Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Artful Codger: The Tony Robinson Interview

Like a couple of his former Blackadder cast-mates, Tony Robinson is one of Britain's genuine national treasures. A child actor, at the the age of thirteen he was plucked from the obscurity of the chorus-line to become the second boy to play the Artful Dodger in the original 1959 West End production of Lionel Bart's Oliver! Upon finished school he chose to continue treading the boards, starring in the children's educational programme Sam on Boffs' Island and he was later a presenter on Play Away. He also appeared in the award-winning Horizon documentary Joey, and in the title role in the BBC production of The Miracle of Brother Humphrey and made his film debut in a cameo in Brannigan. Having spent a decade playing mainly small roles and doing lots of theatre Tony, in his own words 'became an overnight sensation in my late thirties' for his role in The Black Adder and its several sequels, as Edmund Blackadder's dogsbody-with-a-million-cunning-plans Baldrick. In 1993, Robinson began presenting Time Team, a factual series devoted to archaeological investigations which remains, nearly two decades later, a particular favourite of yer Keith Telly Topping. In 2005, Exeter University conferred an Honorary Doctorate on Tony, along with Honorary Professorships to his friend and co-presenter, Mick Aston and producer Tim Taylor, to reflect its appreciation for what Time Team has done for the public understanding of archaeology. As a consequence, Tony has carved out a parallel career to his acting, presenting numerous other social history-based shows - mainly for Channel 4. These include The Worst Jobs in History, Birth of Britain, Tony Robinson and the Paranormal, Man on Earth and Britain's Real Monarch. He was also one of the studio presenters on the BBC's legendary twenty-eight hour live broadcast 2000 Today. From 1996 to 2000, he was vice-president of the actors' union Equity, helping with a huge restructuring programme which turned the organisation's half-a-million pound deficit into a small surplus. Politically active since his late teens, Tony was elected to the Labour Party's National Executive Committee, a position which he held from 2000 to 2004. He is also the honorary president of the Young Archaeologists' Club of the Council for British Archaeology. More recently, he's been a spokesman for the highly-regarded genealogy website ancestry.co.uk and it was in this capacity that yer Keith Telly Topping had the opportunity to interview Tony from the BBC's London studios on 13 October 2010. Ancestry.co.uk, in partnership with the City of London's London Metropolitan Archives, has this week launched online for the first time over eight million of London’s oldest surviving parish records, charting the history of the city from the Sixteenth Century to modern times. The London Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1812 archive contains vital records kept at more than one thousand parishes. It includes some of the few extant records of the English Civil War. Crucially, these records pre-date Civil Registration, the system introduced by the Government in 1837 to record the 'vital' events of its citizen's lives - births, marriages and deaths. The only way to trace these key events for an ancestor before the Nineteenth Century is to use parish registers. After a few minutes before the tapes rolled, chatting variously about the bravery of Chilean miners, his admiration for former Chilean president Salvadore Allende and, from that, somehow, to the more insane end of Blackadder fandom(!) I began by asking who was likely to benefit the most from the release of these documents.

I guess, the people who will be happiest with the release of these records will be those, a bit like myself, who've researched their family tree back to about 1800, and then hit a brick wall.

That's right. I think you could probably get another hundred years back, actually. Most people manage to get back to the mid-Eighteenth Century, I got down to 1730, and I'm not great at doing the research. But the really exciting thing is the early London parish records which go all the way back to 1538 and even beyond. I say the London parish records but, even if you don't live in London these can still be incredibly useful because one out of every two people who lives in England today have got ancestors who were either born, died or were married in London. So they're a really useful resource. In 1538, Henry VIII's Prime Minister I suppose you'd call him - he was the Vicar General in those days- Thomas Cromwell issued an edict that all the churches in the country had to keep a record of all births, deaths and marriages in their parish. So that's essentially what we've got. Plus, a few older records which go right the way back to the Twelfth Century. Most of those are in Latin. So, there's plenty to chose from and this is the first day so we hardly know anything about the significance of what's in there yet.

One of the things I noticed when I read the pre-publicity was that this event seems a bit Londoncentric. But, I presume this is merely the start of a national roll-out programme of parish records?

Oh, absolutely. It's really about what becomes cost-effective. The way that family history has developed over the last couple of decades is that, as you can imagine, putting this stuff online is very expensive. Not only do you have to digitalise it into a format that we can all read, but you have to clean up all the documents; in a lot of them, there are misspellings, the ink has faded, they've been eaten by various bugs or rained on by leaky parish roofs. So, it's sometimes very difficult to read them in their original state. A lot of money is spent on getting them in good nick. Because all this new stuff goes online, more people are attracted to the idea of looking up their family histories, so they pay their subscription fees so then adding even more stuff online becomes cost-effective. A lot of people say "why didn't you all the information we've got up online at once?" Well, apart from the time it would take, it's because it's so expensive. A lot of people come to a halt in their research because they find a point where their relatives arrived from Austria, say. Obviously they can't get that information. Well, over the years as other countries become more interested in their family history, not only is there an ancestry.co.uk, but they'll be one in Australia, in various European countries, America, the far east, and we'll be able to pull more and more of this sort of information together.

History, of one sort of another, is probably what you've become most associated with over the last couple of decades through your TV work. How do you think history should be taught in schools to make it, perhaps, a touch less dry and dusty? And, I say that as somebody who took history to A level myself!

I don't think there is one simple way. One of the mistakes that the previous government made was believing there was some sort of template, some structure in which kids could best be taught in order to get them to understand more things. I think an awful lot of successful teaching is down to the relationship between the individual teacher and the individual pupil. And, different teachers are going to have different ways of teaching which work for them. And may have different perceptions that work better for the kids, so I think what we need to encourage is a space wherein teachers can teach better.

I notice it's very much a hot topic at the moment. Simon Schama was making a speech about this very subject the other week.

Yes, and I think that's really great. A lot of people are asking me "how do you feel about Simon Schama going to work with the Tories?" I think it's a fantastic idea. You need historians like Schama. You need provocative historians like David Starkey and you need people like me who never went to university and just talk in the language of ordinary people.

Or, indeed, Michael Wood?

Yes. Exactly. It's not that I think one is any better than the others, you need to understand there's no such one all-encompassing thing as history. There are lots of different interpretations, lots of different viewpoints of history. And one of the great things about our contemporary media is that they give us the opportunity to get access to all of those different interpretations.

Which brings me very nicely to your own interest in history. Was that something which was sparked by Blackadder and Maid Marion, or was it something that you'd always been fascinated by?

It was sparked, actually, by my dad telling me all of the adventures he'd had during the war. And, he wasn't a war hero or anything, he was stuck up away in East Scotland servicing Spitfires and Hurricanes. But he was a young working class boy from London, hardly ever been away from home before. He suddenly had five years away with a bunch of completely different people from completely different environments and all these things happened to him. And, he happened to be a good story-teller who told them to me in a completely riveting way. I got a sense from that, that the people who were my dad's age had been young like I was once and, if that was true about my dad and my mum then that must mean it was also true about their parents and their parents and their parents. So, I began to get this glimmer that I was just a tiny part of a massive continuity of history. I do think it's terribly important that mums and dads talk to their kids and relay to them the adventures which they had when they were young. I know that when kids get to be adolescent, they get terribly embarrassed about that sort of thing and do wish that their parents would just shut up! But, I do think it's one of those things that really does impact on your adult life when you've had an appreciation of all those narratives about your family.

A lot of the focus of these records are on the period of the English Civil War which is a majorly important period in British history. Virtually all of our political systems of government have come directly from that period. But, it's one that not a lot of people know an awful lot about besides, I suppose, the haircuts of the participants. One lot looked like The Beatles, the other lot looked like Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen so it all kicked-off, big style. But, it was a bit more complicated than that, wasn't it?

Isn't it extraordinary, as you say? It was such a key period in our history, when we shifted from having a king whose power was everything and nobody could stand in his way through to a very assertive parliament and the beginnings of parliamentary democracy as we know it today. And, there are all these great stories about the Roundheads and Cavaliers and yet most people hardly know anything about that period.

It's estimated that eighty five per cent of people can't even name a battle from it.

When I first started doing interviews this morning, I was just chatting to the people in the studio - sadly, all of whom are younger than me! - and they all admitted that they knew virtually nothing about the English Civil War. And it's great, it's so sexy! So many good stories. So many quirky, weird, interesting things happened at that time. So, yes, I'm really pleased that the release of these, particular documents amplify the Civil War era. And there's stuff about Cromwell and Fairfax, and leaders on both sides of the divide during that time.

I know you've said in the past that transport costs are a major issue, but when can we expect to see the Time Team back in the North East? Because we really do enjoy having you up here.

Yeah. What we've done a couple of time is that we've stayed in Darlo [Darlington] and used that as a base and done two in about eight days.

Back-to-back.

Yes. It just cuts the cost so much. I honestly can't remember whether we have been back because there's still about nineteen that we've made that haven't been seen yet. About half-a-dozen of them are going out now on Sunday evenings and then they come back again in January at 5:30 in the evening and will run through to the end of March. And, during that time we'll start making the next series. I hope that we do have some more in the North East. But, also, I hope that we don't start too early in the year because it's cold up there. You guys don't realise that, you all walk around with no tops on up there! But, to us wimpy southerners digging for three days in the North East, in March, isn't something I'd choose!

I'm sure dear old Phil could handle it. One final question, I know you're a big fan of Bristol City, what do you think the Robins chances of promotion are this year?

That is just such a cruel and disheartening thing to say! It is only fair to point out that there have been some teams in the North East who have struggled a little bit over the last few years.

Absolutely! You're talking to a supporter of one of them!

All right, you might be on the up at the moment, and Bristol City are on the down but boy-oh-boy will we cream you soon.

So you reckon you're going to be coming up to St James' shortly and giving us a hiding, then?

Well, at the moment, we're lying bottom of the championship! But, one day! The worm will turn and the cider drinkers will come up and ... I'm trying to find a polite way of saying it. Kiss all over you!

So, there you have it. Sound bloke, Tony Robinson. Informed, witty, charming and still happy to keep going even though I was, I believe, the sixteenth interview he'd done that morning and he was, obviously, fair knackered. Some extracts will be broadcast on tomorrow afternoon's Simon Logan Show on BBC Newcastle - sometime between 1pm and 4pm - and will subsequently be available on Listen Again on the iPlayer for about seven days afterwards.

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