Digging deep

Round & About

Sir Tony Robinson

Peter Anderson chats to history buff and television star Sir Tony Robinson.

Q. What sparked your interest in history; was it Baldric as Blackadder went through the centuries?!
“It goes back to when I was a child and my dad told me of his time in World War II. He was posted to Scotland, met up with some Canadian soldiers and spent the war touring in a Canadian dance band. That made me think of him as a child learning what his father had done, and his father before him – the continuum of history.”

Q. Of all the stories of folklore, why do you think King Arthur has lasted so well?
“The Dark Ages are shrouded in mystery, but the stories of King Arthur held a romantic appeal. They were also seized upon by the Norman Kings keen to use their lineage from King Arthur to legitimise their claim to the throne. They sought to publicise all the stories that came out regarding King Arthur’s time.”

Q. What’s the significance of Round Tables?
“The Round Tables were a common item at tournaments as everyone could be equal in standing and speak. There is an example at York where guests sat in niches around the table and stepped forward to speak. But the best thing to compare is the corporate boxes around modern-day sports grounds like Wembley, where a lot of networking can be conducted alongside the sport or entertainment.”

Q. Did your time with the experts on Time Team,
including Jonathan, prepare you for this next event?
“Jonathan impressed me when he appeared on Time Team, and we have been friends ever since. He is an archaeologist, but specialises in standing archaeology, a lot of the work in Time Team was looking at holes in the ground and assessing what had been there; his expertise is looking at buildings still standing. He can look at a building and then guide you through clues he has spotted to all the various phases of construction within it. It is a remarkable skill.”

Q. Do you have a favourite period of history and would you fancy travelling back to it?
“I think Ellen Degeneres was right when she said now is the best time. There are so many things we take for granted now that were not available. However, from a point of intellectual curiosity I would love to go back to the time of King Alfred I. I find it so intriguing that someone could go from a small kingdom in the South West of England and in the space of a couple of years take on the invading Vikings, beat them and have the leader of the Vikings paraded through the streets wearing white and converting to Christianity. I would so love to find out how he achieved it.”

Q. Is there anything from history you’d still like to do a programme or talk on?
“So many! But the main one would be a programme that shows wars were not won so much by fighting on the battlefield but by organisation, the ability to move troops and equipment quickly, to supply them. I was lucky enough to film out in the middle of the Sahara Desert, in the middle of nowhere, the shifting sands had cleared to reveal a metalled road thrown up quickly by the Germans in World War II to move equipment. Now taken back and covered by the desert sands…”

Q. Who would be your perfect dinner party guests?
“King Alfred, Archbishop Asser, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Francis Walsingham, William and Robert Cecil. We are a little light on the ladies, so I think Eleanor of Aquitaine; rumour has it she was the one who was running the country.”

Q. Is there anything we could learn today from the Age of Chivalry?
“Definitely: the Chivalric Code held people together in times of crisis. It was a code of politeness, being honourable, with honesty and courtesy.”