British Archaeology, no 12, March 1996: Interview

Simon Denison talks to Tony Robinson

The man with a passion from Time Team

Ask anyone in Britain to name an archaeologist, and most would probably name Tony Robinson - an actor best known for his slightly manic comedy roles who left school at 16, but who happens to present Channel 4's hugely popular Time Team (now filming its fourth series). It's no wonder, perhaps, that so many genuine archaeologists feel rather snooty about him.

But what is he really like? Is that on-screen persona of eager-punter-seeking-truth just a big act, or is it the real thing? As he might have said himself on TV, `let's go and find out . . . '

The scene of this interview is his large terraced house in a smart part of Bristol. The house is full of curios and eastern works of art, including a statue of the Indian elephant-god Ganesha, an Indonesian carved wooden frieze, a chrome telephone and a model of a 1930s racing car. A real Mercedes sports car is parked somewhere outside - all fruits of his new-found status as a Successful Actor, which followed the 1980s TV comedy series Blackadder. Closing our ears to his teenage son's rock music blasting up from the basement (there is also a teenage daughter somewhere), we sit in his study. Or rather, I sit. He perches on the arms of chairs, slumps back into the seats, jumps up, moves around, gesticulates and gets very excited.

`I quite understand that I get up the nose of a lot of academics,' he said, `and I'm secretly quite pleased that I do, because I have a very different attitude to them. They're hedging all this wonderful stuff around with so many qualifications, and with a choice of language that seems to me deliberately designed to exclude rather than include.'

This strength of feeling comes from his sense that, as a child actor from the age of 12, he missed out on the formal learning necessary for decoding academic obfuscations. He said: `It wasn't until I was well into my 20s that I thought a key way I can extend my being is to know more about stuff. It was such a revelation, and because of that I feel very passionately about it, and that probably comes through in what I do.'

`I do genuinely feel,' he went on, `that I'm a bloke who had a high IQ at school but didn't have an education, and I'm upset by people who (a) appear to think they're qualitatively better than me, and (b) who through their choice of language prevent me, and people like me, from getting close to things that are our birthright.'

So who then is this man with a passion? Tony Robinson, born in East London, will be 50 this year; and with long straggly hair, a pierced ear and an easy-going manner, he admits to being `an old hippy'. But he still seems to have the energy and ebullient curiosity of a man half his age. In addition to acting and presenting, he also directs and writes (including 16 children's books to date, together with numerous dramas and documentaries), and he seems to bring the same level of enthusiasm to the lot. `At the moment I'm making a video about the prostate gland, which really is fascinating. Say that to most people and they fall about laughing, but it genuinely is,' he said, pacing about the room to explain why.

He admits to being `a bit of a boy', who rode a motorbike for 20 years before graduating recently onto fast sports cars - but the admission brings him sudden embarrassment. Why? (Long pause.) `Er, it's that I'm worried about giving away that part of myself that's such a boy, such an irresponsible boy. Because I know that's what I look like, and so much of my life I've tried to prove to people that I have weight. You ask me about cars, and suddenly I feel that gives so much away.'

Despite his passion for popularising knowledge, and for clarity and boldness of expression, Tony Robinson says he does `genuinely sympathise' with the academics on Time Team and elsewhere who feel guarded about their interpretations until all the evidence has been gathered, to avoid being `shot down in the academic press' if they should turn out wrong.

He also admits to having learned an enormous amount about archaeology as Time Team has progressed, and now goes into programmes with minimal prior briefing. As a result his questions are now the genuine questions of an `informed punter' (as he puts it). But he insists that the archaeologists on Time Team have learned just as much as he has. `At the start, they knew as little about TV as I knew about archaeology, but as each series goes on they get better at it, just as I get better at it. And for all of us, that's a process of getting rid of preconceptions.'

So for all those Serious People who still feel snooty about Tony Robinson, now perhaps is the time to put those preconceptions away.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1996