Tony Robinson is one of a handful of lucky people for whom the past year hasn’t been so bad. The Blackadder star and his wife Louise adopted a West Highland Terrier from the RSCPCA a few days before the first lockdown, and they’ve spent their time falling helplessly in love.
“We drove to Derby to pick her up, I took her in my arms and I wasn’t going to let her go for the rest of her life, apart from for the occasional wee,” he smiles. Throw in a home fitness regime that has seen him lose two stone, and the 74-year old is full of vim and vigour.
News that his critically-acclaimed ’90s children’s show Maid Marian is about to land on BritBox has put a huge smile on his face too. “It’s quite extraordinary that something I wrote all those years ago is getting a second life. It won a BAFTA, but outside of children’s television nobody knew about it,” he tells RadioTimes.com exclusively.
“Now all those kids who were so loyal to it first time round are mums and dads. In the last few years there’s been a strong demand to bring it back, so that their kids can see it. It’s a dream come true for me.”
The series, based on the Robin Hood legend, makes Maid Marian the leader of Sherwood Forest’s infamous outlaws. Robinson, who plays The Sheriff of Nottingham, came up with the premise while standing on his daughter’s playground.
“Laura was a feisty 10-year old when I wrote the series,” he recalls. “I remember watching her play football, which she was very bad at, but she’d made herself captain of the team – she spent all of break time berating the boys who chased her like a swarm of bees,” he laughs. “I turned to her mum and said, ‘If Laura had been around at the time of Robin Hood, it wouldn’t be Robin who was in charge.’ And that little observation created the series.”
While the show is finally available to binge on BritBox, Robinson hasn’t finished with the idea, and is keen to make a 21st century version. “I’m in the early stages of talks about rebooting the series, creating another Marian for our time. Hopefully in another couple of years that dream will come true, but it won’t be the same show – it will need to be as different as Fleabag is to Hancock’s Half Hour.”
On the subject of reboots, speculation is swirling again that beloved series Blackadder could return, after Rowan Atkinson told Radio Times magazine it might. “I think it ought to be possible to come up with something,” teases Robinson.
“Rowan always said to me that if there was to be another Blackadder it shouldn’t necessarily be a television series, we should find another guise for it. It was absolutely wonderful being part of Blackadder; the pilot script was ghastly but I knew if I could work with that group of people, I would have something to contribute. It worked beyond my wildest dreams. Although I wasn’t able to offer the sharp intellect of Stephen Fry or Ben Elton, I was 10 years older than them and had an enormous amount of experience I could bring to the table.”
We suggest that Baldrick could have a cunning plan in the fight against COVID-19, to which long-time Labour supporter Robinson can’t resist a dig. “There are far too many idiots much more impressive than Baldrick who are attempting to do just that, Baldrick would have to hand that over to the masters of idiocy!” he laughs.
Robinson’s career pre-Blackadder is often overlooked, but saw him work with icons of stage and screen, like Judy Garland and John Wayne. The latter is referenced in his new Channel 5 series, The Thames with Tony Robinson, in which he explores the importance of London’s famous river.
“I go back to the spot where John pushed me into the Thames for a film called Brannigan,” he tells us. “The water is clear now, but at that time it was absolutely disgusting in those docks, I can’t tell you what I saw floating by. It took three takes to film, and each was worse than the previous one. There was a Chinese meat ship cleaning out its holds just opposite us…”
From fragrant encounters with Hollywood stars, to digging up buried treasure, Robinson’s career took a turn in 1994 when he was asked to present a new series called Time Team, about one of his private passions. “When Channel 4 were thinking about casting me it wasn’t because of my knowledge of archaeology, they weren’t aware of that,” he explains.
“In those early days of the channel, they wanted really bizarre presenters and thought it would be funny if the bloke who played Baldrick did a series about a discipline so arcane that no-one can even spell it. It blew them away that I was actually interested in the subject! It’s an expensive show to make, it would have to be rethought now, but it could be brought back. Of course, I’d fancy hosting, but they might want someone younger and female, and if so I would welcome that – I’d just like to see the series have some more life.”
It’s no accident that Time Team ran for 20 years with Robinson at the helm. Be it the association with Baldrick, or his natural warmth, he’s able to instantly connect with viewers. “I do think I have a telly persona,” he says. “I’m very fortunate that most of the characters I’ve played have been either very nice or very stupid, so nobody calls me Mr Robinson or Sir Tony, they just call me Tone. It’s lovely they should feel like that.”
As with all actors, many of Robinson’s projects are on pause until the pandemic ends, and he admits to watching “enough Netflix to keep them going for 30 years”. But he’s content to sit and wait. “We’re filming a second series of the Thames documentary as soon as we can. Most likely mid-March, but who cares? I can stay at home with my dog and I know I can earn a living when this ends.”
Maid Marian and Her Merry Men will be available on BritBox as part of the Old School Collection from 7th January. The Thames with Tony Robinson airs Wednesdays at 9pm on Channel 5.