Part of the Humourology series
Season 2, Episode 19
Sir Tony Robinson – A Historic Sense of Humour
Legendary Popular History presenter and actor Sir Tony Robinson joins The Humourology Podcast to discuss the value of humour throughout his historic career. From using his sense of humour to communicate across cultures to sharing a laugh to pacify those present, Robinson knows the value of having a laugh. Learn how timing and listening are essential when you aim to entertain and educate.
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Paul Boross is joined by the actor, humourous force in historic presentation and star of Blackadder, Sir Tony Robinson. Robinson is an expert at using humour to educate and entertain an audience of any size. As an acting national treasure and the nation’s premiere presenter of popular history, Robinson has learned just how powerful a sense of humour can be.
“Humour is just wonderful for pricking those little pomposities, fears, anxieties, and neuroses.”
Whether using comedy to communicate across cultures or having a laugh to pacify a tense moment, Robinson is a master of using mirth meaningfully. Join us for a lesson in laughter from a performance legend, only on The Humourology Podcast.
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Sir Tony Robinson
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Sir Tony Robinson on The Humourology Podcast
Tony Robinson (00:00):
Humour is as much part of who we are as, as breathing and walking and seeing, and being in the joke. It’s, it’s the fizz in our lives.
Paul Boross (00:17):
Welcome to the Humourology podcast with me, Paul Boross, and by glittering lineup of guests from the worlds of business, sport and entertainment who are going to share their wisdom and their use of humour with you. Humourology is the study of how humour can dramatically improve your business success and your life. Humourology puts the fun into business fundamentals increases the value of your laughing stock and puts a punchline back into your bottom line. Please remember to like subscribe and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. My guest on this edition of the Humourology podcast is a multi-award winning actor who is also the portrait of a popular history presenter. His legendary career spans from the theatre to the silver screen and everything in between. He was a successful child actor who has never stopped working from playing the fool in King Lear.
Paul Boross (01:17):
To the title role in The Hypochondriac along the way he wrote and starred in the seminal kids, comedy Maid Marion and her Merry Men for which he won a BAFTA. He spent decades as the host of the historic channel for behemoth Time Team, where he solidified himself as an impeccable icon who imparted immersive information to the masses. As a member of the Labour Party, he has contributed to a variety of quality campaigns aimed at the progression of human and labour rights. His political and presenting performances propelled him to prominence when he was knighted by the Queen in 2013. From his legendary charity work to his beloved role, as Baldrick in Blackadder he has quickly become the nation’s premier presenter of popular history and political prowess. Sir Tony Robinson, welcome to the Humourolgy podcast.
Tony Robinson (02:22):
Thank you. Gosh, I’ve really been going a long time. Haven’t I? You just kept going and going all these various years rolled past me like when those calendars used to flip by in a movie.
Paul Boross (02:36):
Well, I mean, there was so much to get in and I thought of cutting things out and I thought, no, the public needs to know all the things you’ve done, Tony. It is a just remarkable career, but I want to go back., I’d mentioned you were a child actor and we’ll come back to that. But the Jesuits say, Give a child of seven and I will give you the man. Was the young Tony Robinson funny?
Tony Robinson (03:03):
I think probably the young Tony Robinson was far funnier than I am now. I was thinking about this earlier, actually, because… You sent me some notes and one of the notes was what is your favourite joke? And I was thinking people by and large, don’t tell jokes now in the same way that they used to it’s like people at family gatherings tend not to go over to the piano and start playing. And then everyone joins in. Cultures do change. And that idea of a joke as something that we trade among ourselves, which used to be so important to me when I was a kid. So it had to be the best joke. And you had to say it the best and your mum and dad would tell you jokes that they probably learned about 40 or 50 years ago. It’s sort of completely disappeared. But yes, I think in those days, A. I told lots of jokes and B I wanted to be funny. It seems, I don’t know. It was a bit like impressing people, I think really?
Paul Boross (04:02):
So was humour valued in your family then?
Tony Robinson (04:06):
Yeah, very much so. Yeah. I think probably because both my parents and this will come as a shock to both my parents were little. And I think when you’re little, you need some kind of safety jacket, something to get you through. And comedy is a wonderful way of doing that. With Rowan (Atkinson). It was his big ears and his stutter. With me, it was my height and it gave you a security.
Paul Boross (04:39):
Yeah. That’s very interesting because, but also your parents were in show business on one level or another. I mean, I think your father played in a dance band for the Canadian forces and your mum loved amateur dramatics. Do you think it was something genetic?
Tony Robinson (04:55):
It wasn’t so much that they were in showbiz, which makes it sound like they were in a Judy Garland movie, which I was later on, interestingly. Anyway, they… My dad worked for what was then called the LCC that became the GLC, you know, the organisation that ran London. He was a clerk, and then worked his way up. My mum was an audio typist. But as you say, she loved amateur dramatics and she picked that up during the war. And my dad when he was in the RAF in the war , there were a load of Canadian forces in east Scotland, where he was, and they needed a pianist in their dance band. And he said, I’ll do that. He could just about find his way around a piano, but he wasn’t in any sense, a pianist. And he learned on the job, he learned going round to all those village halls and community centres night after night and had a fantastic war as a pianist.
Tony Robinson (05:51):
And he could have gone back to Canada and been a professional musician, but he decided not to because my mum and dad were both working class Hackney kids. And my dad because he’d been reasonably successful in his career had been able to buy a semi detached house in South Woodford in 1938, and that was their dream, but that’d been their dream before the war. And that’s what they wanted to go back to. So in a way, I think what I do and what I am is an echo of all those yearnings that they had, but which were never fulfilled
Paul Boross (06:24):
Well, they must have been so proud because I think at 14, you were in the stage production of Oliver with, some absolute legends and Ron Moody was in it, Georgia Brown. Was Phil Collins there at the same time as you?
Tony Robinson (06:42):
No, Phil wasn’t, but my understudy was Steve Marriott who went on to be the lead singer with The Small Faces. So and others, a lot of those boys were musicians and went on to become musicians as it were, rather than going down the other business as actors. I was actually in the original cast of Oliver. So I was there on the first night and I think we had something like 27 curtain calls, but like as a kid, how do you know that’s a big deal? You’ve never done that before, maybe that’s what happens to everybody. So yeah. Yeah. I was… I can’t remember what your question was, but yeah I was in the original cast.
Paul Boross (07:21):
Well, no, actually I wanted to… It was about their pride of you fulfilling their dreams.
Tony Robinson (07:30):
I often ask myself about that objectively. It is quite clear to me that if I say they pushed to me, that sounds as though they were getting some resistance, but they certainly went on this road with me to being a child actor, which was odd really, because I was like in the A stream at my local grammar school and what teachers were intent on me having an academic career, which I didn’t want in the slightest. I was so lazy. Anybody listening to this will think, yeah, I was lazy too. No, you weren’t lazy like I was lazy because I was supposed to be in shows an awful lot of the time. Nobody knew whether I was supposed to be at school or not. I used to bunk off for weeks at a time and I say, I used to bunk off, I used to bunk off and then I would go in at lunch and have lunch and a game of football and then I would leave again.
Paul Boross (08:32):
It was at schooll, wasn’t it where you first went on stage and I heard that when you got your first laugh from an audience in the school play, you described it as, “wine to your soul”. Billy Crystal said about Robin Williams, “he needed those extra little hugs that you can only get from a stranger”. Was that… Isn’t that lovely phrase? As we get older, we have to realise what we are don’t we, because, and we do need that… The laugh does that.
Tony Robinson (09:09):
I think one of the problems for young performers, it’s probably true performers generally, is that you have this kind of uber life, which is on the stage waiting for the show that night. I was… Had a chat with Matt Lucas the other day and we both agreed that if somebody says to you, will you be in a show? It’s all right. You’ll only be on for about 10 minutes. So you’ll be in and out, you know, it would just be great fun fact is when you’re in a show, it dominates the whole of your day from the moment you wake up to the moment that you go to bed, you are in some way in that world. And I think what it means for young child is that you don’t develop another world. So show business is your world. It’s more than just your blanket. It’s your blanket, your duvet, your bed, your bedroom, it’s everything. And I think that’s why performers get so terrified when they’re out at work, because it’s like, there’s no me for me to be, if I’m not working, I think that’s the, that’s the great fear, the great terror.
Paul Boross (10:14):
So, you live to work essentially, do you? Or, they become the same thing?
Tony Robinson (10:22):
I think as I’ve got older, I’ve been able to develop some of objectivity about it. I think the first time you lose one of your kids in a department store.
Paul Boross (10:32):
Tony Robinson (10:34):
Yeah. Well, you know, suddenly actually being in a show has far less importance than it did have the first time a friend of yours or a relative of yours gets cancer. First time, you know, you see that, you know, that you only have that limited amount of time with them, those kinds of things. I think hopefully for most of us, we’re able to shift that performance part of us up a little bit, a little bit, a little bit more, but lockdown was actually great for me. I had always been so consumed by my work. Not necessarily comedy, it didn’t have to be comedy work after a time it could be writing. It could be directing. It could be anything suddenly because I wasn’t really doing that for months at a time. I had to develop my own resources again.
Tony Robinson (11:21):
I think a really charming thing happened to me. We’ve got… I haven’t got a garden, but we’ve got a very, very big terrace at the back of our apartment. And I got loads of tubs in and I decided I would make it beautiful. I’d never had time. I’d never really taken ownership of my backyard as it were. And so much of my focus during lockdown was on flowers and plants. And my wife said to me, how do you know what you’re doing? You just seem to be able to do it and I said, I thought everybody knew and then I thought, no, it’s because when I was about nine or 10, my dad loved his garden and I would just follow around behind him all the time and he gave me a little patch of garden. And then after about a couple of years, that would have been the least cool thing to do ever. So it probably broke my dad’s heart. Just kind of turned my back on it. I had no interest in plant at all. Isn’t it lovely that was still buried in there. You said earlier there was comedy in my DNA. Monty Don was in my DNA and I didn’t realise until I was in my seventies.
Paul Boross (12:34):
Oh, well, that’s fantastic. Isn’t it? When something comes back at that level. So, Tony, what makes you laugh?
Tony Robinson (12:42):
Guilt, embarrassment, nervousness feeling lesser than other people in the room. If you watch my documentaries, you’ll see that I laugh an awful lot. They have to cut out an awful lot of my laughter and that laughter is about passivity. It’s about pacifying the room so that I can get what I want out of the room. And on telly you’ll see it an awful lot. I think on chat shows in particular, this, this laughter, which isn’t like laughter at the end of a punchline or laughter at the end of a rude joke. It’s *laughs wildly* it’s just the noise. It’s like monkeys, isn’t it? It’s like monkeys, gibbering in a cage. I think most laughter is monkeys gibbering in a cage. I would get as far as to say that.
Paul Boross (13:36):
So you use it as a tool to sort of pacify the room or to get rid of your stress or how do you use it?
Tony Robinson (13:45):
I think everybody does. I don’t think it’s something that just I do. Wherever I go, I can hear it all the time from people when people come up to you. Well, maybe they’re just laughing at me, but when they’re not I think that’s what most laughter is. And I think that what comics and comedians are able to do is to corral all that into little bite sized chunks, which are pleasurable because they’re controlled.
Paul Boross (14:17):
Well, I think that’s so true and the whole Humourology project is about being able to do that. But what you do is… I think you have a superpower, essentially because as a psychologist, you get to change people state and to be able to change, somebody’s state is a superpower and you can move them to a new place. Now somebody could be in the depth of depression but it’s hard to be depressed when you’re laughing and you come in and you’ve changed people and your life in essence has been about changing people’s states in a good way.
Tony Robinson (14:56):
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s what we call working an audience. Isn’t it? When you go on stage, hopefully what will happen is there’ll be a round of applause unless you’re in the middle of a Checkov, in which case it’s really irritating to the other actors. And that has actually happened to me about the Bristol Old Vic. But normally you go on stage, you’ll get some sense of a hello back from the audience. And you know that you now have some time to take them with you on whatever journey it is that you want to take them on. And it’s like, it’s like the sealing of a contract between you and the audience, but it’s a contract which can be torn up by them at any time so you’ve got to kind of keep, keep working at it. Keep checking the clauses as it were. Sorry, I get bored with this metaphor, but you know what I mean?
Paul Boross (15:50):
No, it’s a great metaphor, but I mean it is… Humour is the ultimate bonding tool, isn’t it? Because you’ve travelled around the world on all these wonderful documentaries. And the art of doing that I would have thought is by connecting with people, getting rapport. How do you get rapport with people from different cultures? I mean your face is your fortune in that sense of lighting up other people’s lives without necessarily being able to speak their language?
New Speaker (16:24):
I can only tell you what I do. I don’t know whether it works for other people and I don’t know if it’s how other people do it, but I know that for me, it’s about letting go, being open, taking risks not worrying about whether you’ll offend somebody actually, because if you’ve got your antennae up, you’ll know as soon as you start to offend them and you can pull back. If you have offended them too much, then you can apologise. And so just be who you are recognise what the interplay is between you and the other person. Honour it, play with it, tease it, go further. And you know, 99%…Ninety nine times out of a hundred that does work.
Paul Boross (17:15):
But what you’ve just described, I think that great comics, great comic actors, great actors do. And which something our listeners can take away is listen, is really listen. And when I’m talking about listening, you know what I mean? You, you look at people’s faces and you listen off the top as we call it in psychology. So you get to the essence of them. Are they… I mean, the simple thing is, are the eyebrows going up? I.E. tell me more.
Tony Robinson (17:44):
Yeah, I would take it one step further and say, as a discipline, you ought to listen actively. If that doesn’t sound too ponsey, you know, because we all think when listening, all the time we’re going. Yeah. Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We think we’re listening. We’re making those noises. We must be listening. We’re not listening, you know, it’s like being in the moment, isn’t it? Most of us are in the moment, about four times a day, three of them when you’re having a poo. It’s the same with listening. It’s very, very easy to think. What is it that I’m going to say next? Rather than be with the person on their route cause actually it takes you a millisecond in reality, to think of what you’re going to say next, it’s just like an emotion what you’re going to say next. In real life, you don’t rehearse the words you don’t fluff when you’re having a conversation. You don’t have to get halfway through and say, sorry, can we go again on that? So you can actually stay with the person for as long as you want. Then maybe just as you hear their energy dropping, maybe that’s the time to come in with your next observation or your next question, but until then just be with them. I think,
Paul Boross (19:01):
I think all the great performers are listening for feedback, whether that’s from the other performers. I mean, all the shows you’ve done, you can tell that you are trusting and listening, which I know you went to Central and studied those trust exercises are very important to life and just people in normal life. I always say when, when people stand up to make a speech, just do it and give your attention outward because if you and I go to the pub and we meet, we’re not going to take notes, are we? You go, did you see the game Saturday, Tony?
Tony Robinson (19:46):
That’s a very funny idea. Someone being unsure about how to talk to somebody they haven’t met before and getting out the notes. So the first one is, did you watch the game on Saturday?
Paul Boross (19:59):
We’ll but that’s the absurdness. And when people are giving speeches or being interviewed on the radio or television, you find that they’re so much in what we call the conscious brain, cause you know, the conscious brain can only hold between five and nine pieces of information and the unconscious can hold millions of pieces of information. When we’re having a chat we’re in the unconscious, you’re saying something I’m listening,, we’re reacting and back. And it’s just like a game of tennis at that point
Tony Robinson (20:31):
Last week, I did my first live gig for ages because of COVID and it was a corporate and it was a guy who had a big internet type firm and he hadn’t seen his juniors, many of them he hadn”t seen ever. And so he wanted to get them all together. And what do you decide to was to… He just bought a new, big, fancy house, a lovely house up in Oxfordshire somewhere. There were we’re huge gardens and he decided to get them all to dig his garden. And he would get me to come in as a surprise as the person who used to present Time Team at the end and judge all the trenches. When I got there, he was terribly relaxed about it, but he said, it’s all gone, completely tits up. He said, he said they couldn’t do the digging when they tried to do the digging,
Tony Robinson (21:27):
They didn’t find anything. At lunchtime, I foolishly offered them alchohol. They blundered around all afternoon and we haven’t got anything for you to judge. In fact, we haven’t even gotten the archaeological finds for you to talk about. And well, there were two things, first of all, and it was very interesting that he was the CEO. First of all, I was able to deal with that because my client was so relaxed, the whole reason I’d gone there and he was paying me a decent wedge. The whole reason that I was getting that money had completely foundered. He didn’t know… How would he know anything about my experience in the past? But it was like, he just trusted me to sort it out. And so I did, and I just used everything that I had done for the last 60 years – all that vocabulary, performing vocabulary, emotional vocabulary, words vocabulary just came out and I was bouncing off what all the other people were saying, which is what you were saying before about listening.
Tony Robinson (22:32):
And I was storming. And the more that I did it, the more adrenaline – nice adrenaline – was produced rather than fear adrenaline and like any junkie I wanted more of it. So I was actually prepared to do more, to take more risks. And it just, and what I got back home afterwards, my wife said, I haven’t seen you this excited for ages. I said it was just because I know, even though those people won’t know it, I know I did a really good job and part of doing a really good job for me is people don’t see the scaffolding.
Paul Boross (23:06):
Yeah. And the experience and everything, but also very interesting is that he was calm. You were calm and suddenly, and that is experience and that is knowledge. In psychology we say, if you want anybody to go into any state, you have to go into that state first. So if you’re there and the CEO’s going, oh my God, what’s gone wrong?! You’re going to go into that state, the audience is going to go into state. It’s all going to go to pot. Tell me a true, funny story about something that’s happened to you, Tony.
Tony Robinson (23:40):
What immediately leaps to mind is I used to do a very rude show on Channel Four, Who Dares Wins. And we took it on tour doing live shows. And that included what was known as the Emperor’s New Clothes sketch. It started with Jimmy Mullville and Rory McGrath on stage as two tailors. And there was the curtain to the dressing room in the middle of the stage. And they were saying… They were shouting into this cubicle going, Oh, that’s a very nice suits. And it really won’t cost very much at all. And you look fantastic in it. And then I opened the curtains and I was naked and they would tell really pretty rubbish jokes like, Oh, there’s a split up the back, Sir. Look at that dangly bit, I’ll snip it off. And I can’t even remember how the sketch ended. I think we didn’t know how to end it.
Tony Robinson (24:40):
So somebody interrupted the sketch. Anyway, we took it on tour and the great thing I think for a comedian is when you’re nude, it’s a funny suit, whatever you look like. It’s a funny suit. And any joke like, Oh there’s split up the back becomes 10 times funnier than anything normally would. And again, it’s that thing about the more relaxed you are appear to be in the nude. Even if you have given yourself a good polish for about 20 seconds before you went on stage, you’re confident in that even if the material isn’t great, there’s something about being in the nude. So we did it on stage and at the end of it, I wandered off stage, ran round the interior corridor to the back of the theatre, then came in at the back of the theatre and started wandering through the audience, looking for my clothes.
Tony Robinson (25:33):
So I was actually squeezing past everybody in their rows and going whoa, and looking under their seats, sticking my bottom in their faces pretty hilarious stuff. And all that worked really well until we went… We were playing in a cinema in Lincoln and I went off stage and there was no intervening corridor between the stage and the back of the theatre. I didn’t realise that and I pushed the fire doors, opened them. They swung shut again. And there was I in the car park, totally naked. I went to the, I went to the next door. It was also a fire door and the next and the next, the next. And eventually I got round to the front of the theatre. So I’m now in the main road. And I walked to the theatre. I pushed open the door and there were two programme sellers – little girls, you know, young women, 16, 15, 16 at me and I said, “it’s all right, I’m in the show.
Paul Boross (26:47):
Oh my word, now that is…
Tony Robinson (26:50):
It’s funny. Isn’t it? Because telling that, I still thinking about it. It’s funny, but actually it is all about terror and insecurity. Which goes back to what I was saying earlier.
Paul Boross (27:00):
What makes you laugh.
Tony Robinson (27:03):
Someone just about to be arrested for obscenity!
Paul Boross (27:08):
The other two words you used earlier on were guilt and embarrassment makes you laugh as well. So that’s the perfect story. It encompasses all those things. Oh, it’s wonderful. You starred in one of the greatest comedies of all time, I’ve always wondered, did you actually know any of the other actors and performers before you started?
Tony Robinson (27:31):
No. I had always loved what I thought of as Oxbridge comedy. The first one I remember was in the early sixties, it was called, That Was The Week That Was. It had David’s Frost in it and Ned Sherrin, Millicent Martin was in it. Roy Kinnear was in it and I just thought it was wonderful. I liked it. It was dazzling and it was smart. And up until then, however funny comedy had been to me, there was a bit of me that was slightly irritated by it. Cause it seems so trivial. And if that’s a snobbish thing to say, that’s fair enough, I’m a bit of a comic snob but I love that. I love that comedy but I left school at 16 because I was going to be an actor. And so there was no, you know, the only way to get into that kind of comedy with Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, Not the Nine O’clock News was if you had been in Footlights or something similarwhich I was not going to be able to do.
Tony Robinson (28:34):
And then purely out of the blue. And it was just because they couldn’t cast the part. I got the script on the Thursday and it was for a pilot programme starting the following Monday for Rowan Atkinson’s new series. So it was obviously desperation on their part. I learned later that I was the eighth choice. Everybody had turned it down cause it was a rubbish path. It was only about eight lines and none of them were funny. But from the moment I went into rehearsals with them, it was like I was with my soul brothers. It was such, I still remember those early rehearsals really vividly more than most things in my working life. Just because there was this thing that I’d learned to do. And part of it, I’d always known how to do since I was two. Part of it, I picked up… There was thins thing, that was my thing.
Tony Robinson (29:27):
And it was in a sense, it was a very private thing in a sense of quite a lonely thing. And suddenly, I’m in a room full of people who can not only do the thing, they did better than you, but not in a competitive way or at least I thought not at the time it turned out it was pretty competitive, but it was wonderful. It was so stimulating. And then at the end of the week, the head of comedy came in and said, I’m sorry, this is going to be industrial action at the BBC all next week. And we can’t tape it. And Lord knows when we’ll be able to, because all the studios are booked up. And so I had to walk away from it. And even when we got a rremount of the pilot, I couldn’t do it. Cause I was working at the National Theatre at that time.
Tony Robinson (30:10):
What happened was John Lloyd, the brilliant producer of it all, he rang me up and said, Tony, I’ve got some news for you. They’ve, the BBC, have produced the series. I said, great. I’m so pleased for you. And to tell Rowan I’m really pleased for him. So he said, yeah, we’re pleased for you as well. And I said, why? He said, well, we want you to be Baldrick. And I said, well you made the pilot already and I wasn’t in it. He said, don’t you remember? I told you, when you said you couldn’t be in the pilot, thatif we ever got a series that we would want you to be Baldrick and I thought, he had told me that, but I thought it was just the kind of old bollocks producers alway say to people when they’re giving them the shoe off. So I’d never taken it seriously but for him it was perfectly serious.
Paul Boross (30:59):
Oh, I love that story. And I’m intrigued because they all seemed like very Oxbridge, as you mentioned who seemed to know each other and they seemed like a set. The show was very class based comedy and you were pretty much the only working class character. Do you think humour is a great leveller in bringing people together?
Tony Robinson (31:22):
I’ve talked to Stephen Fry about how it works on the audience, which maybe is not what your question meant, but I just think it’s quite interesting. And what he said was the thing about what we all do is it’s all a bit clever, clever, clever, and people listen to that and they are dazzled by it for a bit, but after a while it’s a bit, oh, gor blimey. I’m Just watching the television. I’m not studying for a degree in metallurgy or something. But then as soon as Baldrick comes on, they’re safe. Apart from one,… Apart from a lot of things, A he listens a lot. He’s also very slow. He also pauses a lot. And what he says is very simple and you can be with him. And in fact, you can, as an audience, as it were almost climb inside him and negotiate the whole programme as it were through his face and his footprint, I just thought that was really interesting observation.
Paul Boross (32:23):
You you’ve written a lot yourself, obviously, as I mentioned in the introduction, the seminal Maid Marion which you wrote and starred in and directed and did everything. Is it important, and this is something for our listeners to be able to get a good atmosphere on set or in a company in order to get the best out of everyone.
Tony Robinson (32:52):
The advantage of making television as distinct from making real life is that there is an editor who can take out all the cockups, all the embarrassment, all the little squabbles. So I would say it isn’t absolutely necessary to have a good atmosphere. And I’ve been on sets where there is a terrible atmosphere, but you would never know it from the edit, but as far as certainly I think as far as the floor is concerned, I.e. The camera people and the set designers and all that, who are servicing those irritating narcissistic little birds who are doing the performing, I think yes, in that case, I think it’s vital that you all have a good relationship with each other. Otherwise, how are you going to manage the twats who say the words?!
Paul Boross (33:51):
Well, that’s true. And you do so many shows around the world. In fact, you’ve got a new show coming out on Channel 4 – Britain’s Forgotten Wars. Can you tell us A, a little bit about the show and B how it was made and what the atmosphere was like on set?
Tony Robinson (34:13):
I tell you why we made it, and I’m glad you asked me that question because this is a series I really care about It’s a series that I pitched. It was my idea. And when you’re a performer, you actually very seldom does a show that you have pitched, get made by and large they’re made because the television station wants it or because the independent company wants it – they’re the kind of reasons the people who are schedulers as they’re called, the people who work out, what kind of thing they want at a particular time. But I was lucky enough. I think one of the great things, one of the great thanks I’ve got for Baldrick , I think I was lucky in that respect. And I think one of the great gifts – the boons -that I’ve received from Baldrick is that he’s opened the office door for me.
Tony Robinson (35:04):
If you know, mean. That I can go in and pitch things now and people will at least listen to them. And I’ve wanted to do something about the wars that Britain had fought between the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Falklands. And I’ve played this game with loads of people asking them what they were. And people just don’t know – an awful lot of them – they don’t know if you say Malaya to most people or, Kenya, Kenya to most people they haven’t a clue that we were ever there. Given that we were in Malaya for roundabout 150 years now, The British army was fairly active in quuite a lot of that time. It’s really sad Malayans don’t remember either. When I was out filming in Malaya they said to be quite honest, our history didn’t start till we got rid of you guys and we had our own government. That was when history started.
Tony Robinson (35:56):
And that’s what we’re taught. All that labour, all that British taxpayers money, all that sacrifice of life for all those years. And then a few years later, everyone’s gone into, to permanent amnesia. And I wanted to do that because I was thinking about the Gulf war, the Iraq war particularly Afghanistan. And of course this was before we actually left. And I was thinking, we fought the Afghan people twice before in the 19th century. And it ended really badly both times the Russians have fought them and it was a disaster. The Americans have fought… Disaster. Didn’t anybody in the Foreign Office or the cabinet ever study any kind of history. And I thought to myself, I said, I think it would be a real boon to people. If I could just tell them about all those wars that our forces were engaged in, apart from anything else, the sacrifice our people made was huge.
Tony Robinson (36:57):
And we talked to a lot of… Particularly ex-army people, some of them are in their nineties now because we, we went as far back as Suez and Korea and almost all of them are pretty hacked off that nobody remembers what they did. And often I think we tend to think of officers as complete goons – and I blame Blackadder for that – and the ordinary soldier is stupid. Actually, when you, when you talk to these people, particularly about the fighting that they were engaged in, they have a kind of maturity and a kind of wisdom that puts the rest of us in the shade. And it goes back to what we were talking about about, about the now and listening and working as a team. I think, you know, when you’ve been fighting with people for a long time, you get to be, really get to value that kind of, that way of living, that way of working, that way of operating.
Paul Boross (38:00):
I’m interested, you said you know, their maturity, their wisdom was there alsoa sense of humour that got them through?
Tony Robinson (38:10):
Always, always, always. One of the things about humour which we nearly touched on, but not quite is about deescalating the situation, isn’t it. I’ve got another series. I’ve got two series at the same time, which is mad. I don’t have anything on the tele for about five months, but I’ve got two on, I’ve also got another two series on the shelf, so you’re going to see a lot of me fairly soon, but I’m makingI’ll making series after series about the Thames, which has always fascinated me. Shot a series about the Thames at night. So I’m going into oil refineries the docks, servicing of the ferries all the big jobs, the managing of the water that people do through the night and we don’t know anything about. It’s like listening to a comedy show all the time, all the people around it’s all *noises in rhythm* the whole night. And it’s not because they’re psychotic and it’s not because they’re unlike any, anybody else. It’s that they can create an atmosphere where they can invest and at best, enjoy what they do. And at worst bare what they do.
Paul Boross (39:29):
Yeah. So would you agree with me that humour, aides resilience, especially in very, very stressful situations.
Tony Robinson (39:39):
Oh enormously. Yeah. I think, I think it’s probably the best tactic that we can ever use other than getting the job. Right.
Paul Boross (39:51):
Well, yeah. And it goes back to, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? Because it’s our only weapon, especially when, when there’s mayhem going on around you. What do you think the world would be like without humour?
Tony Robinson (40:09):
I think it’s one of those imponderable questions. Cause I don’t think the world… I don’t think our world, or at least our perception of the world would exist because humour is as much part of who we are as breathing and walking and seeing and being in the joke. It’s the fizz in our lives. There was a, a fantastic presenter/director who’ll you remember, was also a comic that a lot of younger people won’t – called Dr. Jonathan Miller. And he spent the first, third of his life as it were living in humour. He moved away from it because there were things that interested in more, but he was.. I found him very interesting to talk to about it. He said, he said, humour is a fizz. And it’s a fizz which is, it’s like the bubbles of oxygen in your body. He said, timing, what’s timing. He said, I don’t know, but my bet is it’s something to do with the rhythms in our body. Why would we all get timing the same? Why would we all fall about and kind of go Olé when somebody does a superb bit of timing unless, it was something that was deeply shared within all of us.
Paul Boross (41:32):
Well, I’m fascinated by what you say about timing and everything. You have a real artistry in your comedy timing. Do you think comedy can be learnt or is it purely instinctive?
Tony Robinson (41:48):
I think that’s like saying, do you think dreaming can be learned? And Jung would probably have said, well, actually in a way, yes, we have all got that capability and we all do it unconsciously. And what he said was try that exercise of, as soon as you wake up writing down your dream and it doesn’t matter if you can’t quite remember it and you put in something and you’re not sure whether you’re making this up right now as part of the dream, because that is part of it anyway. And he said after a while, when you write your dreams down, your dreams get more vivid, they get more clear, you can understand them more. So I don’t think it’s a question of, can I learn to be funny, but I think it’s that you can learn strategies to be more funny.
Paul Boross (42:41):
Yes, I think that’s and my analogy is always I think I can learn to be a better footballer, but I, I think some people are born with great skills you know, a David Beckham or something whereby their hand or their foot-eye coordination is at a level superior to mine to start with so I can get a lot better and I can perhaps be Gary Neville. But to get to the heights that you have reached, I think takes some kind of inherent comedy timing understanding intrinsic understanding. So, you know…
Tony Robinson (43:24):
My bet, I don’t know if this is true, but this is what I feel. I just kind of offer it up to you, is that when we say some people can be better than other people by and large it’s because they have physical attributes which will give them a superior skill. It may be that they have better mental attributes, but we don’t know enough about the mind to know whether or not we all have an infinite number of… Well we know, we have a number of possibilities. We don’t know whether we can access them or not. Or maybe it’s the opposite maybe as a great thinker whose name…totally escaped me – as Aldous Huxley said, maybe actually the skill is learning how to shut off so much. So we’re not getting too much information at a time and we can just concentrate on the one thing.
Tony Robinson (44:14):
Maybe that’s one of the things that makes us the idea that it’s genetic seems to me best unproven, but I certainly know that my granddad was, was he, you know, I’m from a cockney family and he was very *makes noises in rhythm* My dad was very *do do do*. I am, when my son is on the phone, people often confuse him with me. I suspect because of his rhythms, his attitudes towards the world, that kind of thing. He is totally different from me. He’s a six footer, he’s blond. It looks very much as though he comes to the other side of the family, but either there was part of a comedy sperm which comes from me or I think more likely that it’s just that environment that he’s been part of.
Paul Boross (45:09):
So we’re doing the nature versus nurture argument here. Oh you noticed! Well, yeah, this has gone very high brow Tony. We’ve had Jung, we’ve had nature versus nurture. It’s marvellous. All comedians who I’ve grown up with and know they kind of, they ‘heard the funny’, quite early on. And when I was talking to you about being young, one of the first things you said to me was that I was keen to do a joke. Now that may be the reward of getting the laugh, getting the love, whatever that is. But you heard the joke and you could do it. There are some people who don’t hear the joke. First of all, know where the funny is.
Tony Robinson (45:55):
It’s interesting. Cause I was listening to you then and I heard you say, you heard the joke and I took that in, checked it around myself and I thought no I see the joke and I think that’s, I think that’s what I do. I don’t quite, I don’t quite know what it means. Although I immediately you said it, my dad got two service medals, which he, which like this was for service which he got a couple of years after the war and I said, oh, what are they for? And he says well, one of them was because the NAFI made really horrible sausages and no one would eat them, which would have been a terrible waste of money. And I was the… I was the only person who was brave enough to eat the disgusting sausages. And you know, when I tell you that joke I’m still got the same movie running that I had, what he told it to me.
Paul Boross (46:45):
Well, that’s very interesting from a psychological perspective because we all lead with certain things. Some people are visual, which some people auditory now we all have them all, but your sequence probably goes visual, auditory then kinesthetic. And so you see the joke being funny, whereas I’ve always heard it. I’ve always heard the rhythm of it and everything, but I love the fact that you actually see it and you can visualise the way it’s going. That’s brilliant. If I asked you to write a business case, and I know you are not somebody who writes a business case, but we have to convince businesses that humour is important. What would you include in the business case?
Tony Robinson (47:30):
Certainly pacification. I think it’s very easy in any work situation for the tension to arise before we started to do this, do you remember? I was really struggling before we turn this tape on. I was really struggling and I got slightly techy with your engineer because he was asking me to do things that I had already tried. And immediately, as soon as I started, I thought, oh my God, you’re being a complete prat, Tony, but immediately you came in and you went *makes fun rhythmic noises* and I knew what you were doing, but it worked anyway. And I do think a lot of us have the tendency, particularly those of us who work matters to get wound up very easily. And we actually know that the more we get wound up the less well we function. Well, we know it afterwards but we don’t know it at the time. And humour is just wonderful for that for pricking those little pomposities and anxieties and neuroses.
Tony Robinson (48:34):
So I would certainly say that’s important, I would say that for bonding it’s very important as well. One of the reasons that Cockneys have always been perceived as having a Cockney wit, a very rhythmical Cockney wit, is because it’s such a big river, that there was more industry, more working class activity going on around London than anywhere else. And just to get through all that stuff, you had to do a bit of the Hey, hey hey… Bring it down… All the time. It was part of the function, I think. And I think any boss who doesn’t get that doesn’t really understand why people talk in the way that they do,
Paul Boross (49:20):
I love that pacification and bonding. I think that is so smart. And any financial directors out there will do well to listen to that as well as CEOs. We’ve reached a part of the show, Tony, which we like to call Quick Fire Questions. Who’s the funniest business person that you’ve met
Tony Robinson (49:48):
The funniest in the sense that he does comedy best is John Lloyd, who was the producer of Blackadder, Spitting Image and Qi. But he’s also one of the most serious people that I’ve ever met. He’s also one of the most utopian people and one of the most polite people,
Paul Boross (50:07):
What book makes you laugh?
Tony Robinson (50:09):
When I was about seven, there was a book called Half Magic by a man could Edward Eager. And it was about these kids who picked up this old coin. And if ever they wished for something, they half of it, which is a great situation comedy moment. I didn’t learn until years later that originally he had been an actor. But it’s about these kids having these adventures. And I thought it was absolutely wonderful.
Paul Boross (50:43):
Half Magic. Fantastic. What film makes you laugh?
Tony Robinson (50:50):
Films by and large don’t make me laugh. I used to love Buster Keaton. I found him funnier than Chaplin. Chaplin I always found achingly sad and I didn’t know why, and now I know why it was because he, there was so much of him that was achingly sad. Buster Keaton I always used to find very funny. Laurel and Hardy, I used to find very funny. I don’t really like American comedy by and large. It’s too shouty for me. Oh Ghostbusters I loved. It didn’t seem so shouty. Maybe it was, but no telly is my home for comedy.
Paul Boross (51:31):
Great. We’re going to take a shift to the other side to look at the other way is… What is not funny, Tony?
Tony Robinson (51:40):
Nothing. It’s like what is not interesting? Nothing. There are boring ways of talking about things. And my job is often to find out what’s interesting. There are deeply unfunny things about everything, but there are also funny things. So I don’t think, I don’t think there’s anything that’s in inverted commerce out of bounds. There’s there’s sensibility. There’s understanding this would be a common thread through, throughout what we’ve been talking about, but I don’t think, I don’t think anything’s not funny.
Paul Boross (52:18):
So is it all about your intention when you’re saying it? Your intention is to punch down, does that make it less funny as in your intention is to hurt or wound or bully? Is that, is there anything that you particularly don’t go to because it makes you feel uncomfortable?
Tony Robinson (52:38):
No, I’m always seduced by the idea of going into the unmentionable for comedy. I love that the person I find most interesting about that is Frankie Boyle who in many ways, I think he’s the Lenny Bruce of our times in that he is he’s clearly, I’ve never met him. He seems to be clearly a very passionate man, a man who tries to have an enormous amount of integrity. And a man who’s got this thing called humour that he can use to negotiate and discuss these things. And he feels… It’s like he’s a Knight in armour. He’s honour bound to take risks all the time. And sometimes they’re awful. And sometimes they offend people deeply. And I can see in his eyes when he’s been talking about… There’s this brash guy who’ll say anything, who’s deeply hurt by the fact that that, that people have been upset by things he’s said.
Tony Robinson (53:37):
I don’t like it when he slags off other comedians. I think you, I think you ought to respect people who work in the same industry. To me, that is a given, just because it’s such hard work, just because all of us put in the hours and the risks and the danger, if we don’t do comedy, like the stuff that you like, it’s still, you know, we’re still in the same army as it were, but I do have an enormous amount of respect for, him and even when I get pretty cross with it,
Paul Boross (54:06):
No,I completely agree. I think Frankie’s a one-off and, and so, so intelligent, but isn’t the thing about comedy is that you don’t know if you’ve crossed a line until you go over it. And so he’s constantly having to push that line because you really don’t know where it is.
Tony Robinson (54:28):
I think that’s not quite the right metaphor. I think it’s more, you know when you’re in the danger zone, but you don’t know that you’ve trodden on the mine until you have. I’ve often said things, which I’ve I’ve thought, whoa… Should I really be saying this. It’s yes, but it so scary. It makes me fizz. If I’ve gotten this fizz then other people will share it with me and, you know, on a good night, 90% of the time people will share it with you, but there’s always going to be some people, and some times when you do tread on that mine, and I don’t think you can prejudge that because I think it’s a… That’s a subjective thing on the part of the person who’s receiving it.
Paul Boross (55:11):
What word makes you laugh, Tony?
Tony Robinson (55:15):
Smørgasbord. Did I say Say right? I like it because the Ø has got a slice through it. And I always think of the knife that cuts up things on the board. I never realised until this moment in time that I thought that. I like it because it’s so unlike anything that I would have had at home when I was a little lad, and I like it because my wife hates the word. There is one or two words for most people that they want to go Arrrgh! Don’t say that word. Lord knows why, but that’s my, word. I want. I just want that one word on my tombstone. Oh no. I won’t because my wife won’t come and visit me. On the back.
Paul Boross (56:00):
Yeah. He had a Smørgasbord of a life.
Tony Robinson (56:03):
Yes. It’s stunk of pickled herring.
Paul Boross (56:10):
What sound makes you laugh?
Tony Robinson (56:13):
Well, the fart of course, has anybody that you’ve asked that question? Not said the fart?
Paul Boross (56:19):
Well, a couple of people, but farts have come up quite a lot, to be honest with you,
Tony Robinson (56:25):
Even, even that sentence is funny.
Paul Boross (56:28):
Tony Robinson (56:30):
Just to say, soundis very, very important in comedy. Going back to John Lloyd again, he was very scrupulous about the sounds that everything made. Particularly people think that Rowan was constantly beating me up in that series. If you look at it closely, he’s such a pussycat cat Rowan. He was always at least that much away from it because he was frightened to hurting me. He wasn’t like John Cleese who used to batter Andrew Sachs, but what John did was he just got exactly the right noise for each hit that made it seem like it was agony and extraneous chicken noises, those kinds of things. They’re wonderful. They’re always, I think part of the television comedy vocabulary.
Paul Boross (57:18):
Yeah. Comedy gold, funny sound can take you to new places. Would you rather be considered clever or funny?
Tony Robinson (57:28):
You got to say funny haven’t you, anybody who thinks they would rather be clever is a tosser.
Paul Boross (57:34):
I’m with you all the way Tony. Nobody wants to be a tosser. Be funny. And finally, Tony… Desert Island Gags. You can only take one joke with you to a desert island. What is it?
Tony Robinson (57:51):
To have only one joke constantly repeated for the rest of my life would be an absolute torture for me. It would stop being funny around about the 14th time – if it was a really good joke by the 50th – it would be worse than being in a prisoner of war camp. So I will choose, Sue… A comfy mattress and one of those pillows that, you know, you can rest your head in really nicely. Thank you.
Paul Boross (58:21):
So you can come up with your own jokes in the comfort of your own bed,
Tony Robinson (58:26):
A different one every time and not just jokes, mate!.
Paul Boross (58:32):
Tony Robinson. Thank you so much for A not standing on any mines during this chat and B for being absolutely warm, witty and hilarious. Thank you.
Tony Robinson (58:45):
Lovely talking to you. Bye.
Paul Boross (58:47):
The Humourology podcast was hosted by Paul Boross and produced by Simon Banks music by Steve Haworth, creative direction by Les Hughes and additional research by Helen Sykes. Please remember to subscribe like and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. This has been a Big Sky production.