Having immersed himself in mud as part of hit archaeology show Time Team and ventured across Britain for Walking Through History and Tony Robinson: Coast To Coast, the actor-turned-presenter knows as much about Britain’s great outdoors as he does the history books.
Now joining forces with Channel 5 as part of new series The Thames At Night with Tony Robinson, the 75-year-old has set out to discover more about the comings and goings on London’s main waterway.
“For the best part of 2,000 years the Thames was the lifeblood of London – and indeed of the whole of the South of England,” says Robinson, who grew up in the East End. “In the 19th and the early 20th century it got so full, there was a time when you could actually cross the Thames just jumping from one ship to another.
“By the time I was growing up in the 1950s, the Thames just seemed like this smelly, dirty, irrelevant black ribbon in the middle of London. In the last 20 years it’s been cleaned out, so this extraordinary transformation has taken place during our lifetimes.”
His TV series focuses mainly on the river during the hours of darkness. “The fact is that all the work goes on at night – all the maintenance goes on, so much of the transportation goes on, all the servicing, and we’re blissfully unaware of it. We probably think that the Thames is a bit like our granny – goes to sleep about nine o’clock in the evening, then wakes up when daylight comes.”
He says he’s learned things about life on the river. “I didn’t know that they did kayaking at night on the Thames, which I do in the series – nor did I know how incredibly hard kayaking against the tide is, especially when it’s minus two degrees. It was one of the least fun things I’ve ever done. And in the end, I was so cold I had to be towed in.”
Filming for the series took place between lockdowns and he says the latter made him appreciate what he has. “I loved being at home, I loved being with my wife. We had a new dog, I learned to garden – or relearned to garden, something I used to do with my dad when I was about 10 and hadn’t done since.”
He also read some of the books he’d never got round to reading before. “I made a list of 15 books actually, that I had thought I would never read before I died, and read 14 of them. The great English classics like Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and James Joyce’s Ulysses – all those kinds of books.”
With his new TV series, he also discovered more about city life. “I’m really interested in how cities come to be. When you think about how most of us are slightly lawless, we all occasionally speed, we have been known to go over orange traffic lights, we grumble about our taxes, we occasionally drop litter. Why don’t cities just collapse?”
In the case of Leeds, he can lay claim to a little bit of history, in that he was the very first actor on the stage at Leeds Playhouse, back in 1970 when he was a young actor in an Alan Plater play.
Ultimately, perhaps like many people, he finds our cities enthralling places. “When you know what your own psychology is like and how self-centred we all are, that spirit of collaboration seems quite a long way away from how we tend to live our lives – particularly given the self-obsessed lives most of us live nowadays,” he says.
“And yet, there is some magic glue that holds cities together, that makes them work. And even when terrible disasters happen in cities, they seem to pick up again. I think there is some need in us to have cities. But what it is, I don’t think we quite know yet.”
The Thames At Night with Tony Robinson starts on November 26, on Channel 5 at 8pm.