanted to start writing work for children’s television inspired by those old stories so I created a 13 part series for ‘Jackanory’ called ‘Odysseus: The Greatest Hero of Them All’, and that won a number of awards.
I was asked whether it would be possible to write about British myths and that got me thinking about Robin Hood. I remember one day watching my daughter in the playground and thinking to myself ‘I bet if she’d been in a gang it wouldn’t have been called Robin Hood and His Merry Men, it would have been called Maid Marian and Her Merry Men’, and that one-line pitch got me commissioned to write ‘Maid Marian’.
You’ve been presenting TV programmes, acting and writing for a long time. Did you always hope to have such a varied career?
I’ve always been ambitious. I always wanted to be in something that would be really good and try to make it better. I suppose that’s why my career has been so varied. I’m interested in everything really.
An old friend of mine once said ‘everything is part of the extraordinary adventure we are all sharing which is human life’.
You famously played Baldrick in ‘Blackadder’. How prepared were you for the attention it received?
I don’t think you can ever be prepared for what they nowadays call ‘celebrity’, it’s such an odd phenomenon. I think I was rather lucky in the fact that it didn’t happen to me until I was in my late thirties and so there’d been other things in my life which had been profoundly significant.
It was actually rather lovely, it allowed me to work on a much bigger canvas. It gave me financial security, it allowed me to travel and I often get served pretty easily in shops. Who could ask for more than that?
Do you see a version of the show coming back, and are there any particular periods in history that you think would provide a good setting?
There are a host of other periods in history which could be turned into six-part Blackadder series.
Whether or not that group of people would ever get together again is a different matter. Everyone is so busy doing wonderful things.
One of the problems is that having achieved such enormous success with the final series, we all feel that viewers would still have the fond memories of the earlier series.
“I knew very little about the development of Liverpool… Having the privilege to unpack that story was terrific”.
What was the most fascinating discovery you made while presenting the Channel 4 archaeology series ‘Time Team’?
I excavated a Roman mosaic which was only about five inches below the surface of the ground and had never been found previously, not for at least 1,600 years.
Having the privilege to gradually reveal the pattern of the mosaic was one of the high points in my life.
As Liverpool prepared for its European Capital of Culture year in 2008, you presented a ‘Time Team’ special on Liverpool docks. What did you find most interesting about that particular dig?
Just the whole story really. I knew very little about the development of Liverpool and I don’t think very many people outside the North West do.
Having the privilege to unpack that story was terrific.
‘Britain’s Great Cathedrals’ aired earlier this year and you presented an episode on Liverpool Cathedral. What did you find most impressive about one of the city’s most famous landmarks?
The audience was so positive about that particular episode. It was a series that went down very well.
I certainly had more mail about the Liverpool episode than any other. I think it probably has something to do with the fact that all the other cathedrals were medieval and although in many ways Liverpool is built on a medieval template, all of its stories are very familiar.
You’ve made several TV programmes on WWI and it’s been 100 years since the Great War ended. What do you think it is about that conflict that still resonates?
I think 20 years ago I had assumed that all memories of the First World War would be lost. It is extraordinary how in the past memories of wars have disappeared.
The First World War seems to be the first one in British history that people still hold so vividly and I think that’s partly due to the fact that it was recorded in so many different ways. It’s partly due to the phenomenon of the First World War poets and the sheer size and terror of the conflict.
I think a lot of it is bizarrely down to the Channel Tunnel and the fact that younger generations can learn about the First World War and visit the fields of Flanders.
“I don’t think history is about the past, I think history is about how we today deal with everything we hear about the past.”
How do you think the dramatisation of history has influenced perceptions of major historical events?
I don’t think history is about the past, I think history is about how we today deal with everything we hear about the past.
There are dramas and, indeed, comedies that move us enormously today, but in 20 years’ time people will be writing very different things about exactly the same events and they’ll move people.
You’ve made a great effort throughout your career to bring audiences much more intimately in contact with historical events, people and architecture. How important is it to find new ways to help future generations understand the past?
For me, history is vital because how do you know who you are unless you know where you’ve come from?
To be able to instil a sense of that into children is one of the most important things teachers can do. I’m very touched and honoured that many schools should use the ‘Blackadder’ series to illuminate what they want to teach children.
You received a knighthood in 2013 for public and political service. How did you feel about receiving the honour?
I was absolutely over the moon, it was a great surprise.
The idea that I should be among those picked out for special mentions having served their country makes your lifetime worthwhile.
Can you give us any hints about what you’re working on next?
I can tell you that I went to Egypt earlier in the year and dug ancient Egyptian tombs and that is something that you’ll be able to see some time in the future.
I also walked the length of the River Thames and that’ll be coming out as a television series.
At the moment I’m travelling around the world for Channel 5, which is one of the most exciting and absolutely exhausting things I’ve ever done on television.
‘A Date with Tony Robinson’ will take place at the Victoria Gallery & Museum on 20 October, and forms part of this year’s Liverpool Literary Festival from 19-21 October.