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Tony Robinson can’t escape the clutches of Blackadder – not that he really wants to forget Baldrick, the character he credits with launching his TV career.
Since playing the mentally challenged servant to Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder from 1983 to 1989, Robinson – officially Sir Tony Robinson – has taken his career down a new path. Walking, to be precise.
There’s been Britain’s Ancient Tracks, Walking Through History and Time Walks, which featured our own Christchurch in one episode.
So was this series of walking shows one of his cunning plans?
“Not really,” he says. “It could just as easily have been eating or sleeping.”
Now he has embarked on a 290km (180 mile) trek across northern Britain, from the historic village of St Bees on Cumbria’s west coast to Robin Hood’s Bay on the east coast of Yorkshire in the six-part documentary Coast To Coast.
And his Blackadder past immediately caught up with him.
“How extraordinary – the first man that I interviewed in the first episode was Rowan’s physics teacher at St Bees School,” says Robinson.
And the Blackadder connection doesn’t stop there. In the show, Stephen Fry played an archbishop who was confidante to Queen Elizabeth 1, frequently incurring her royal wrath.
In real life, her adviser Edmund Grindal, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was born and educated in St Bees, which was once a major religious centre named after Saint Bega, a princess who fled Ireland to escape the lecherous clutches of a Viking lord in the 10th century.
Coast To Coast takes Robinson, now 70, through some of Britain’s most stunning landscapes.
But hasn’t he done this sort of thing before? What’s different?
“The length of it. A hundred and eighty miles is a long way,” he says. So did he walk the whole distance?
“Hmm, I’ll be quite honest with you, it wouldn’t be cost effective to walk 10 miles over really boring landscape and across a motorway. I can’t just have a camera crew sitting around while I do that.
“Having said that, once I get to where I’m being filmed I have to do it time and time again: ‘Get back up the mountain again, now walk all the way down’. So give or take a few miles, the estimates were that I did do the 180 miles.”
Coast To Coast follows the route made famous by the late British walker and travel writer Alfred Wainwright, who produced a series of guide books and made a series of BBC documentaries about the northern English landscape he loved so much.
The impression some Kiwis have about Britain is that it is massively overcrowded, but Robinson finds vast tracts of wild and beautiful landscapes on his trek across the Lake District and Yorkshire dales.
“There’s a huge amount of open space in northern England. And I would suggest that any traveller from New Zealand do the Coast To Coast walk. It’s a completely different sort of England to the one you see on the telly.”
But isn’t it a shame about Sellafield, the giant nuclear power station on the Cumbrian coast which can be seen in the first episode?
“No, no. The thing I felt about Sellafield was that now I understand how people would have felt in the Middle Ages when they were first confronted by a castle. The way Sellafield dominates the landscape, the way it says, ‘You can’t come in, we’ve got all the control, all the power, we’re on a prominent vantage point so that we can see everything around us’.”
Talk of castles and the Middle Ages brings us back to Blackadder. Did he feel typecast as Baldrick?
“I know there are some actors who get upset about their characters being constantly mentioned but I’ve never felt like that. It would be extraordinarily churlish if I did.
“I didn’t achieve any success until I was about 38, so I am grateful for what I got out of Baldrick.”
Robinson, who was on the Labour Party’s executive committee from 2000-2004, and was active in The Make Poverty History campaign against Conservative Party spending cuts, was knighted for his public and political service in 2013.
How did a lifelong socialist feel about that?
“Fantastic. I wasn’t expecting it and when it happened I was absolutely blown away. As far as I know I have only one life and to have it recognised is so cool.”
Tony Robinson’s Coast To Coast, Living Channel, starts Sunday April 23.