Tony's history in the making

He has been described as the love child of Simon Schama, Alistair Campbell and Eddie Izzard “And what a night that must have been . . .” says Tony Robinson, as he tells ANGI KENNEDY why he is looking forward to surprising his Norwich audience.

He has been described as the love child of Simon Schama, Alistair Campbell and Eddie Izzard “And what a night that must have been . . .” says Tony Robinson, as he tells ANGI KENNEDY why he is looking forward to surprising his Norwich audience.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

There is no clever and cunning plan for Tony Robinson's stage show. He'll start talking and just see where it takes him. But with a history, curiosity and wit like Tony's you know that the journey will be entertaining and the destination something of a surprise.

“This isn't going to be some bloke sitting on a leather chair with a glass of water on a table beside him,” laughs Tony. “It's very autobiographical, very frantic, fast and funny. More Eddie Izzard than anything.

“The second half is all improvised - we have questions from the audience, and depending on how frisky they are, we'll just have to see what way it goes from there.

“There is this debate about what is better, a live show or telly. People say theatre because it is different every night, but I don't think it's that definite, because theatre is so finely rehearsed. I wanted to create something that when people went away they thought: 'I really did get a slice of Tony from that'.

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“It is a bit flying by the seat of your pants but it gives me an intense feeling of satisfaction, and I want to say to people 'You may think you know me because I am on the telly, but I have 30 years of experience on the stage'.

“It frustrates me somewhat that they don't know that about me. I sometimes feel I want to grab them by the shoulders and say 'Don't you realise what I have done?'”

Not that he ever has to remind audiences of the fact that he was the man behind the stinking, turnip-loving, cunning plan-devising Baldric in the wonderful Blackadder series. As the filthy, down-trodden sidekick to Rowan Atkinson's Edmund Blackadder, in their various reincarnations through the comic centuries, Baldric achieved cult status and a fan base able to quote his every utterance.

From there, it was a short jump into yet more mud and history for Tony as he made the Time Team presenter's job his own. His move from BBC comedy to the Channel Four documentary showed his versatility and gave him free rein to indulge his enthusiasm for archaeology.

“Doing Baldric, going on through social history and then on to the Time Team - it wasn't a deliberate move, but some people seem to think it was fitting,” says Tony. “I have never been particularly deliberate in what I have done with my career. It is just that I have a low boredom threshold. I am always being ticked off by my friends and loved ones for drifting off or listening into other people's conversations when I should be concentrating.”

It soon became obvious that Tony was the perfect choice for a series that shook up the way archaeology had been treated on television.

“Time Team was never just presenting. I was an actor asked to present something I was interested in,” he explains. “For me history has always been a passion and archaeology has been a wonderful way to access that.

“I didn't know I had learned anything from it at all until I was asked to co-write a book into archaeology. You do accrue a lot of experience in 15 years of working in the field. And it is proper learning through doing stuff with your mates - which I think is always the best way of learning.”

That goes a way to explain Tony's philosophy towards education. Throughout his days with Time Team he has been determined to remain the man on the street, puncturing any pomposity in the learned experts and always wheedling out a simple explanation for the stories behind the digs and the finds they turn up.

“Not having had a university education and always having been a little bit of an inverted snob, I feel that just because someone knows words with five syllables it should not mean they are able to use them to hide behind,” says the man who spent several years on Labour's National Executive Committee and who has a long-standing commitment to actors' union Equity.

The Time Team has brought him to Norfolk and Suffolk many times including visits to the Seahenge wood circle, to the place at Reedham where two Flying Fortresses crashed, and in search of ancient “Center Parcs man” at Elvedon!

“The geography of East Anglia makes it fascinating for archaeologists because there is so much under the strata,” he says. “And the east coast used to be the M1 of travel in the middle ages.

“I have just been working on a programme about when East Anglia was joined on to Holland and you could walk over to get your cheap shopping!

“Global warming is not a new thing, it is just that last time it happened we weren't writing about it. But the memory of it is still there along the east coast and at Dogger Bank, and is trawled up by the fishing boats every now and then.”

Of course there is much more to Tony's own career history than scrabbling about in the mud - whether as Baldric or with Time Team.

His first break came at the tender age of 12 when he landed the part of a member of Fagin's gang in the original West End production of the musical Oliver! When the boy due to play the Artful Dodger didn't turn up, young Tony stepped into his shoes and straight into the spotlight.

From there, his career has included everything from playing Freddie the Happy Spoon at Stoke-on-Trent to being in a film with John Wayne. “It was a film called Brannigan, in the early '70s. It ended up with John Wayne pushing me into the docks of what is Canary Wharf now!”

There was also the quirky children's TV series he created, Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, in which he played the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Add to that presenting programmes such as The Real da Vinci Code and the popular Worst Jobs in History series as well as an up-coming documentary on the history of the law in Britain (“I'm trying to make it entertaining - not something where the subject matter will turn people off like archaeology did when we first started Time Team”), and you begin to see the benefits of Tony's low boredom threshold.

“The thing I am most proud of in my life is my relationship with my kids, but as regards my career I guess it is the variety and the fact that I have managed to pull it off in the variety of different forms.

“The hardest thing is the writing for me.” Tony has written almost 20 books, many for children. “It is very demanding. When I am on the Time Team and other programmes it is a collective effort, but staring down a blank piece of paper is what I find really difficult.

“But it was the Worst Jobs in History series was what nearly killed me though,” he admits. “I picked up so many ailments. I have never been so ill in my life as when I was doing that.

“I think it was the sheer onslaught of doing so much of that dreadful stuff. I learned how resilient and how tough people were in the past, and I developed a respect for people from the past which I don't think I could have felt if I hadn't done those things for myself.”

Expect some gruesome tales from this series to crop up when Tony takes to the stage of the Norwich Playhouse on Wednesday May 2 for his Cunning Night Out show.

The entertaining look through his career is now in its second year. “We took it to Edinburgh last year and it was a smash hit, a sell-out. So we decided to go on tour one more time. In fact this is the biggest tour I've done - we're going all over the country and to Wales, Scotland and Ireland as well.

“I've been very lucky to walk into something that has worked so well.”

It's hard to imagine what projects Tony has touched which haven't been successful.

“Oh, there has been a fair degree of bomb damage in my career through the years,” he laughs again. But you try to forget the ones that have bombed and now, luckily, the grass seems to have grown over the bombed craters.”

Tony's grassed-over career craters - now there's a future project for the Time Team!

T Tony Robinson's Cunning Night Out is at Norwich Playhouse on Wednesday May 2, 8pm. Tickets are £15 from the Playhouse box office at the Norwich Theatre Royal on 01603 598598.

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