For Tony Robinson history lessons started long before he was introduced to the topic at school.
“My mum and dad talked to me about the war from as early back as I can remember,” says the Blackadder star, whose parents – Leslie and Phyllis – were in the RAF and had been “released from service less than nine months before I was born” in 1946. “As young people, the huge experiences of the previous five years for them had been in the Second World War.
“All these little stories they would tell me, got me to understand from an early age that mine wasn’t the only time there had ever been. There was another time in which my mum and dad had been young, and therefore by extension, another time when their parents were young – and their parents, and their parents.”
While it was iconic comedy series Blackadder that made London-born Robinson, now 74, a household name, his love of history has shaped his career too – from Tony Robinson’s Time Travels and Walking Through History, to Time Team which ran for a decade until 2014.
Of course, we’re living through major historical events right now with the pandemic. So how has it been for him?
“I’ve been very, very lucky on a number of fronts. I was due to make three or four TV series prior to Covid and none disappeared, they were all postponed,” he says.
Current projects include filming new instalments to his adventures exploring the River Thames, and Robinson recently teamed up with Checkatrade to produce a mini-documentary for YouTube, exploring how Roman innovations inspired modern-day trades like plumbing and roofing.
Lockdown also meant he got “more time with my wife [Louise Hobbs] than ever before” and made an impressive dent on his reading list.
“I wrote down 15 books I thought I would love to read but would never have time – and read them! Well, half was on audio, the other half was on pages,” says Robinson, who has two grown-up children from his previous marriage with Mary Shepherd. “So all those authors – like Proust and Joyce and Eliot and Dostoevsky – who I never thought I would ever come to terms with. I’m halfway through Madame Bovary but when I finish that, that’ll be all 15.”
We caught up with Robinson to find out more.
On getting a rescue dog…
“Purely coincidentally, about three days before the initial restrictions to stay home, my wife and I got a rescue dog – a Westie called Holly Berry, who was in a right old state and needed a lot of loving and looking after. We were in the perfect position to do that, suddenly at home in a way I hadn’t been before. Now the three of us are an absolute team.
“When we got her, you could see her ribs, she could hardly see us with her eyes. When she ate, she ate like this was the last meal she was ever going to have, it was quite terrifying. But now she’s just another Westie – an adorable Westie but just another dog. An awful lot of our time and interest has gone into that and, of course, it’s made our walks really interesting and worthwhile.”
On getting fit…
“I’ve done much more exercise than I’ve done for many years. I was about two stone overweight before, because I’d been travelling around the world by train for two years [for Around The World By Train] for Channel 5 – and that is a very sedentary occupation, sitting on trains all day and in hotels, restaurants and bars all night. I was a real podge.
“I threw myself into exercise with abandon and managed to lose the two stone. I was doing my 10,000 steps a day, mainly with the dog and my Fitbit. In addition to that, I’ve got a bike and a cross-trainer and a little mat and some weights – and a telly – and would spend an hour on those every day.”
On time to reflect…
“Not deliberately, but certainly my dream life has been looking back at my previous incarnations, as it were, much more than normal. I’ve always tended to dream pretty much in the present, but now I’ve been mulling over events that happened in the past. And the thing about [the pandemic making us reflect on life], I simply have had time to let the brain chatter away a bit more, rather than just coping with the crises and challenges of the moment. I think it has loosened up my head really, in quite a good way.”
On exploring local surroundings…
“One of the things that’s really come for me is a much clearer understanding of the geography of my own area. Like most people, I tended to walk to the station or pub or shop or whatever, but over the last year I’ve been going down all those highways and byways I perhaps wouldn’t have before. I’ve had time to look at the architecture and get a much clearer vision of where I live, so that’s been great.”
On rediscovering the joy of gardening…
“I’ve learned to garden, or at least I’ve rediscovered how to garden. I hadn’t gardened anywhere for decades because I tended to be a flat dweller, but now we’ve got a nice terrace and parapet. I started gardening and my wife said, ‘How did you know how to do this?’ I didn’t realise until I talked about it, but it was because from about the age of five to 10, my dad, who I adored, gardened, and at weekends I just used to follow him around. I had my little patch and I’d do the weeding and planting and nurture the plants – and it just came back to me. It’s lovely, like a present from my dad [who passed in 1989].”
To shine a light on the Roman techniques still used by trades today, Sir Tony Robinson worked with Checkatrade on an entertaining and educational mini documentary. To watch, visit checkatrade.com/blog/news/checka-roman-trade