TONY ROBINSON INTERVIEW
Tony Robinson hit the big time in the late 1980s as the man with the cunning plan in the enormously loved British TV comedy series, Blackadder. Since then, he's notched up 15 years (and counting) as the lynchpin of Channel Four's extraordinarily successful and long-running archeological doco series, Time Team.
Each episode of Time Team features Robinson accompanying a team of archeological experts to a dig, where they uncover surprises ranging through the sublime to the ridiculous, from Roman villas, to crashed fighter planes to suspicious couplings of location and artifact.
Currently airing on ABC1 at 6.10pm on Tuesdays, Time Team has grabbed a dedicated cult following in Australia.
In November, the DVD, The Best of Time Team releases in Australia. Featuring some of Robinson's favourite episodes - he's one of the series' producers as well as presenter - the three-disc box set promises to introduce this immensely popular British series to a whole new set of fans.
Tony Robinson spoke about Time Team's success to Femail.com.au
Q: Have you been surprised at the longevity of Time Team, or did you always think it was going to be a stayer? 15 years is an incredibly long time for TV and as you've described it, especially for a TV series about a bunch of hippies going around digging things up things. It's riveting.
Tony Robinson: I think it always surprises you when you make a piece of television that people seize on. Most of us in television are freelancers and every job we do we want to make it the best of its kind in the world. And most of the time people go 'so what' and maybe go out and get a beer and come back and watch a bit of it, or maybe just change the channel.
And just occasionally, and it's happened to me two or three times now, you make something and everyone goes, 'Oh, wow, that's fantastic'. But it's a bit frustrating actually, because you want to turn around and say, 'You think that's fantastic? Well, what about that thing that I made last week?'You make something and just for some alchemic reason it just touches the zeitgeist, where people happen to be at the time.
That's what happened with Time Team in England. Whether that's about, in a pretentious way, the fact that we are such a fractured society and we have a yearning to create a common heritage, or whether it's just because people like to see other people poking around in a field, I really don't know. I'm probably the least well-placed in the world to analyse that properly.
Q: I think there are a couple of things you can attribute the success to: everyone likes to think there's treasure in their backyard, and also because of your role. You ask the questions that we would like to be asking those guys. Have you ever thought about what the formula is?
Tony Robinson: It's one of those things that I don't want to examine too closely because it might break in my hand if I do.
When we first started, if I thought it was going to be an Anglo-Saxon dig, and remember, we don't even know what period we're digging for because you've just got to get what's down there, but I used to do a lot of homework so that I could ask the appropriate questions on the day.
After two of three years the other producers said to me, 'We can smell the research in your questions. Now you know a little bit about archeology, don't do any homework at all'. Which is of course the thing that everybody wants to hear. 'Just come to it fresh and ask the questions you want to ask.'
That's what I've done ever since. It's very liberating but it's also quite challenging because you've got to keep fresh eyes and after you've done archeology for 15 years you do know quite a lot. You don't realise you know quite a lot, but you do. So I've always got to look at it fresh through innocent eyes and that's the challenge for me during every Time Team.
Q: How do you pick a best of after 15 years of TV?
Tony Robinson: My choice for this was the Spitfire program. I chose it to prove that archeology doesn't have to be really old. An archeological story begins the moment you drop something out of your pocket.
With the Spitfire story, I wanted to tell a story that happened only a handful of years before I was born partly because it's dramatic and the Spitfire is terribly iconic as far as the British are concerned - it's all about the defence of our shores during the last war - but also because my dad worked on the Hurricanes and Spitfires, not I hasten to say as a fighter pilot, but he was one of the guys who pumped up the tyres and wiped the windscreens and changed the oil and so many of my childhood stories that I heard from my dad have been from that time. It's a very important time for me.
Q: Is there a general need for these stories?
Tony Robinson: What's happened in England now, and I don't know if it's true in Australia, but there's been a massive resurgence of interest in the First World War and I think it's because there's a sense that so much was sacrificed by so many people in the First World War, but also that the last people that fought in that war have departed this earth or will do so in the next couple of years. There's a great yearning for those stories.
That hasn't happened with the Second World War and I think that's because there's still an awful lot of people around who remember it only too well. I suspect that in a few years' time, there's going to be a huge resurgence of interest.
Q: What is it about the popular telling of history, is it because we want to have a sense of belonging?
Tony Robinson: I can't speak for other people but all that I can say from my own point of view is, how do I know who I am unless I know where I came from? For me, essentially history is attractive because there are so many good stories in it, and then when you dig something out of the ground, wow, that's really touching and dramatic, but the real function of history for me is so I can know who I am.
The Best of Time Team will be available on DVD exclusively at ABC Stores on November 8, 2008.