'I forget Baldrick is me'
It's been 34 years since Tony Robinson first appeared in Blackadder. As Yesterday screen all four series of the much-loved comedy, the actor reflects on why it's still so fresh today
Tony Robinson is on sparkling form today - chatty, quit-witted and ebullient as you'd expect - and he puts it down to having had his coffee: "It's like cocaine for the older man, isn't it?!"
We're discussing the enduring appeal of Blackadder, the TV comedy which made his name - and which is being celebrated with a special season over Easter on Yesterday.
He says the series' timelessness stems partly from it being historical.
"You don't look at a Holbein and go, 'God that's dated!', do you? You think it's a Tudor painting - and likewise with our Tudor stuff." He produces a newspaper article with a picture showing the familiar cast of the second series, Blackadder II - Rowan Atkinson, Tim McInnerny, Miranda Richardson as Queen Elizabeth I and Stephen Fry - all posing together.
"The wigs, the costumes, each individual person looks like someone out of a Holbein, don't they? It's quite extraordinary. The look of it doesn't date."
The laughs don't date either - just a quick search for clips online shows Robinson's lines as Edmund Blackadder's dim-witted sidekick Baldrick seem as fresh now as they were when the four series aired throughout the Eighties.
"Well that's the kind of comedy I had worked towards for years. I was really interested in trying to do stuff that was as spare as possible, which was one of the reasons the notion of the white-faced clown was very much part of Baldrick, as far as I was concerned. The audience had to do the work in their imagination. Who is this person? Why is he like is? Is he actually very smart and is avoiding problems? Is he really as stupid as he appears?"
In the first series, set in 1485, the dynamic between Blackadder, played by Rowan Atkinson, and Baldrick was slightly different - Blackadder coming across as far more bumbling and Baldrick far less of an idiot than in later incarnations.
Robinson, who received a knighthood in 2013 and turned 70 last August, explains the "gear change" for Baldrick was driven by Ben Elton, who came on board as a writer, joining Richard Curtis and producer John Lloyd, for the second series.
"Although he was a fan of the first series, he recognised its shortcomings, which were legion, and said that to give the storyline a dynamic, you needed a Blackadder who was smart when surrounded by his own people, but when he transferred that smartness, those cunning plans as it were, to the court, he was completely at sea, at a loss, struggling.
"So to do that, you had to make sure that the people in the kitchen with him were virtually brain dead to make him look better. Once we were in that position, we realised what comedy gold there was to mine by having [Baldrick] really stupid."
The actor says he never tired of delivering Baldrick's famous catchphrase, 'I've got a cunning plan'.
"Once you were aware that was like a little comedy hand grenade, how could you not want to say it?" he says, adding that he doesn't recognise himself when he catches repeats on TV these days: "I'll often stay with it for about five minutes and I forget it's me."
He's quick to burst another myth - none of those times Baldrick was hit by Blackadder hurt a bit.
"Rowan was such a pussycat. If you look very closely, all of those swipes he took are miles away from me. It was me who was going, 'Come closer, come closer', and he didn't want to because he didn't want to hurt me. What made those work was partially that they were shot very well, but also the sound that was dumped on. It was always a jaw-breaking sound that made everybody wince!"
The cunningly named fourth series, Blackadder Goes Forth, was set in the First World War and poignantly ended with the episode 'Goodbyeee', in which Blackadder and co, now serving in the trenches, go over the top.
"I think there was some trepidation when they came to transmission that there might be a negative reaction... I can remember we held our breath slightly, that we might get some adverse comments. But it didn't happen," Robinson recalls.
"I think we were very confident because we all knew that we wanted to take the mickey not out of the people who died, but of the madness that lead to those people dying. Nobody had a clue what to do other than throw men at the bombs."
While the series was well-received, the idea that it should be shown in schools as an aide to teach history, was not so well-received by former Education Secretary Michael Gove - and Robinson admits they had a "row" about it.
"He thought it was inappropriate that Blackadder Goes Forth should be incorporated into teaching the First World War, which I thought was a very stupid observation. But people can think what they like. Mind you, shortly after that he was removed as Minister of State for Education and is now not even in the cabinet, so I think I won!"
He's used to having spats with trolls on Twitter over his political opinions (he's long been a Labour supporter, but is not a fan of Jeremy Corbyn), and tells a tale of a four-letter-word rant that can't be repeated in print - suffice to say the troll was quickly dispatched by Robinson's wit. But he keeps it all in perspective.
"It's just people making a noise, isn't it? No one has ever bled because they've been on the receiving end of a tweet."
London-born Robinson honed his craft from a young age - at just 13, he appeared on stage in the original West End version of Oliver! as a member of Fagin's gang, before training at the Central School of Speech and Drama and setting up his own theatre company, as well as small stints on TV.
When Blackadder came calling, he was 38 and very much in parenting mode (he has a son and a daughter from a relationship that lasted 17 years), so success was secondary.
"I'm lucky in that I got so much training and so much experience in so many forms, and by the time I started being successful was round about 40, so I had the confidence of a middle-aged man. I'd lost my kids in a supermarket, that's what's important. The fact you might have a hit in a television [didn't matter]. 'Find my child, and I need never have another hit!'"
Robinson, who's been happily married to Louise Hobbs, 36, since 2011, and has two grandchildren, thinks we're living in a 'Golden Age' of TV now, with "more people writing great parts for unstereotypical women", but doesn't worry about parts for older actors drying up: "I'm offered more work than I'm able to do, so how could I possibly stand on a soap box?"
As for whether another series of Blackadder might be possible in future, he says: "My guess is that the ship has sailed."
:: Blackadder Season starts on Yesterday on Monday, April 10 and is available as catch-up on UKTV Play