Sir Tony Robinson is a much loved actor, author, TV presenter and plenty more besides. Chris Bond talked to him ahead of his return to Yorkshire.
Sir Tony Robinson’s remarkable career spans more than 50 years during which time he’s been a successful child actor, played the witless dogsbody Baldrick in Blackadder and spent 20 years fronting the hugely popular archaeology series Time Team.
He can also lay claim to a little bit of history in Leeds, as he explains. “I was the very first actor on the stage at Leeds Playhouse.” This was way back in 1970 and Robinson, then a young actor in his 20s, was among the cast in an Alan Plater play - the first production at the new theatre.
Robinson had just arrived in Leeds as part of his stint in repertory theatre. He spent nine months in the city living in Hyde Park and remembers the city fondly. “There were five of us in a back to back terrace and I remember it always seemed to be cold and raining, but it was a lot of fun,” he says. “I had a Honda 50 scooter and I used to go around Leeds with a silver crash helmet with stars on it... that’s what we did in 1970,” he jokes.
“When you spoke to the people of Leeds there was great pride in the playhouse. It was a time when Leeds felt it had the potential to be a really big city and wanted shiny new institutions like they had in Manchester and Birmingham.
“There was a lot of support for it but the plays at the time didn’t reflect the ambition of the people there. That’s why I was so pleased when West Yorkshire Playhouse opened and all the national reviewers started coming up.”
Robinson is back in Yorkshire this weekend for the Off The Shelf festival in Sheffield. He will be talking about his new memoir - No Cunning Plan - which charts his first big acting role in Oliver! in the West End when he was 13, to the Blackadder years and Time Team, finishing in 2006 - presumably leaving room for a second book.
One of the reasons for writing the book was the fact he turned 70 this year. Another driving factor behind it was to try and tackle people’s preconceptions about him. After all, it’s hard not to think you know Robinson if you’ve grown up watching Blackadder and Time Team. “I’m slightly less intellectual and slightly more larky than a lot of people might imagine,” he says.
His book is sprinkled with quirky little stories like failing to chat up Liza Minnelli and being pushed into a stinking London dock by John Wayne. He talks about falling under Helen Mirren’s spell when she told him that a tiny tattoo on her hand was something she’d “picked up in a brothel in Marseilles”.
“That’s so typically Helen Mirren, isn’t it? To tease you with a story like that and then just move on,” he says with a laugh. “Today, I’d say, ‘What exactly do you mean? Is that really true?’ But in those days, I just thought it was the sexiest thing anyone had ever said.”
Robinson grew up in London. His father had been in the RAF and was also an accomplished boogie woogie pianist and his mother was an enthusiastic amateur dramatics performer. They encouraged his early acting endeavours which led to him starring in Oliver! “I was a child actor but I was never a child star,” he says.
He later went to drama school and afterwards spent five years honing his craft travelling the country in repertory theatre. During the 70s he became a successful jobbing actor and was able to switch comfortably between stage and screen.
“I was luckier than most of my contemporaries and because I was smaller I got to do specialist roles, like when they needed someone to get in an animal skin,” he says, with a laugh. “I did Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov as well as comedies and I also did jobs working on the docks which got me through the rest of the time.”
It wasn’t until he was cast as Baldrick in the BBC comedy series Blackadder in the early 80s that his career finally took off. But even then it wasn’t an instant success.
“No one knew it would be a hit,” he says. “The pilot wasn’t up to much quite frankly and the first series was only mildly popular. It was another two years before series two was made and it was only when repeats of that series were shown that it took off.”
Blackadder was not only one of the biggest comedy hits of the decade but remains one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. But Robinson points out this success brought with it added pressure.
“People assume we were all falling around laughing but it wasn’t like that. We’re all paranoid perfectionists,” he says. “We all wanted to get it right and there was always this terror at the end of the week that this would be the moment the banality of our humour would be exposed.”
For someone like Robinson, from a working class background, to find himself pitting his wits alongside the likes of Rowan Atkinson and Ben Elton was something he found absorbing. “Working with such top draw people I found very intoxicating,” he says.
Blackadder irrevocably changed Robinson’s life. Playing Baldrick made him a household name but rather than letting it becoming a millstone around his neck, he embraced it. “It was fan-tastic,” he says. “All of a sudden casting directors knew who I was because I was in this popular show, it transforms your career. Every actor dreams of this and to have that kind of success meant all the hard work had paid off.
“I played an iconic character in an iconic series and very few actors are on the receiving end of that.”
Since then his career has blossomed. He created the children’s TV series Maid Marian and Her Merry Men which proved a hit on the BBC and became presenter of Channel 4’s Time Team which ran for the best part of 20 years. “I managed to move seamlessly from Blackadder, to Maid Marian and her Merry Men and Time Team. I was phenomenally lucky that I had hit after hit.
“I mean who would have thought that a programme featuring three hippies digging up the ground and usually not finding very much would be cult TV for 20 years?” he says of Time Team.
His career has been more diverse than many people perhaps realise. “I’ve always been interested in stuff, in the phenomenon of life. People assume I have two interests - acting and archaeology. But I’ve made a documentary about the history of law, the rise of nationalism and social history. I’m interested in things and finding ways of communicating them to people. That’s what I do and what I most enjoy... I’m like a jobbing electrician - just point me towards the electrics.”
Tony Robinson is appearing at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, on Saturday, part of the Off The Shelf Festival of Words. For more details call 0114 249 6000.
No Cunning Plan, published by Sidgwick & Jackson, is out now priced £20.