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Interviews in Sherwood

TONY ROBINSON

Conducted and transcribed by Allen W. Wright

Tony Robinson as The Sheriff of NottinghamTony Robinson is a British actor and writer. He's probably best known around the world for his role as Baldrick, the somewhat dense comic sidekick on the various Blackadder series. Currently he's working on a number of projects, most notably Time Team -- a popular archaeology TV series. Mr. Robinson has long been interested in archaeology and serves as the president of the Young Archaeologists' Club.

He is also the vice-president of UK Equity, the British actors' union.

Most relevant for a site on Robin Hood, Mr. Robinson created the popular British comedy Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. Maid Marian ran for four seasons between 1989 and 1994. In the show, Marian was the brains of the outlaw gang while Robin Hood was a cowardly, fashion-obsessed twit. Mr. Robinson also played the Sheriff of Nottingham in the series, a villain whose plans were far more cunning than those of Baldrick.

In 2003, Tony Robinson turned his attention to the Robin Hood legend once again in his new book In Search of British Heroes and the television documentary Robin Hood: Fact or Fiction.

This interview took place over a transatlantic phone call on March 18, 2000. I'd like to extend my deepest thanks to Mr. Robinson for agreeing to this interview.

AWW:    How did you come up with the idea for Maid Marian and Her Merry Men?

TR:        I had a daughter at the time who was probably about 7 or 8 years old, and none of the heroines on television seemed anything like her, or anything like anything that she would empathize with. She liked watching the A-Team, Dukes of Hazzard, those kinds of series. And I had been asked whether I would write something on one of the English myths. And just one day watching her playing with the other kids, it occurred to me that if she had been in Robin Hood's gang, she would have been the one who was running it, not Robin Hood. And really I just think once I got the initial idea, the whole thing sprang to life.

AWW:    Was one of the influences on your series Robin of Sherwood? Because in the early episodes -- which is all that's available on video here -- there certainly seems like there are a few gags pointed at it.

TR:       No, because it was prior to Robin of Sherwood. You mean the movie? (Referring to Kevin Costner's Prince of Thieves.)

AWW:    No, I meant the television series with Michael Praed from the early 1980s.

TR:        Yeah, just barely. There's a slight parody in one episode, isn't there? "The White Knight -- The Whitish Knight" of that sort of Clannad style music. I wouldn't say it was an enormous influence, any more than that of how the whole kind of cultural gamut was an enormous influence. I was writing for an audience who would be aware of so much television and so much music. What I wanted to do was to write a series that they could feel very much part of, where the jokes were very much part of their world. And so there's an awful lot of satire in there. Sort of sociological and political and media.

AWW:    In some ways it seems a bit like pantomime in bringing in a lot of the modern references to classic stories, like modern topical references and then the music that runs through the series.

TR:        Well, I think probably rather than saying it's like pantomime I think one could say that it comes from the same kind of inspiration as pantomime originally came from, or commedia dell'arte or any of the broader satirical strokes that had been created in the European tradition. I think when you're using an old -- an ancient narrative to illuminate how we live our lives today, then as a storyteller, you're constantly playing with the tension between who we are now and what things were like then. And that's what pantomime does, isn't it?

AWW:    How did you feel about playing the sheriff?

Tony Robinson as the SheriffTR:        Having played Baldrick in the Blackadder for so long, and it being such a sweet and charming part, the last thing that I wanted to do was play a nice guy anymore. I am firmly of the opinion that it is the baddies who are the most fun to play. I just finished playing Judas Iscariot for the BBC which I thoroughly enjoyed.

                Also, the reason why I wanted to be in it was because that was the cheapest way for me to be around on set all the time. One of the problems of the writer is that you get paid for the hours that you spend at home and you don't really get paid for being down on the set. So, I wanted to be down on the set to see how it would develop. And I felt probably as I was likely to be the most experienced actor there that I ought to give myself a part which as it were was the engine of the comedy -- the person who would give it its edge and drive it.

AWW:    When you said you were playing Judas Iscariot, you have an interest in Biblical lore as I recall.

TR:        That's right, yes.

AWW:    Where there any funny stories in the filming of the series?

TR:        Oh god, it's so long ago now. It's hard to remember. There's absolutely nothing that springs to mind at the moment. Can't help you there.

AWW:    What are some of your thoughts on the Robin Hood legend in general?

Tony Robinson with Wayne Morris (Robin) and Kate Lonergan (Marian)TR:        I think one of the fascinating things about old narratives that survive is that they are constantly changing yet somewhere deep inside them they always remain the same. And I think that the successful retellings are the ones that hold onto the spirit of the original narrative but find a contemporary vocabulary. It doesn't mean they have to use modern words but a contemporary notion of vocabulary. And was certainly what I tried to do with Robin Hood.

                I've always felt terribly sympathetic to the image of a noble man who understands the difference between right and wrong. Who finds himself in the middle of a tyrannical society, and is forced to go into hiding as to hold onto the key of goodness and to surround himself with like-minded people, who he can organize to keep the memory of goodness alive. And in a way all I've really done is shifted the axis so that it's Marian who actually does that. And she does it in a very contemporary way. And like most of us trying to do that nowadays she doesn't do it terribly well and finds that an awful lot of the people who she's having to work with are grossly inefficient and not as bright as her and don't understand what she's saying and get things wrong. But that's life.

AWW:    Well, even in a lot of the older legend compared to, I think, virtually any other legend, Marian's a very strong female figure.

TR:    I take some issue with that. I think that the problem with Marian is that she defined by her passivity. What's she defined for? She's defined by the fact that she doesn't have sex and she doesn't fight. And I suppose in that courtly way that's the way she holds onto her little bit of goodness. It seemed to me to be so irrelevant to a contemporary audience that I wanted to go in a completely different direction.

AWW:   Could you please tell us about some of your current projects, such as Time Team and History Hunters, because those don't play, to my knowledge anyway, in North America.

TR:  Time Team is the most extraordinary success. It's almost unbelievable. Essentially in the series I take a handful of archaeologists to a place they haven't been to before where we think there might be something of interest. And they've got three days to find what archaeology they can and to put it together and tell the narrative of what the site is and what it was like in old times.

                Now, I did the series initially when it started out, it did simply because the leading archaeologist was a friend of mine and I was interested in archaeology.  I certainly didn't do it as a career move.

                It's now consistently in the Channel 4 [the British channel it plays on] top ten of the week. It's gone from four episodes in a year to 13, plus two documentaries plus a three-day live television event plus a Christmas special. It had its spin-off series History Hunters and more spin-off series planned. The book based on the series went to number one in the hardback charts [best-sellers lists] and the follow-up is currently at number seven. It's spawned a host of imitations on other channels. And won all the awards it could possibly win.

                It's quite bizarre because I suppose as a freelance I must make about 40 different projects a year. You know, whether it's television or radio or movies or CD-ROMs or books or whatever. You can simply never predict which ones are going to be most successful. This is now entering its 9th season -- we started four days ago. And it's just quite bizarre.

AWW:    What do you find most fascinating about history and archaeology?

TR:        I think I never understood why some people weren't interested in history. History has always seemed to me a bit like air, breathing or walking. It's so much part of who we are that not to be interested in it seems to me to be entering a state of quiet puzzling denial. How can we know who we are unless we know where we come from? How can we know where we're going unless we know which way we're facing? All those kind of issues. You really can only begin to get a purpose on if you understand the history of your people.

AWW:    As I understand you are the head of the Young Archaeologists Club?

Tony Robinson on Time TeamTR:        I am president of the Young Archaeologists Club, yeah. One of the interesting things about it [Time Team] is that it's one of those shows that plays at about six o'clock at night and has attracted an enormous young audience as well as an older audience. It really is a family show. When I say family show I mean we don't make any concessions to making a family show. It just happens to be a show -- rather like The Simpsons, I imagine -- that people of all ages care to watch. And we were asked at one time if we would make a junior version of the programme, and we said there's no point. That would be extraordinarily patronizing, because kids love the programme as it is. One of the things I wanted to do was obviously encourage that interest which is why I became president of the Junior Archaeologists Club.

AWW:    I guess this is a good time to bring this in, but one of my friends who lives in London wanted me to say that she really enjoys the series and watches it every week. And she thinks extremely highly of you. I believe the words were "Good Egg".

TR:        (Laughs.) That's good.

AWW:    I know that if Time Team were on in Canada I'd be watching it, because it very much sounds like a show I would be interested in.

TR:        It's playing every night at the moment on Discovery Europe. And a couple of shows have gone on to Discovery in the US. We actually did a show in Maryland about the first European settlers in that part of the country. And there's consistently been talk about making it a worldwide programme. Whether or not that will ever happen, I don't know.

AWW:    Ah, I was wondering because I was looking on the web to see if it was here anywhere, and I saw one listed in Maryland, and I was wondering if that was the actual British programme or a North American version.

TR:        That was us. I think we're going to go to Mexico in about a month and dig a Mayan temple.

AWW:    How do you choose which sites to go to?

TR:        A variety of different ways. We have four professional researchers looking for us who consistently come up with sites. Also our own archaeologists get to hear about sites through their work. And viewers write into us and offer sites. I think we've got something in the region of 8,000 requests from people who watch the series to ask us to come and dig up various things.

AWW:    I understand that last year you sort of crossed paths with Robin Hood again in a couple of different things -- both in History Hunters [a Time Team spin-off] and in a new Blackadder.

TR:        That's right, yeah. We went up to Nottingham to find the oldest pub in Nottingham. There are three pubs, all of which boast they are the oldest one in Nottingham, and we tried to find out which one was.

                And in the Blackadder -- which I just saw again yesterday. We have a big millennium festival called the Millennium Dome, and Sky Television [a UK satellite channel] have a cinema in it which runs a specially made episode of the Blackadder eight times a day I guess. It's a bit like how they used to run the Michael Jackson movie at Epcot. And yeah, there's a scene in there where Rik Mayall plays Robin Hood. And Kate Moss plays Maid Marian. [Rik Mayall played Flashheart in other Blackadder episodes, and his Robin Hood is very much in the Flashheart vein, complete with his shouts of "WHOOF! WHOOF!"]

AWW:    You probably get asked this question a lot, but are you planning to do any more Blackadders?

TR:        I think Rowan [Atkinson, the actor who plays Blackadder and Mr. Bean] and I would. The problem really is the enormous success of Ben Elton and Richard Curtis. [The writers of Blackadder. Curtis has written films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, and Elton is a best-selling novelist as well as a movie and TV writer.] It was never a very happy show for them to write because we kept changing it so much. And eventually they got so pissed off by that they decided that they didn't want to write any more. I think they enjoyed writing the Millennium episode. It's certainly been enormously popular, and I think it will become even more popular once it finally gets onto terrestrial [ie: regular] television. And hopefully we'll be able to persuade them at some time to write another series. Richard Curtis said he would write another series in the year 2010 whether or not that's true or not, I don't know.

AWW:    What other projects do you have coming up?

TR:        Well, at the moment I've just started 13 more Time Teams. So that's my big project. And off and on, I'm doing a lot of script writing.

AWW:    Is it very tiring to do the Time Teams?

TR:        It is at the time, yeah. Enormously. It's all-consuming, deeply physical. The last one I did, I twisted my knee in a rabbit hole. And so I was rushing around for three days limping, and trying to get my head round the archaeology, and work out what I was supposed to say. I'm associate producer in the series as well. So, I have quite a lot of responsibility for how the show will pan out. It's both physically and intellectually very knackering, but also intensely satisfying.

AWW:    I read on a website about the Maid Marian series that there was talk about doing more with it.

TR:        There's always been talk about doing more. Although currently the BBC have said they don't want any more, although why I have no idea. At the moment there's talk about doing an animation series. And I'm doing some work on it -- I'll be doing some work on it today, in fact. See if that will develop.

AWW:    When the series was on, I understand you wrote comic books and novelizations and novels based on it.

TR:        I wrote a comic book on it, yeah.

AWW:    Is that the first time you've done a comic book?

TR:        Yeah, it was something I always wanted to do. And I did it, basically.

AWW:    Is there anything else you'd like to say about Maid Marian?

TR:        No, I can't think of anything.

AWW:    Thank you very much for your time.

TR:        Not at all. Nice to talk to you. Cheers.

For more information:

Visit The Maid Marian and Her Merry Men Fan Site.

And visit Channel Four's official Time Team website.

In the United Kingdom, the entire run of MAID MARIAN and Her Merry Men was released on DVD. Warning the DVDs listed below are PAL-video format and Region 2. They will not play on most North American DVD players.
Buy the Series 1 (Region 2, European DVD players only) DVD set on Amazon.co.uk
Buy the Series 2 (Region 2, European DVD players only) DVD set on Amazon.co.uk
Buy the Series 3 (Region 2, European DVD players only) DVD set on Amazon.co.uk
Buy the Series 4 (Region 2, European DVD players only) DVD set on Amazon.co.uk
Buy the Maid Marian and Her Merry Men Series 1-4 Complete Box Set (Region 2, European DVD players only) DVD set on Amazon.co.uk

In North America, the first series of Maid Marian was released on two VHS tapes.

Maid Marian and Her Merry Men -- How the Band Got Together Includes "How the Band Got Together", "Robert the Incredible Chicken" and "A Game Called John".
Buy it on NTSC, North American format VHS on Amazon.com

Maid Marian and Her Merry Men -- The Miracle of St. Charlene Includes Includes "The Miracle of St. Charlene", "The Sharp End of a Cow" and "The Whitish Knight".
Buy it on NTSC, North American format VHS on Amazon.com

IN SEARCH OF BRITISH HEROES by Tony Robinson. This is a companion volume to the Channel 4 Documentary series Fact or Fiction. It includes a large chapter on Robin Hood.

Buy it on Amazon.com

Buy it on Amazon.co.uk

BLACKADDER REMASTERED: THE ULTIMATE EDITION All four series of this classic British comedy starring Tony Robinson as Baldrick, the usually dim-witted sidekick to several generations of Rowan Atkinson's Black Adder. Robin Hood appears in the Millennium special Blackadder Back and Forth, which is included in the American set at least.
Buy the Region 1 (North American players only) DVD set on Amazon.com
Buy the Region 2 (European DVD players only) DVD set on Amazon.co.uk

BLACKADDER BACK AND FORTH This special, created for the Millennium Dome, has Rowan Atkinson (as Edmund Blackadder) and Tony Robinson (as Baldrick) travelling through time. They visit medieval Sherwood Forest and encounter Robin Hood, played by Rik Mayall (who also played Flashheart in series II and IV). The Remastered version was released on a set with the other Blackadder specials.
Buy the Region 1 (North American players only) DVD set on Amazon.com
Buy the Region 2 (European DVD players only) DVD set on Amazon.co.uk


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Interview copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2004.

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