■ The actor turned presenter, 73, on lockdown lessons we can learn from VE Day and what history tells us about pandemics
What made you decide to do a documentary on VE Day?
A number of my friends were working on it. I’d worked for Discovery before, doing 3D shows about World War I and World War II, and I think they thought the audience would be confident I knew what I was talking about.
Did you learn anything you didn’t know before?
An enormous amount. It’s a celebration at the end of a terrible time so it’s a really joyous watch. It’s extraordinarily well timed because we’re beginning to discuss some kind of endgame to the lockdown. The feeling I get seeing clips of VE Day is exactly what I hope we’ll all have when it happens.
Will people be able to relate to VE Day more this year?
Enormously so. The confusion at the time: there was going to be a public holiday on May 8 but nobody was quite sure what time it started or finished, what transport would be running, whether people were supposed to be going to work, what shops were open. The first few hours were chaos. It’s like when lockdown started.
What can we learn from that time in relation to what we’re going through now?
That there were times in Britain when something even more terrible has happened. It’s still in the memory of the oldest people and they got out of it, in the main, with dignity and joy. You can stretch the analogy that lockdown is like wartime too far but in terms of the way the nation has to organise itself, the discipline we need to have, the way we have to look after each other and that politicians have to behave much better than they normally do, it’s very similar. After World War II the whole country was transformed. I suspect that by the time things get back to how they were, a huge number of things will have changed in ways we can’t possibly imagine at the moment. I don’t think this great wave of assertion of the importance of the NHS will go away, and how much more vital NHS workers are than, dare I say, celebrities.
You were born the year after VE Day. Were you told a lot about it as a kid?
My mum and dad were young working-class people from Hackney who were called up — my dad in the RAF, my mum in the WAAF — and it was the most exciting period in their lives. A lot of people ask when I became interested in history and it’s probably before I was old enough to speak. Dad used to do the gardening in his old RAF uniform.
How was your Blackadder episode where Baldrick kisses Percy?
It never felt like kissing Percy. I was always kissing Tim McInnerny, who was not my favourite snog!
It catapulted you to the world of presenting. do you feel more comfortable there?
I was a child actor and by the time we did the Blackadder pilot I was 38. Given that no one was ever going to ask me to play Romeo or Hamlet, the repetition of what I was doing was just beginning to bore a little. Then through Comic Relief I did documentary work, which was an enormous liberation.
Were you in the middle of anything before lockdown?
I was just about to start a second series on the Thames. I had a year’s work ahead of me and it all disappeared in that day. Like any freelancer, under normal circumstances that would’ve made me absolutely rigid with paranoia but I feel philosophical about it. I have that problem and so does Brad Pitt! What concerns me is what will happen to theatre. How long will it be before people have the confidence to come back to see great shows? Or will we have to reinvent what live performance is?
Are you being productive and writing books?
I’d actually started a novel about England post-Brexit and all that I’d written is totally irrelevant now all this has happened. It’s going to take me a while to redevelop it or start something else. So it’s given my wife and me the opportunity to do all those things we were going to do to the house for years. We also got a little rescue dog from the RSPCA in Derby about three days before lockdown so we’ve been gradually coaxing her out of her shell.
Do you have a cunning plan to help us out of lockdown?
Don’t lick the doorknobs! We’ve got to take our time about extracting ourselves from lockdown. If you look at most epidemics since Roman times, there’s a second wave that happens six to eight months after the first. We’re not sitting indoors in order to cure ourselves, it’s to give the NHS, the scientists and us a bit of breathing space. Because until the vaccine comes we have just the same vulnerability as at the beginning of March. We have to all be rigorous if we don’t want to have an awful, abrupt end to our lives.
■ Tony Robinson’s VE Day: Minute By Minute premieres on Discovery at 9pm tomorrow