Blackadder’s Tony Robinson recently decided that, as he’s now in the “autumn” of his life, it was about time he took a look back on it.
He turned 70 in August and, although he isn’t “freaked out” by the number, says sagely: “It’s what I’m able to do or not do that’s the big issue, and I still feel able to do pretty much everything I did when I was 30, so it’s not a problem.”
The other driving factor behind penning his new autobiography, No Cunning Plan, was the issue of people’s preconceptions. 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,” the London-born star says wryly.
“My children are embarrassed by most of it,” he says of the book, but adds: “If that is going to be the criterion on which I’m writing the story of my life – whether I’m embarrassed or not – then really, I’m not going to get past chapter one.”
No Cunning Plan recalls everything from his first big acting role – in Oliver! at the West End when he was 12 – to the Blackadder years, and finishes up in 2006 – presumably leaving room for a second book.
It’s sprinkled with surprising little details that don’t really go anywhere, like the time he flirted – badly – with Liza Minnelli (“When you’re 13 or 14 and there’s an incredibly sophisticated girl you’re trying to chat up, you don’t remember anything about what you said, other than what a knob you were”), and how he fell 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.”
He dedicates a huge chunk to his years spent playing hapless manservant Baldrick in Blackadder, opposite Rowan Atkinson, but slices through the gloss of it, and firmly avoids rose-tinted glasses.
He’s frank about the fact he didn’t have particularly high hopes for the show.
“I don’t think anyone really did after the pilot,” he remembers. “It just wasn’t very funny. It had lots of good ideas, but the jokes didn’t really work.”
And even when the team, including writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, got it into shape, he was still “completely” surprised it took off.
Perhaps what’s most startling, though, is that despite the show’s triumph and the sense of camaraderie that unspools from the screen when you watch it, during filming, Robinson suffered from an acute sense of inferiority.
“I’d left school at 16, I had virtually no formal education, I didn’t have the network of sophisticated London friends they all had. I’d never been part of that collective bantering set that could produce humorous and acidic wit at the drop of a hat – and I was crap at the Times crossword.”
The 10-year age gap between himself and his co-stars might have had something to do with it – Blackadder didn’t come along until Robinson was 38. “Maybe they were much more confident than me, but it did feel very competitive sometimes. Working with brilliant people; it’s not always going to be kittens and chrysanthemums.”
Can we hope for more Blackadder?
“I don’t know,” he says, with a certain amount of weariness. “Every time anybody asks me that question, I say, ‘Well, yes, I feel quite optimistic about that’, and immediately the story encircles the globe for 24 hours. I have no knowledge that there’s going to be another Blackadder. Of course, I would love to do it, but I’m not sure everybody else would.”
He does have half a back-up plan if Atkinson lets him down, though. When Robinson was knighted in 2013, he persuaded Prince William to agree to a cameo appearance if Blackadder ever returned.
“It’d be interesting to see whether or not he’s a man of his word…”
The knighthood itself, he says, hasn’t changed him much.
“For a few months, I revelled in the fact my country had picked me out as someone who deserved a reward. What a lovely thing to happen to anybody. But I don’t think much about it now, and if somebody occasionally goes, ‘Sir Tony!’, I go, ‘Oh, that’s me!'”
He’s also famous for presenting Time Team on Channel 4 for almost 20 years; Robinson is adamant he doesn’t miss the show as much as he imagined he would.
“We all want to search for a pot of gold, and the idea that pot might exist in our back garden is a pretty intriguing thought,” he says of the series’ longevity. “I know it looked like a lot of boozy old hippies digging a hole in the ground in an arbitrary fashion, and maybe there is an element of truth in that, but – and I’m not patting myself on the back here – it was a very finely weighed piece of television.”
Robinson, who’s also written a string of children’s books and recently starred as Greg Davies’ dad in comedy series Man Down, cannot say with certainty that writing No Cunning Plan was cathartic, but admits it was an emotional process.
“I hadn’t realised how moved I would be by going back to certain times in my life. Most of us just assume that when difficult things happen, we deal with it, we work it through and then we move on. But actually, most of the time, we don’t – if there’s an issue we just park it, and then move on, and ghosts of it are still ticking away.
“Coming back to those things that made you feel uneasy or upset, or humiliated or lonely, or all of those, there’s no doubt it does trigger some echo of those emotions in you. My wife said my moods changed with which chapters I was writing.”
Robinson married Louise Hobbs in 2011 after they met in a restaurant – he needed a seat, and the only spare one was opposite her. However, she is only mentioned in the epilogue.
“She didn’t come into my life until after the time the book ended, but I didn’t want to exclude her from the book because she’s obviously the most important part of my life now,” he explains.
His first wife Mary, mother of his two children, Luke and Laura, does appear, including a scene where Robinson and his children did her ‘Desert Island Discs’.
He writes: “Mary was wryly amused; she said I’d got a lot of the facts wrong, and some of the dates were hopelessly muddled.”
Would she have said the same about No Cunning Plan?
“Oh, absolutely, yes.”
No Cunning Plan by Tony Robinson is available now.