Tony Robinson on the history wars: ‘I wouldn't have thrown Colston’s statue in the dock’

The Blackadder star is ready for battle on the culture war's frontlines. But first, he's got bigger ambitions

Historian and TV presenter Tony Robinson
Historian and TV presenter Tony Robinson Credit: Paul Marc Mitchell

Sir Tony Robinson has a cunning plan. “I wouldn’t advocate painting it like Alton Towers. But occasionally it would be fun to use it as a piece of public art.” 

The object of Robinson’s enthusiastic attentions is - what else? - Stonehenge. Landmark cultural icon and 5,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site. And now, if Robinson gets his way, alfresco crèche. “One day a year, I would love to gather school children in the middle and project the Flintstones," he says. 

“We have a great sense of yearning about [the stones]. They’re a lonely, Bryonic statement on Salisbury plain. But when it was created, Stonehenge would have been like a fairground; it would have buzzed and hummed.” 

Actually, his “fantasy” isn’t too far off the mark. On December 1, the Sarsen stones wore a striking new guise: they had the faces of eight "heritage heroes" projected on them. The stunt was unveiled by Robinson, and funded by the National Lottery, in recognition of the work of these volunteers in keeping the nation’s heritage sites accessible during the pandemic. 

“The creation of the English country park was one of our great contributions to world culture,” Robinson argues. “From the time of the Industrial Revolution, we cherished our green spaces. But in my lifetime, I’ve noticed them becoming ropier and ropier. They haven’t been a priority for governments or individuals; we lost our way after the Second World War.” 

Images of eight 'heritage heroes' were projected on the Sarsen stones on 1 December  Credit: Matt Alexander/PA Wire

Covid-19, though, has shifted the dial. “Almost everyone has started re-engaging with their heritage. I hope we’re at the beginning of a renaissance of our open spaces - people aren’t going to forget these years quickly.” 

Robinson, 74, is to TV history what Attenborough is to nature programming. Except it’s hard to picture Attenborough, even in his game younger days, hunting bloodsucking worms as Robinson did in The Worst Jobs in History. The role in question was leech collector; Robinson inhabited it with evident glee. 

In fact, much of Robinson’s output has traded on the grubby-faced reputation of his most famous role: Baldrick, Blackadder’s dim-witted sidekick, in Richard Curtis and Ben Elton's romping historical comedy. Even Time Team, the gonzo archeology programme which ran from 1994-2014, and was perhaps Robinson’s most successful post-Blackadder outing, had a certain pratfall briskness. Occasionally, the team would unearth something spectacular in three days; more often, they simply dug down to find more mud. 

Robinson is an amiable presence over the phone from his home in south London, tacking winningly from profanity to profundity. The only time he clams up is when I ask him about the controversial plans to dig a traffic tunnel under Stonehenge, a move campaigners believe will do irreparable harm. “I don’t want this interview to be about roadworks on the A303,” he replies with uncharacteristic tartness. 

He’s happier, though, elbowing into the scrum around Britain’s historical artefacts. It's been a year in which statues were hauled down, and the National Trust released a report into the colonial and slavery connections of its properties; riot helmets, not tweed jackets, have often seemed more appropriate attire for historians. 

Edward Colston's statue was thrown into Avonmouth docks on 25 May by BLM protestors Credit: PA

“Personally I wouldn’t have chucked Colston’s statue in the dock,” he says. “But he was a slaver. He made a huge amount of money which went into the wonderful architecture of Bristol, including the house I lived in for 20 years. 

“I would love to see the original statue and the one they put up afterwards [to Black Lives Matter protester, Jen Reid] next to each in the museum. That way they can themselves become part of our culture.” 

The bruising debate around these objects should be welcomed, he says. The National Trust’s report is an important part of challenging the innate “conservatism of the heritage sector".  

He notes: “Statues, museums and organisations can’t stay in aspic. It simply won’t work as people’s understanding of history is moving too fast. It makes sense to rethink and reimagine. We got to have these controversies.” 

Robinson as Baldrick, pictured with Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder in Blackadder II Credit: BBC

Who is included in the nation’s culture - and who is left in the cold - isn’t just academic for Robinson. He grew up in a working-class household in east London, and left school without A-Levels. Over the next two decades, he threw himself into acting and presenting, leaping from job to job on the treadmill of repertory theatre and children’s TV. 

Blackadder’s success was transformative. But Robinson admits the show didn’t hit its stride until the second season, when it was zapped into life by Miranda Richardson’s performance as the murderously petulant Queenie and some much-need tweaks were made to the premise. These included switching Baldrick and Blackadder’s roles - Baldrick was now the idiot; Blackadder the highly-sexed schemer. 

The set must have been marvellous fun, I hazard. But Robinson gently corrects me: “It was hard work. We were all paranoid perfectionists. Walking up from the dressing rooms to the studio on Saturday night, we were wracked with doubt: ‘Is this going to fly?’” 

Robinson as Private Baldrick in Blackadder Goes Forth Credit: Television Stills

Robinson was conscious of the differences between himself and Richard Curtis’s gilded gang of younger cast members. 

“By definition, I was an outsider: I left school at sixteen. I’d been working as an actor since I was twelve, and I was now 38,” he says. “They were confident Oxbridge arrivistes, at the centre of the business. Their attitude to the BBC was the exact opposite of mine: I was peak-cap tugger. They strolled inside, while I was on the outside wondering if I would be allowed in.” 

Nonetheless, he still feels a "deep, shared fondness" for the cast. "It was a marriage of minds. I was so beguiled by these people and their talent. It was heaven.” 

Robinson has always been “opinionated and politically engaged”. Indeed, his Twitter feed is deliciously forthright, blasting Brexit and the Government’s fumbling of the pandemic: “the foolishness of Boris and the idiocy of Hancock".  

But he is worried, too, by the creeping intolerance of Leftist ideologies. He retweeted the columnist Suzanne Moore’s essay about why she was hounded from The Guardian for wading into the Trans debate; and he has rallied behind JK Rowling who has been deluged with online hate for discussing the same issue. 

“I am passionate about free speech,” he argues. “It defends our liberty, and I’m very unhappy with the idea that, just because someone is offended by what I say, I shouldn’t be allowed to say it. [Cancelling people] is walking the path of the devil.” 

We need to get better at adjusting “the tenor of the debate”, he says. 

“Cultural appropriation has become a buzzword. It covers such a vast panoply of ideas. The Benin Bronzes ought to be returned; I’m not sure I shouldn’t be allowed to wear a silly hat at a party. The same word shouldn’t be used to discuss the same issues.” 

He’s been a Labour member all his adult life - only leaving in 2019 as a protest at the party’s failure to tackle anti-semitism. Robinson has Jewish heritage; and he believed the “unforgivable racism” of anti-semitism ought to have been thoroughly uprooted. 

“There were huge dangers in Jeremy’s leadership," he notes. "It was vitally important we took him on swiftly. I thought: ‘You’re mucking around with this great organisation.’” 

But what does Robinson - actor and presenter, intrepid historian, scourge of woolly thinking - feel about the most controversial issue of the moment? What’s his take on The Crown? 

He lights up: “It’s one of the finest crafted pieces of British culture I’ve seen in a long time. It’s up there with the Monarchy itself in terms of its craft.” 

With manners like that, it looks as though the enoblement is in the bag for Robinson. Arise, Lord Baldrick?