From Blackadder to chasing myths

SUSPICIOUS MINDS: Tony Robinson goes myth-busting in new series Gods and Monsters.
SUSPICIOUS MINDS: Tony Robinson goes myth-busting in new series Gods and Monsters.

The invented narrative of Tony Robinson's career begins with him as a leather-clad messenger complete with ill-fitting helmet and a tone that John Wayne found displeasing.

The legendary American action star promptly threw a skinny, spectacled Robinson into the River Thames. Almost 40 years on, in his new series Gods and Monsters, Robinson has found himself once again as the messenger.

This time, rather than a progressive fashion sense, he is bringing forth an attack on comfortably held ideas, modern-day sensibilities and, most of all, superstition.

"Since the birth of time, human beings have interpreted the phenomena around them as logically as they can," he says. "We do exactly the same thing now."

The actor turned broadcaster believes it is all too easy to dismiss the attempts of medieval conjurers to understand the world of earthquakes, volcanoes and illness. We from the future like to frame them as Baldrick-like bumblers or as Robinson calls them: "stupid, stupid people".

"Whereas we like to think that we know everything and are able to explain everything in a very sophisticated way."

Black holes, dark matter, Higgs Boson particles - people are obsessed with them, he says. These things that you can't see and only know about because someone you deem smarter than yourself has said it was so. For Robinson, it smacks of deja vu.

"I am sure in 100 years people will say, "Higgs Boson - how could you possibly have believed that?".

The answer, he says, is that we, like the conjurers of yore, have simply misinterpreted the data.

Gods and Monsters is Robinson's latest foray into the world of television. After 20 years digging up archaeological sites around Britain for Time Team, he has expanded his historical sleuthing skills into our superstitious ways.

From kings to commoners, they all believed that gods, witches, sprites and demons had a real role in our daily lives. To ignore their presence would have catastrophic consequences.

From human sacrifice through the stomach churning practice of supernatural medicine to horrifying witch hunts and exorcisms, Robinson takes a journey into humanity's darkest times.

Belief structures have always fascinated Robinson, who grew up in London and performed in his first play at the age of 12. He made, by all accounts, a compelling Artful Dodger.

The experience set him on a course for the stage, acting in countless plays and small productions before he found his way in 1975 on to the banks of the Thames to meet with John Wayne in Brannigan.

Then, at the age of 37, Robinson landed what newspapers fondly refer to as his "best known for" character.

Playing a pungent, filthy village idiot might not appeal as everyone's break-out role but it put Robinson on a path that he now has difficulty mapping.

Baldrick spanned hundreds of years of British history as the unenviable and opaquely imbecilic sidekick to Rowan Atkinson's Edmund Blackadder.

That lowly role is a far cry from the position he finds himself in now - leading and educating television audiences on the finer nuances of history.

"All freelancers say the same thing. They have no idea of what direction you are going to go in. Looking back 50 years you say how the hell did I end up here?"

Time Team was born in accidental circumstances when Robinson met some enthusiastic archaeologists at a local festival and got friendly with them.

"People assume I'm an archaeologist but I'm just a bloke."

A superstitious bloke?

"Do I believe in things or that people invent narratives about me to justify their belief? Of course."

Even the most apparently rational of us are superstitious. He cites an experiment he conducted during the filming of Gods and Monsters which included a small band of young scientists. They were brought into a room to roll some dice. Every one of them believed the experiment was about rolling the highest number. Instead Robinson looked to their pre-roll rituals. Some kissed the dice. Some shook their hand. Some blew on them. And these were scientists!

"To ask the question, 'Are you superstitious?' is not to understand the belief systems we are all riddled with," Robinson says.

And what if, 100 years from now, a similarly dedicated team of entertainment creators decides to turn their attention to the early 21st century? What will they think about us?

"They will see an enormous amount of our beliefs that we hold to be sensible will be viewed as completely mad."

Robinson points to the way we treat our elderly (he made a programme tracing the journey he and his mother took to find her a retirement home). He believes people of the future will see the way we lock our old people away as akin to the way we now view child labour. He points to the amount we invest in cancer research as opposed to Alzheimer's.

"They will see us as crazy."

He says this is not a pessimistic outlook - just one that acknowledges that in the distant future, people will know and understand far more than we ever did in this particular pocket of history.

Everything we know now may as well just be an invention.

Tony Robinson's Gods and Monsters, The History Channel, Monday, 7.30pm.


- Tony Robinson digs into our superstitious ways in his new series Gods and Monsters.

- Robinson is a prominent member of Britain's Labour Party at an executive level. "At first I wanted to be an MP but now I think it would be crap."

- Along with Rowan Atkinson and Tim McInnerny, he is one of only three actors to appear in all four Blackadder series.

- Since 1994, he has fronted more than 260 episodes of the documentary series Time Team.

Sunday Star Times