Best known for playing Baldrick in hit British sitcom Blackadder, Sir Tony Robinson is hard man to pigeonhole.
An avowed polymath, the actor-turned-presenter-turned-author-turned-activist has fronted everything from Time Team to a History of Britain, written a ton of children’s books, and spent several years on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party.
After losing both his parents to dementia, Robinson became an ambassador for Alzheimer’s Society, and during lockdown, has been helping raise money for their emergency fund. Here, he looks back on his varied career, what he’s learnt in lockdown and the devastating impact of Alzheimer’s…
How did your relationship with Alzheimer’s Society begin?
“Both my parents had Alzheimer’s, so for about 15 years, Alzheimer’s was the main thing in my life, apart from my work and my kids. Towards the end of my mum’s life, I made a documentary called Me And My Mum around the issues surrounding dementia and care homes, and the reaction was extraordinary.
“I got so many heartfelt, handwritten letters from carers and people with dementia, saying that their situation was ghastly, and something had to be done. So, when the Alzheimer’s Society got in touch, I was more than pleased to be an ambassador. When you have a terrible experience, there’s very little you can do on your own – large organisations can do a lot more.”
What advice would you give to someone whose relative is diagnosed with dementia?
“You have to look after yourself, and let other people help – you’re not going to be any good to anyone if you’re exhausted. I remember when my mum had problems, I thought I was the only person in the world dealing with them, and it made me feel useless and inept.
“One of the most important things Alzheimer’s Society has done is set up a support line for carers and people with dementia, and you can call up and find support virtually anywhere in country.”
How difficult is it for someone with dementia during lockdown?
“It’s a terrible time – how can you look through a window at your loved one, and say I’m not allowed in? People with dementia have a tendency to feel frightened and isolated, and now they actually are isolated, and they don’t understand why they can’t see their family.
“The people who look after our elderly are paid very poorly and there’s a huge turnover of staff, so carers don’t have time to learn particular needs. Our care service needs to be integrated with our NHS – every care minister, Tory, Lib Dem and Labour, from the last 20 years has said so.”
Have things changed since you were dealing with dementia?
“When my mum and dad had Alzheimer’s, I thought technological advances would solve everything by the time I was old enough to have dementia myself. It’s like with Covid – we all thought there would be a quick fix, and now people are saying we may never find a vaccine.
“Public understanding of dementia has improved, but in the long term, it’s very important we remember that the people who suffered most during Covid were the elderly.”
How has lockdown treated you?
“I had probably my best year for a decade coming up, and in one day of telephone calls, all my future work disappeared. If that was just me, I’d have been mortified, but everyone is in the same boat.
“Three days before lockdown, my wife found a rescue dog at the RSPCA in Derby, so we picked up a westie called Holly Berry who has transformed our lives. I’ve also been exercising – I’ve lost 22lbs, and it was 22lbs I needed to lose – and like so many people, I’ve done a huge amount of gardening. There’s a great pleasure in being around long enough to see bulbs turn into flowers.
“I’m very privileged – I’m not looking after an elderly person, I have a small garden to potter around in, and I haven’t got three kids under the age of five. I’m not complacent about it – I feel bloody grateful.”
Have you been doing anything else different during lockdown?
“This is so poncy, but every week I’ve been reading a classic author whose books I’ve never tackled. Last week it was TS Eliot, this week it’s Virginia Woolf, and next week it will be Proust.
“I’ve been tweeting that I don’t understand Eliot’s The Waste Land at all, and the support from the virtual community has been Twitter at its best. When you’re as opinionated as I am, you sometimes get clobbered on social media – but I kind of enjoy that as well.”
What have you missed most?
“I know this one – going out to get fish and chips.”
You’ve always been political – how did you get into activism?
“I’ve always wanted to end my days having tried to make things better. I don’t want to lie on my death bed moaning about how bad things were, and realising I hadn’t done anything about it. I still believe, as I did when I was 13, that though we can do little on our own, together we can move mountains.”
Are you hopeful about the future?
“All we can say at the moment is that the country is going to be very different – through financial problems, our relationship with Europe, and the fact that we may have to live with this disease for a long time. We can choose optimism and make the best of that, or we can choose pessimism and say ‘everything is going to be awful’. It’s about where we direct our energies.”
Professionally, you’ve done many different things – is that deliberate?
“I’m very much a generalist – I think the world is an extraordinary place, and watching those bulbs grow into seedlings just doubled that belief. The luxury of my life has been that people have consistently asked me to do lots of different things, and when I’m part way through one thing, I’m always thinking ‘I wonder what will be next’.”
Is there anything in particular you’re most proud of?
“Of course Blackadder, and being surrounded by those fantastically gifted and articulate young men, all of whom were a decade younger than me. Time Team was fun too, because although I knew about archaeology as an amateur, it was great to be planted in the middle of this discipline so difficult, most people can’t even spell it.
“I’m very proud of writing and performing in Maid Marian And Her Merry Men, because that was very much my show. When it got to the top of the charts, it was as though everything I’d learned on my journey through writing and television had come to some sort of fruition.”
Your work since Blackadder has been more serious – did Baldrick give people the wrong end of the stick?
“Maybe 20 years ago, but now the people I worked with then – Stephen Fry, Griff Rhys Jones, Martin Clunes, Joanna Lumley – are all documentary-makers too. It’s no surprise they’re good at it – they know how to improvise on screen.”
Do you ever get tired of being asked about Blackadder?
“No. I was 38 before it even started, and it transformed my life, my ability to get work, and people’s attitude towards me. And people didn’t think, ‘Oh my God, he plays Baldrick, he must be an arse’ – they thought I must have gone to Oxford or Cambridge like my colleagues. I never did, so if anything, it went the other way.”
If you’ve been affected by Alzheimer’s, contact the Dementia Connect support line on 0333 150 3456, or visit alzheimers.org.uk.