Former Blackadder star Tony Robinson tells Ellie Rose that all men should try drag.

I Remember...

...our first family house wasn't a house

It was my grandmother’s newsagent’s in Hackney. The downstairs parlour was always full of newspapers and copies of Punch. My parents Leslie and Phyllis soon moved to their own place in South Woodford.

…loving a series of leather-bound volumes called The Children’s Encyclopaedia

One of my earliest memories is reaching up and pulling the books down. There might be pictures of anything on any page, you know? Submarines, birds, tools or whatever. I think that my sense of education being about “dipping in” came about through that. I used to find Reader’s Digest very influential for the same reason.

I used to read everything. Bad comics, good comics, even the ingredients on a jar of pimientos. I believe my thinking and attitudes are better for it—not so rarefied. I have a big problem with the way Michael Gove talks about education. I don’t think he had the best of upbringings, quite honestly—just reading things like Heidi and The Water Babies. To get a really broad understanding, you need to read all the crash-bang-adventure rubbish stuff too.

…I was an only child, so I was quite solitary

I had a strong imaginative inner life. People say, “Did you have an imaginary friend?” I say, “An imaginary friend? One?” I had about 27! My mum took me to a specialist when I was eight because she thought I was deaf, but I was just locked away in my own world and wasn’t listening to what she was saying!

At the same time, though, my mum loved amateur dramatics and my dad had been a boogie pianist in the Second World War, so they encouraged the performer in me [at 12, Tony had a role in the first West End production of Oliver!].

Tony Robinson young

…my headmaster encouraging me to pursue professional acting

Even though I was still at school. It was a very progressive thing for him to do. So I was away from classes a huge amount doing bit parts in shows, telly and films. Nobody at school really knew where I was supposed to be, so I’d bunk off a lot.

…thinking all men should try drag

After drama school, I had six glorious months in rep at Stoke-on-Trent. It had one of the most radical theatres in the country, the Victoria. I was given the most fantastic parts. In particular, we staged a “history of musicals” show, and for some reason I was given all the drag roles. I suddenly realised how liberating wearing women’s clothes is. Every man—particularly red-blooded heterosexuals—should spend two years in a dress, rather like going on military service. It’s just such a different way of thinking about and negotiating the world. It didn’t make me wish to take male lovers, but I had such fun coming out in this wig with curls and flouncy dresses, thinking that I was the most glamorous girl in the world.

…the script for the Blackadder pilot wasn’t very good

And the first series itself wasn’t great, was it? [Tony got the part of Baldrick in 1983 after several years working in theatre and TV.] The only person who got that the show might bring us fame and fortune was John Lloyd, the producer. I remember going up to Alnwick in Northumberland for the first batch of filming, and he said to me, “So, how are you going to deal with being famous, then?” And I went, “Wha…?” 

Eventually, very reluctantly, we were given a second series. In the first week of rehearsals we all struggled, particularly Miranda Richardson as Queenie, because the show had been penned by two blokes [Richard Curtis and Ben Elton] who didn’t know how to write for women. Then Miranda got this idea that her Queen Elizabeth would be the most powerful woman in the world…who happened to be 14 and on the cusp of ponies and sex. That transformed everything.

The first time the second series was shown it did all right, but the second time—whoof! It became huge. It took me quite a while to realise because I was living in Bristol with a wife and two young kids and was devoting most of my life to them.

All those ex-public schoolboys in the cast were terribly nice to me; they had a facility for care and concern that only the truly wealthy are able to deploy. I left school at 16 and didn’t have their literacy or confidence, but they were also ten years younger than me. So I was confronted by nine geniuses and I’m supposed to be the big boy. I always found that very hard.

Blackadder cast

…appreciating the simple magic of Time Team

I mean the fact that buried in your garden there could be echoes of other people who lived there long ago. People watching could have ownership of that. I remember this couple in Northamptonshire who’d been digging a pond for their koi carp and found two Anglo-Saxon bodies. It was just the most exciting thing ever for them.

I loved hearing my dad’s stories about his air force days during the Second World War. He didn’t get lots of medals, but he had those adventures that come when
the world is in chaos. It gave me an understanding that mine wasn’t the only time there had ever been—that I was part of the arc of human history.

…the guilt of putting my mother in a home

Have I resolved it? I don’t like the fact that it happened, but there was an inevitability about it—she had Alzheimer’s.

I’m now an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society, and although there are good objective reasons why I think that stuff’s important, am I working through my feelings about my mum’s death? Probably. But then again, that’s what we do in this world.

By the time I was asked to make a film about her [Channel 4’s Me and My Mum, 2006], she had pretty chronic dementia. I never knew what she was taking in. I said to her, “Mum, I’ve been asked to make a film about the kind of illness you’ve got. But also about you, and living with the illness. So it would be your story. How would you feel about that?”

She said, “Ooh, yes, fine.” And I thought, Has she really taken it in?

An hour later, she started pinching me, and said, “When’s it going to happen, then?” And I said, “What, Mum?” She said, “You know, that thing—that nice thing.”

I knew at that moment that it would be genuinely good for her. She was the belle of the ball during filming and flirted outrageously with everything in trousers—absolutely disgraceful. How anybody with the same genes as me could be outrageous, I don’t understand! Ha.

…appearing on Question Time last year was very scary

It’s one of the hardest things. Russell Brand said recently that you get an enormous feeling of solidarity with the other panellists. He was talking about Melanie Phillips, who is the antithesis of everything I’d imagine that he holds dear, yet he felt quite an affection for her. I really understand that. It’s like you’re all about to go over the top. Then you do the programme and you’re knocking bits out of each other, looking as relaxed as you possibly can, thinking as fast as you can. Then you all have a meal together and go, “Cor, that bit was funny, wasn’t it?!”

…developing a lightness of touch

Everything used to matter so much: mattered with a capital M, capital Ts, capital Es. When I said stupid things, I cringed, when I said smart things, I crowed, and when something nice happened I’d think, Am I happy? Am I really really happy?

Now, I enjoy my life much more. It has a series of colours and tones to it. Yes, when I’m sad, of course I’m sad. But I went to a funeral the other day, and I asked somebody (who was also very close to the person who died), “What did you think of the funeral?”

They said, “I really enjoyed it.” And I thought, Yes, that’s the place I like to be. That you can enjoy sorrow.

I still get outraged about injustice. But I’ve learned it’s more effective to walk on my toes, rather than my heels all the time.

Shop Tony Robinson: from Blackadder to Time Team - click here.

Related Posts