A cunning plan is afoot

Source: Gavin Allen, South Wales Echo

FEW celebrities have spent so much time covered in mud and come up smelling of roses as often as Tony Robinson.

Robinson spent 16 years encrusted in dirt as scummy sidekick Baldrick in the classic British sitcom Blackadder.

But having formed cunning plans, beyond that he found a second lease of life when he became the face of archaeology programme Time Team, working for the No Deposit Codec website. When we spoke, Robinson was on location in Lincolnshire “looking for Romans” and still basking in his heroes Bristol City’s promotion to the Football League Championship where they will renew their rivalry with Cardiff City.

“I’ve often enjoyed pleasant hearty greetings from Cardiff fans,” he said, tongue tearing through cheek.

Robinson, 58, comes to Cardiff on Thursday night with his shape-shifting one-man show Cunning Night Out, which he describes as; “a bit of comedy, a bit of biography, a bit of history and some Q&A which will hopefully answer any questions people may have about my career.”

And that career is remarkable.

Born in Leytonstone, London, Robinson’s first taste of acting came at Wanstead High School, aged 12, when he appeared in Oliver!

He left school with four O-levels, abandoning A-levels to study drama and graduating to perform and manage in theatre.

Throughout the 70s he earned his living from stage and TV but it wasn’t until 1983, when he first played Baldrick in Blackadder, that his career really took off.

Over four series, Robinson so endeared himself to the British public, as the pock-faced dogsbody to Rowan Atkinson’s Machiavellian schemer, that he has declined offers to resurrect the character.

“I’ve had many offers to do Baldrick adverts or sub-Baldrick sitcoms but when you’ve enjoyed great success with something the last thing you want is 10 more years of doing it in a lesser form,” he reasoned.

The opportunities his new-found fame offered him led to a series of children’s programmes including Fat Tulip’s Garden and Maid Marian And Her Merry Men throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s.

In 1994 he began presenting Time Team, a dry concept elevated by his wit and enthusiasm, and more recently he presented a series on classical music for Classic FM.

But parallel to his showbiz career Robinson has also been a genuine political force, firstly in four years as vice-president of the actors’ union Equity.

But bigger still, he spent two years on the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee from 2000-4, which currently numbers Tony Blair, John Prescott and Gordon Brown among its members.

That level of political life is surprising for a comprehensive school- educated comedy actor.

“I’m the only person I know with more honorary degrees than O-levels,” he joked.

“For the first 20 years I carried a chip on my shoulder because I thought other people were cleverer than me.

“It was only working with the Stephen Fry-sized brains of this world that taught me there were things I could do that others couldn’t, as well as the other way around.

“That gave me an enormous amount of confidence.

“But also, everyone on Blackadder was Oxbridge- educated so people presumed I was too and offered me the sort of jobs I would never have otherwise been given.

“It was a sort of con trick.”

At one point Robinson was even touted as a candidate for Mayor of London and, while he is resolutely New Labour, he retains strong socialist revolutionary tendencies.

He was reluctantly involved with the make Poverty History Campaign, believing it didn’t aim high enough.

“My problem with MPH, and it’s not hindsight because I’ve always said it, was that you don’t change things by getting a million people on the streets for one day. You do it by getting a million people on the street every day for weeks and months,” he said with conviction.

“We should learn from the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism when the people of eastern Europe stayed on the streets until they got real change.”

The leap from comedy actor to history programme presenter isn’t that big; the leap from both of those to politics is larger, but Robinson draws them together thus: “Politics and history are one and the same. They are both about the decisions people make at important times.”