Life

Tony Robinson on The Thames At Night with Tony Robinson

Tony Robinson ventures on to the River Thames after dark as part of his new TV series. We found out more from the former Blackadder star...

Tony Robinson on a trawler at Whitstable Harbour in The Thames At Night With Tony Robinson
Danielle de Wolfe

THE RIVER THAMES HAS A TRULY UNIQUE HISTORY, DOESN'T IT?

FOR the best part of 2,000 years the Thames was the lifeblood of London – and indeed of the whole of the south of England. In the 19th and the early 20th century it got so full, there was a time when you could actually cross the Thames just jumping from one ship to another.

By the time I was growing up in the 1950s, the Thames just seemed like this smelly, dirty, irrelevant black ribbon in the middle of London. In the last 20 years it's been cleaned out, so this extraordinary transformation has taken place during our lifetimes.

The fact is that all the work goes on at night – all the maintenance goes on, so much of the transportation goes on, all the servicing, and we're blissfully unaware of it. We probably think that the Thames is a bit like our granny – goes to sleep about nine o'clock in the evening, then wakes up when daylight comes.

HOW HAVE YOU NOTICED LONDON EVOLVING IN RECENT YEARS?

I spent one night at Borough Market, and Borough Market was just an ordinary working market in my lifetime. It kind of doesn't work in that way now because of transport. So what it's become is much more of a niche market. It's so highly fashionable now. You buy your fabulous breads and cheeses and exotic fruit.

DOES ANYTHING ABOUT THE CITY STILL SURPRISE YOU?

I didn't know that they did kayaking at night on the Thames, which I do in the series – nor did I know how incredibly hard kayaking against the tide is, especially when it's minus two degrees. It was one of the least fun things I've ever done. And in the end, I was so cold I had to be towed in.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE ECOSYSTEM OF A CITY THAT FASCINATES YOU?

I'm really interested in how cities come to be. When you think about how most of us are slightly lawless, we all occasionally speed, we have been known to go over orange traffic lights, we grumble about our taxes, we occasionally drop litter. Why don't cities just collapse?

There is some magic glue that holds cities together, that makes them work. That spirit of collaboration seems quite a long way away from how we tend to live our lives. Even when terrible disasters happen in cities, they seem to pick up again. I think there is some need in us to have cities. But what it is, I don't think we quite know yet.

HOW DID YOU HANDLE LOCKDOWN?

I've been in the industry now for over 60 years. Normally if you don't work for seven weeks, you think, "Oh my god, I'm never going to work again, all my friends are working. I'm just gonna die. I'm rubbish and talentless".

But when everybody stops working, you just go, "Oh, that's all right. We've all stopped working". And I really relished it. And I lost two stone – a well-needed loss, I have to say.

I loved being at home, I loved being with my wife. We had a new dog, I re-learned to garden, something I used to do with my dad when I was about 10 and hadn't done since. I read about 15 books; I made a list of 15 books actually, that I had thought I would never read before I died, and read 14 of them.

:: The Thames At Night with Tony Robinson starts on Channel 5 on Friday November 26 at 8pm.

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