Tony Robinson: 'Having Baldrick being really stupid was comedy gold'
It's been 34 years since Tony Robinson first appeared in Blackadder. As Yesterday screens all four series of the show, he reflects on why it's all still so fresh today
Tony Robinson is on sparkling form when we meet - chatty, quick-witted and ebullient, as you'd expect - and he puts it down to having had his coffee: "It's like cocaine for the older man, isn't it?" We're discussing the enduring appeal of Blackadder, the TV comedy that made his name and that is being celebrated by Yesterday, which is showing all four series over Easter.
He says the series' timelessness stems partly from it being historical. "You don't look at a Holbein and go, 'God that's dated', do you?" he asks. "You think it's a Tudor painting - and likewise with our Tudor stuff."
The actor produces a newspaper article with a picture showing the cast of the second series - Rowan Atkinson, Tim McInnerny, Miranda Richardson and Stephen Fry - all posing together.
"The wigs, the costumes, each individual person looks like someone out of a Holbein, don't they?" he asks. "It's quite extraordinary. The look of it doesn't date."
The laughs don't date either. A quick search for clips online shows that Robinson's lines as Edmund Blackadder's dim-witted sidekick, Baldrick, seem as fresh now as they were when the four series aired in the 80s.
"Well that's the kind of comedy I had worked towards for years," he says. "I was really interested in trying to do stuff that was as spare as possible, which was one of the reasons the notion of the white-faced clown was very much part of Baldrick, as far as I was concerned.
"The audience had to do the work in their imagination. Who is this person? Why is he like is? Is he actually very smart and avoiding problems? Is he as stupid as he appears?"
In the first series, set in 1485, the dynamic between Blackadder, played by Rowan Atkinson, and Baldrick was slightly different - Blackadder coming across as far more bumbling and Baldrick far less of an idiot than in later incarnations.
Robinson, who received a knighthood in 2013 and turned 70 last August, explains the "gear change" for Baldrick was driven by Ben Elton, who came on board as a writer, joining Richard Curtis and producer John Lloyd, for the second series.
"Although he was a fan of the first series, he recognised its shortcomings, which were legion, and said that to give the storyline a dynamic, you needed a Blackadder who was smart when surrounded by his own people, but when he transferred that smartness, those cunning plans as it were, to the court, he was completely at sea," Robinson says.
"To do that, you had to make sure the people in the kitchen with him were virtually brain-dead to make him look better. Once in that position, we realised what comedy gold there was to mine by having (Baldrick) really stupid."
The actor never tired of delivering Baldrick's famous catchphrase, "I've got a cunning plan". "Once you were aware that was like a little comedy hand grenade, how could you not want to say it?" he explains.
He's also quick to burst another myth - none of the times Baldrick was hit by Blackadder hurt a bit.
"Rowan was such a pussycat," Robinson says. "If you look very closely, all of those swipes he took are miles away from me. It was me who was going, 'Come closer, come closer', and he didn't want to because he didn't want to hurt me."
The cunningly named fourth series, Blackadder Goes Forth, was set in the First World War and poignantly ended with the episode Goodbyeee, in which Blackadder and co, now serving in the trenches, go over the top.
"I think there was some trepidation when they came to transmission that there might be a negative reaction," Robinson recalls. "I can remember we held our breath slightly, that we might get some adverse comments, but it didn't happen.
"I think we were very confident because we all knew that we wanted to take the mickey not out of the people who died, but of the madness that led to those people dying. Nobody had a clue what to do other than throw men at the bombs."
While it was well-received, the idea that it should be shown in schools as an aid to teach history was not so well-received by former Education Secretary Michael Gove - and Robinson admits they had a "row" about it.
"He thought it was inappropriate that Blackadder Goes Forth should be incorporated into teaching the First World War, which I thought was a stupid observation," he says.
"People can think what they like. Mind you, shortly after that he was removed as Minister of State for Education and is now not even in the Cabinet, so I think I won!"
London-born Robinson honed his craft from a young age. At just 13, he appeared on stage in the original West End version of Oliver! as a member of Fagin's gang, before training at the Central School of Speech and Drama and setting up his own theatre company, as well as small stints on TV.
When Blackadder came calling, he was 38 and very much in parenting mode (he has a son and a daughter from a relationship that lasted 17 years), so success was secondary.
Robinson, who's been happily married to Louise Hobbs, 36, since 2011 and has two grandchildren, thinks we're living in a golden age of television, with "more people writing great parts for unstereotypical women", but doesn't worry about parts for older actors drying up. "I'm offered more work than I'm able to do, so how could I possibly stand on a soap box?" he asks.
As for whether another series of Blackadder might be possible in future, he says: "My guess is that the ship has sailed."
- Blackadder Season starts on Yesterday on Monday