For Sir Tony Robinson, the path from drama school to knight of the realm, via Blackadder and Time Team, has been a long and varied one. And, as he reveals to Tom Browne, he’s not exactly sure how he got there…

How on earth should I address him?

sir tony robinson

That’s my main thought as I wait for Sir Tony Robinson to answer the phone for our interview. The prologue to his highly readable new autobiography speaks of his shock
at receiving a knighthood in 2013, and he doesn’t seem like the type of person to insist on formality. So what should it be? Sir Tony? Mr Robinson? Or maybe just Tony?

“Nowadays, nobody knows how to address a knight,” he says good-humouredly at the start of our chat. “I often I get called ‘Sir Robinson’, because in a lot of organisations your first and last names are entered into a computer, and the ‘Sir’ is put down as your first name. Is there irritation when somebody gets it wrong? Well, maybe occasionally!”

I make a mental note at this point, but he seems pretty relaxed about it. Of course, it’s been three years since he was ennobled, so has he got used to Sir Tony yet?

 

 

"Nowadays, nobody knows how to address a knight"

 

 

“I do forget it most of the time. For the first six months, I thought, God, this is going to be at the forefront of my mind for the rest of my life. But now whole weeks go by and it doesn’t impinge. I’ll get a letter that says ‘Sir Tony’, or a waiter will come up to me in a restaurant and say, ‘This way, Sir Tony,’ and I’ll think, S***, that’s me!”

For those who only know Tony as the turnip-loving Baldrick in the BBC sitcom Blackadder, or the presenter of Channel 4’s Time Team, it may be surprising to learn just how far-reaching his career has been. In the early chapters of his book, we’re introduced to characters from Tony’s drama-school days, such as Steve Marriott (later of The Small Faces) and Vivian MacKerrell (immortalised by Richard E Grant in the cult film Withnail & I). What was it like to encounter those people?

“Well, you have no notion that they will be any different from your other friends,” Tony replies with a chuckle. “It wasn’t until Withnail & I came out that I began to put inverted commas around my relationship with Vivian. I was always quite impressed by him and flattered that he wanted to be friends with me, but he was just another guy at drama school. It was the same with Steve.”

Read more: Tony Robinson on the books that changed his life

 

Making his own luck

as Baldrick in Blackadder
Starring as Baldrick in Blackadder

Although Tony claims he never really believed in the concept of “the lucky break” (“that always seemed to me a rather Hollywood notion—Mickey Rooney or Judy Garland might have a lucky break”), what happened next was, in retrospect, the luckiest break possible. I say in retrospect, because the production of Blackadder—beset by strikes and casting issues—nearly didn’t happen at all, and Tony was on the verge of dropping out completely when it did happen.

It’s noticeable, however, that his autobiography (despite being called No Cunning Plan), doesn’t devote a disproportionate amount of space to Baldrick, his most famous role. It’s easy to forget that Tony, who turned 70 this year, only landed the part at the age of 38, and his book is careful to put the episode into context.

“I think I wanted to write a kind of ticking time-bomb, to show that I wasn’t dropped fully formed into the role of Baldrick,” explains Tony. “I don’t think I’d have been able to deal with celebrity—or all the other things I’ve been asked to do since—had it not been for the fact that Blackadder came along quite late.”

So fame would been harder at an earlier age?

“Oh, I’d have been ghastly if I’d become famous in my twenties! By the time it happened, I’d got two children, I’d undergone the death of loved ones, I’d had enormous knocks and learned how to deal with them. When you’re in your twenties, the likelihood is you’ll think you’ve achieved success because you’re God’s gift. I certainly would have, I’m sure of it.”

 

“My parents were so important”

tony robinson's parent
Tony with his first wife Mary on their wedding day in 1972

This is a characteristically modest way of describing a path that’s gone in some interesting directions. While many actors’ memoirs are a fiesta of name-dropping and gossip, Tony’s recollections are grounded by the twin pillars of family and politics. By far the most moving section deals with his parents and their struggles with dementia, something that’s motivated Tony’s support for the Alzheimer’s Society.

“My parents were so important in my life,” he confesses. “However much you might have demonstrated your love for them, you always think, Oh my God, I never said enough, I never did enough. I still feel emotional about it. I still feel that political parties on both sides haven’t really taken into consideration the fact that people are still human beings after retirement age. You hear an awful lot of the rhetoric, particularly in the run-up to elections, about how older people will be looked after by the next government, but it’s bogus.”

 

 

"It’s amazing the contempt people have for me on social media"

 

 

Politics in one form or another runs in Tony’s veins, whether it’s his time as vice-president of the actors’ union Equity or his long-standing commitment to the Labour Party, culminating in his election to its National Executive Committee in 2000.

At the time of our interview, the Labour leadership contest is still in full swing, and it’s clear that Tony has agonised over the direction in which it’s going. Some of the online exchanges he’s had with Jeremy Corbyn supporters have been blunt, to say the least.

"It’s amazing the contempt people have for me on social media,” says Tony sadly, “just because I want to get the balance between leadership, power and principle. Those three things are incredibly difficult. But if you feel let down by politicians, this rage comes out and anyone who doesn’t feel the same way is a class traitor. I understand that. Do I think they’re right? Of course not. Would I have thought they were right 35 years ago? Probably yes."

 

Read the full feature in the December issue of Reader's Digest

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Feature image via Wildfire

 

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