Tony Robinson digging around NZ

MARGARET AGNEW
Last updated 13:50 04/05/2013
Daniel Tobin

Tony Robinson talks about his love of history.

tony robinson
FAIRFAX NZ
EXTRAS: Tony Robinson uses a bit of local talent while filming in New Zealand.

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Tony Robinson, better known to children of the 80s as Baldrick, diminutive dimwitted sidekick in the cult Blackadder comedy series, and best known to armchair archaeology buffs as presenter of Time Team for the past 20 years, has been here filming segments for his latest history-delving TV show.

His new History channel documentary series Tony Robinson's Time Walks, takes the actor turned presenter to Australasia in search of the stories behind the cities.

A look at Christchurch's past means brushing up on the schoolgirls who murdered one of their mothers in 1954, as famously portrayed in Sir Peter Jackson's Oscar-nominated film, Heavenly Creatures, in 1994. So naturally, Robinson popped in to see the Oscar-winning director while he was in Wellington, and was presented with a bit of a surprise. More about that in a moment.

Robinson is stopping to film only in Wellington and Christchurch and he complains good-naturedly that there's no time off in his tight shooting schedule to explore further.

Considering that this is the man who has also fronted a series on The Worst Jobs in History, travelling the world isn't a bad way to earn a crust. He agrees.

"It's a fantastic job. I don't deserve it. I should be stoned and driven away for the fraud that I actually am."

So far his cunning plan for life after Time Team, the archaeological dig TV series which he has been presenting since 1994, seems to be working, although he confesses, "I've never had a plan. I've got an old hippy friend who says, 'Always plan, but never plan on your plans', and I think that is such cool advice.

"I've got this really cool relationship with the History Channel in Australia, where I come over once a year, normally through the English winter – and the English winter is nonstop this year – and I make a programme on Australian history."

The couple of series he made recently on Australian history became two of the most popular shows on the Sky channel, which has led to this upcoming series expanding to cover New Zealand.

"Personally, I would have wanted to do more than two [cities], so my hope is that everyone in New Zealand and Australia watches the New Zealand [segments] because then I'll be able to come back and do Dunedin and Invercargill. Haven't done Auckland yet or Palmerston North."

Is there much crossover between Time Team and Time Walks?

"I suspect it was a cunningly crafted name to make people think, 'Oh, that's the bloke who does Time Team'.

"I guess it has that relaxed style that people associate with me.

"The way you get that relaxed style is by putting in a lot of work beforehand. I do an enormous amount of research. The researchers do a lot as well.

"Before we do each story, I immerse myself in it and that way I can ask what may appear to be a faux-naive question or a left-field question and I'll know it's very pertinent to what's going on.

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"There are ways that Time Team is like Time Walks." He's about to say that if people hate archaeology, they might like Time Walks, as there's virtually no archaeology in it, but stops himself.

"We did do an archaeological story here where they knocked the theatre down after the earthquake and they found some good colonial archaeology, so I had a little rootle around. I couldn't resist it."

As well as rootling around historic sites, Robinson has written more than 20 children's books. "I think my skill, if I have one, is, even if I don't know about stuff, I know how to ask the right questions."

He's been interested in history since he was a child growing up listening to his father's war stories. "History for me has always been as natural as breathing."

New Zealand is a young country compared with those in the northern hemisphere. These lonely islands were settled by humans only about 700 years ago.

In Time Team, the archaeologists would find something like that, sneer and chuck it into the slag heap to keep on digging for something older, surely?

"I think there's a snobbery about very, very old things," Robinson says.

"Archaeology is about understanding the past and the past can be a fortnight ago. The past can certainly be World War II. The story of the European occupation of New Zealand can be vividly told in all the artefacts that were brought over with them. I think it's great archaeology."

An old friend of his from Time Team, Kiwi archaeologist Brigid Gallagher, told Robinson we don't value colonial archaeology enough.

He touches on the 1954 Parker-Hulme murder while in Christchurch, which led him to talk to director Peter Jackson.

"I'm probably the only actor under 5ft 6 in British Equity [the actors' union], who hasn't been employed by him, so I was able to give him a sound drubbing for that," Robinson says. He mock grimaces: "Someone I will now never ever work for.

"He's actually as sweet as pie. He's quite a shy guy, but we've got a lot of friends in common – Ian McKellen – people like that – Martin Freeman – all that lot, and a lot of interests in common.

"We're both a bit nerdy. We spent a lot of time talking about World War I submarines and World War II aeroplanes. It didn't seem like an interview. It just seemed like two nerdy blokes chatting about stuff they like."

Jackson is, like many Kiwis who were around in the 1980s, a fan of the Blackadder series and had a surprise in store for the actor. "Oh! That was so touching! At the end of the interview, on camera, he said to me, 'I've got something you might be interested in. You probably know I collect memorabilia of shows and films that I'm interested in. Well, look what I've got.' His PA came into the room and flicked off this dustsheet and he had Baldrick's costume from the second series of Blackadder."

Robinson says he "could still get that hat on", but struggled with the fit of the costume around his tummy. "Must have shrunk over the years in New Zealand weather," he mutters.

It was decades ago that he and Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and other famous actors starred in the Blackadder series, yet it remains the role he's best known for. It doesn't bother him that people still call him Baldrick.

"No, I love it. I was very lucky really. I'm a very old git. I'm 66 now and fame didn't hit me until I was about 38 or 39.

"To have been given 30 years where I'm the centre of attention is wonderful."

So what's what does the future hold for the history buff?

"Although Time Team has finished now, I've got four documentaries to make when I get back and, once I've had a week off to get over jet lag, I'll be making documentaries about British history for Time Team.

So despite being cancelled after 20 seasons, does Time Team continue in some way?

"At least the brand continues. The digging won't continue, but the documentaries will."

THE BALD(RICK) FACTS

- Tony Robinson was born on August 15, 1946, in London.

- He has two children from his first marriage and two granddaughters. His second wife, Louise Hobbs, whom he married in 2011 and is less than half his age, travelled with him to New Zealand and Australia for the recent shoot.

- Between 1983 and 1989, he played Baldrick in the BBC comedy series .

- Since 1994, he has presented archaeological dig series Team and since 2012 Robinson's Time Walks.

- He is an award-winning children's author of numerous books, including is Rubbish – A Beginner's Guide, co-written with Professor Mick Aston.

Season 19 of Team premieres on the History Channel on Monday. The next series of Robinson's Time Walks, featuring Wellington and Christchurch, is due to screen next year.

- The Dominion Post

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