Reviewed by Laura Marriott
Like many people I first came to know Tony Robinson through his role as Baldrick on Blackadder, before following him as he helmed Time Team. This autobiography, though, shows that there is so much more to Robinson than that. Starting out as a child actor he has led an exceptional life, which he tells in an easy going, funny and fluid way in his long awaited autobiography No Cunning Plan.
The cover note gives this humorous insight into what is to come:
… Along the way he was bullied by Steve Marriott, failed to impress Liza Minnelli and was pushed into a stinking London dock by John Wayne. He also entertained us with Maid Marion and Her Merry Men (which he wrote and starred in) and coped manfully when locked naked outside a theatre in Lincoln during the live tour of comedy series Who Dares Wins. He presented Time Team for twenty years, watching countless gardens ruthlessly dug up in the name of archaeology, and risked life and limb filming The Worst Jobs in History. Packed full of incident and insight, No Cunning Plan is a funny, self- deprecating and always entertaining read.
Having made his stage debut when still at school Robinson later adventured to drama school where he thought he would be one ahead of the rest of his classmates. However he soon found himself challenged, engaged and eventually married. His life as a bohemian in Bristol, living in an improvised commune, or collective, called Fred’s Place, makes one yearn for the vibrancy and sense of friendship and adventure that spawned such an idea. Living in Bristol and staying in London regularly is an antidote to the idea that to have a creative career one must live in the capital. He touches on the upsides and downsides of this arrangement, but one thing that shines through is that wherever he goes he seems to develop close relationships that last through the decades. He deals touchingly and honestly with the loss of both his parents to dementia. The death of his father also coincided with the collapse of his long term relationship with Mary, the mother of his two children Luke and Laura, in what proves to be a deeply sad episode in his life.
I have followed his TV career for many years but was still surprised at Robinson’s sheer volume of output, ranging from theatre, to books, to TV. As a long term Labour supporter and unionist he has led an active political life that is touched upon throughout No Cunning Plan. There are several brilliant anecdotes. From irritating a young Liza Minnelli, to becoming enchanted with Helen Mirren when finding out she picked up a tattoo in a Marseille brothel, to being thrown in the Thames by John Wayne, to sharing a trailer with Richard Attenborough, and of course staring alongside Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder.
It is from the now infamous 80s comedy that the title comes from. During the filming for series three the actors would work on the scripts after they had been created. The punchline that Robinson has become known for originally wasn’t his:
At least four characters, including Percy and Blackadder, had mentioned their ‘cunning plans’ in the first two series. But in the second episode of series three Baldrick accidentally destroyed Dr Johnson’s newly written dictionary and wanted to replace it. ‘I have a plan,’ he said according to the script. I suggested I add the word ‘cunning’ to my line, to make it seem a more considered plan, one that was devious and unique, something I was deeply proud of no matter how ridiculous it might turn out to be. And when the others agreed this was a good idea, I remember thinking that it might be useful if I used the phrase in future episodes, because it could be deployed to put nonsensical strategies in Blackadder’s mind which he wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. Thirty years later at least one person a day still comes up to me and says, ‘Ere, Tone, you got a cunning plan?’, and I smile and nod with amusement as I’m bound to do.
I devoured this read in just a few days and have gone on to recommend it to others. Reading it is likely to leave the reader feeling warm and comforted, but also keen to live a life as full and interesting as Robinson’s seems to have been. The text skips along and strikes a good balance between detail and narrative propulsion, avoiding the trap that so many fall into of focusing intently on one’s youth and bypassing the gossip that many readers may be hoping for. Blackadder is not given as much focus as some may hope: his entry into the comedy and his feelings around his co-stars are expressed in just a few pages.
No Cunning Plan also illuminates his writing career; from staging, writing and directing plays as a teenager, to leading various theatre groups to his successful writing career, most notably in his books for children and TV series (including the nostalgia trip Maid Marion and Her Merry Men). Robinson is easy to like and spend some time with; this is easy to devour autobiography.
Laura Marriott is a historian, theatre critic, writer and poet. Find her at lauramarriottwriting.wordpress.com
Tony Robinson, No Cunning Plan: My Story (Sidgwick & Jackson, 2017). 978-1509815494, 432pp., paperback.
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