Exclusive interview: Tony Robinson on his Hackney past
Tony Robinson is about to catch a plane. But the actor and presenter has agreed to speak to the Gazette before jetting off on a trip that’s partly for work and partly about enjoying a well-deserved break.
“Cut me and I bleed Hackney,” the 65-year-old said, explaining why he made time in his busy schedule for the interview. “I have a huge affinity for the area.”
He took the unusual step of giving me his personal mobile number – and later his home telephone number – to make sure I could get hold of him, although he asked me to “destroy” it after I’d used it.
He has a cunning plan: “Eat it or flush it down the loo or something,” he joked, with the trademark wit that has made him one of the nation’s best-loved stars.
His career spans decades and he is known as an actor, comedian, presenter, and writer – but his big break was playing the hapless Baldrick in the popular sitcom series Blackadder, which debuted in 1983.
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BBC viewers enjoyed watching the long-suffering, intelligence-challenged Baldrick in his various incarnations, as descendents of the original medieval character struggled to serve their wily masters throughout history.
In real life, Tony can trace his family back to the early 18th century.
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“My family have lived in Hackney and Shoreditch for at least 300 years,” he said. “They’ve all been working class people – some of them very, very poor people.
“My great grandmother and great grandfather died in different Shoreditch workhouses.”
Tony’s first acting job was at the age of 12 when he played one of the urchins in Oliver! and said his proud parents “adored it”.
“It was ironic that was my first job,” he marveled. “My great grandparents died in the workhouse, and there am I, acting out a kid in the workhouse in the West End!”
Tony was born in Homerton Hospital and briefly lived in Amhurst Road, near Hackney Downs in Lower Clapton, before his family moved out to Redbridge.
“Older Gazette readers may well remember a newsagents called ‘Robinson’s’, which existed for the best part of half a century at the junction of Amhurst Road and Sandringham Road,” Tony said. “That belonged to my grandma, who was a woman with extraordinary energy.”
His father, Leslie, had attended Hackney Downs School and later became a governor there after enjoying a career in local government, including a stint as education officer for Hackney Council. Tony’s mum Phyllis, who was born in Dalston, was an audio typist and the couple shocked their friends by moving away from Hackney to buy their own home in South Woodford.
“They had a �987 mortgage, which was astronomical then, and everyone said they were completely barmy – but of course my dad was actually very prescient and could see which way the wind was blowing,” Tony laughed.
The couple went into the RAF during the war, where Tony’s dad became a keen pianist and his mum developed a love for amateur dramatics, although neither of them pursued their passions when the war finished.
“They wanted to go back to their semi-detached house and their normal way of life,” Tony said. “But I think that an awful lot of who I became was because I represented the part of my mum and dad that they sacrificed when the war was over.”
Tony left school at 16 and later moved back to Hackney when he won a place at drama school.
The borough today is almost unrecognisable from the Hackney that he knew when he was younger, he told the Gazette.
“What’s ironic is Shoreditch was the area you didn’t want to go into when I was a kid” he said. “Hackney seemed so posh in comparison! But now Shoreditch is the happening place.
“My parents, and certainly my grandparents, wouldn’t be able to believe what’s happened there. Shoreditch was always a running joke in our family – it was a place you never wanted to end up in!”
Tony, a well-known Labour Party activist, recently became a patron for the Hackney Community Law Centre, which provides free legal advice and representation for people at its base in Lower Clapton Road. He’s passionate about giving something back to the borough he loves: “Hackney has always been an area that’s struggled – there are always these areas in the inner city that never manage to completely rise out of these problems they’re set when they’re first created – that’s often due to geographical reasons or industrial reasons.
“Life has been difficult for a lot of people in Hackney for 100 years and I think a law centre is exactly the kind of sort of organisation that can provide a safety net for those people who would be otherwise be treated badly by society.
“So it’s very important to me – not only that the law centre exists, but also that it’s strong and robust and well funded.”
He’s angry that legal aid has been slashed, which could prevent people getting help with legal problems, such as issues with their housing, benefits, or immigration status. He believes the cuts “disproportionately affect those in society who have the most problems”.
He’s grateful his successful career affords him the opportunity to help, and says it all started with that first role in Oliver! which gave him the acting bug.
“I recognised that if I had any talents at all, they lay in that area,” he said.
“From a very early age I really enjoyed language and the emotion language generated. And I knew I had good comic timing and how to make people laugh.
“Also, I didn’t like formal education at all and it was a brilliant excuse not to have to go to school!”
Tony was a 38-year-old jobbing actor living in Bristol, with his wife and their young son and daughter, when he got his big break by winning the role of Baldrick.
He said: “The script was dropped through my letterbox – but what had happened first was that virtually every comic actor had turned it down because it was a very small part at first, and the pilot itself wasn’t great.
“It was a fantastic break – a lucky break in the way it used to happen in the old ‘40s Hollywood movies. You don’t think its real, but it certainly was for me.”
Why does he think he’s been so successful?
“I really am the last person who could answer that. I’ve been extremely lucky.”
But he admits to working incredibly hard at what he does.
He thinks he handled fame well because he was nearly 40 when he rocketed to stardom.
“It didn’t happen until relatively late,” he said. “I think by then I was fairly level-headed. I’d seen people die, I’d left my kids in the supermarket – all those things that really matter in your life had happened to me.
“Although I was very proud of being successful, I knew ultimately that it’s not Syria, is it? It’s important – but it’s not that important!”
Tony, who now lives in West London but also keeps a flat in Bristol, went on to write TV shows, including a popular children’s series called Maid Marion and her Merry Men, before concentrating on presenting, fronting shows such as The Worst Jobs in History.
Besides hosting Time Team, he has several other projects coming to fruition this year.
He’s written a new children’s book series, set to be published later in 2012, called Tony Robinson’s Weird World of Wonders about the Greeks, Romans Egyptians and the British Empire. He said: “Being someone who left school at 16 and not having gone to university, I’ve always been passionate about the fact that everybody should be able to learn stuff.
“You can see that in programmes like Time Team, but I believe in it passionately for children too.”
He’s also made a documentary for an Australian history channel about what the Olympics will mean for London’s East End.
“I think it’s fantastic,” he said, “and I have from day one.
“East London, as far as I know, is not an area that’s ever had a reasonable amount of investment and I think this is a once-in-a-200-year opportunity to get some new infrastructure.”
He admits there are some problems with the “business model”, but added: “I think it’s up to everybody in the East End to make the most of it once the Games are over.”
Having turned his hand to a number of different careers, he says it’s hard to choose what makes him proudest.
“I think I’m proudest of the variety,” he said. “I’ve climbed a number of mountains in different ranges, if you know what I mean. It’s that variety that I’m proud of.
“I’ve been extremely lucky,” he adds, for the second time.
And with that, he dashes off to catch his flight.