By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
History has got hip. And genealogy is getting radical. Popular history's poster boy, Tony Robinson, explains why the past means so much to the present. And how a "turnip-loving moron" came to his rescue.
Radical genealogy. They're not words that usually go together. But Tony Robinson isn't the usual kind of history presenter. He's not so much the history man as the history bloke.
Forget the dusty archives and fake-heraldry of family trees, Robinson speaks with passion about how family history can change the way people see themselves and the world around them.
"How do you know who you are unless you know where you came from?"
Robinson, presenter of the Time Team archaeology programme and formerly Baldrick from Blackadder, says that putting genealogical information online, such as the 1841 census, will have far-reaching implications.
"Up until now, it has been the preserve of aristocrats and kings and queens. But suddenly, for the first time, everyone has got the possibility of owning, not just their own semi like Mrs Thatcher wanted, but also owning their own history."
"None of us know how it will affect the zeitgeist once it is out there. But inevitably it will mean changes. It's more important than people have clocked onto yet."
My dad fell to the ground saying 'I'm not Jewish, I'm not Jewish'
"In my own case, people have always said that I looked Jewish, and my dad was beaten up by the Fascists in the East End in 1938 for being Jewish - and he fell to the ground saying 'I'm not Jewish, I'm not Jewish.'
"But now, when I look back in my genealogy, I see that my great great great grandmother is Julia Levy - and suddenly there's a new perception on who I am."
If they'd had ancestry websites in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, he says "it wouldn't half have been difficult to find an Aryan race".
Robinson, an engaging, spiky 59 year old, says that "ancestry is archaeology without the muddy hands".
And it's archaeology with which he is currently most associated - with Time Team pulling off the unlikely trick of successfully combining reality television with bejumpered academics.
If Robinson has thrived as the bloke-in-the-pub interpreter for these history professionals, he says it's a reflection of his own background.
In The Rag Trade, 1975 (left) and as Baldrick in Blackadder III, 1987
"I didn't go to university, I left school at 16. There's part of me that's a stroppy auto-didact that feels 'why should knowledge be the preserve of just some people?'.
"I used to attempt to read hard books and didn't really understand them - and then I realised that this vocabulary was an artificial barrier - and it made me angry and shirty."
Robinson's route into becoming the acceptable face of archaeology was an odd one - through a "turnip-loving moron". At the age of 36, he got the part of Baldrick, the wart-sporting, rat-trapping fall guy in the Blackadder series.
The comedy was a popular and critical success - and "suddenly doors opened". He was able to make his own documentaries.
Leaving a mark
"By the time I started the first Blackadder I'd already been acting for a quarter of a century. Suddenly to be able to tell my own stories about something that mattered was an enormous liberation."
And it meant he was able to explore his passion for history, archaeology and genealogy, including his work as spokesperson for a genealogy website, ancestry.co.uk.
"Archaeology is about the mark of ordinary people on the landscape - it isn't mostly gold chariots and tiaras, it's mostly bits of old fence."
I didn't set out to be the Jamie Oliver for the elderly
"It's the mark of one person that is so exciting, one person's thumbprint. Recently we dug up something with a mason's mark, it was one geezer, one artisan, that I had a little relationship with. It's an anchor for your imagination.
"There's something terribly reassuring knowing that someone was in this field 700 years ago who made this mark."
History is now part of the television mainstream - and its lens is already being turned on re-interpreting the 20th Century. So how does Robinson think our own era will be seen?
What future historians will find most appalling will be the way that old people are treated, he says - a point made powerfully in his documentary this year about his mother's death.
"People will look back on our treatment of the elderly with the same kind of disbelief that we look back on child labour. We think how could they have done that?
"Yet, at present, we consign a high proportion of our frail elderly to low-level torture for the last few years of their lives - and almost completely cut it out of our imaginations. It's creepy, weird stuff."
The BBC's Who Do You Think You Are series taps into the genealogy bug
"I didn't set out to be the Jamie Oliver for the elderly," he says. But this latest campaign adds to a career that already includes an eclectic mix of actor, director, presenter, documentary maker, political activist and author.
Whatever the subject, he says it can be made accessible and appealing to a wide audience.
"Get the story right and they'll listen - there are no uninteresting subjects, just uninteresting ways of talking about them." Cunning, very cunning.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Writing as archivists, we are delighted that Tony Robinson hasn't fallen for the dusty archives stereotype. At the busy county record office where we work, the documents (and the people!) don't sit around long enough to gather dust. Up to 90 people a day come and use the archives to find out about all sorts of subjects. Family history yes, as you'd expect, but also countless other things, including house history, legal enquiries, industrial history, the world-famous Gloucestershire sport of cheese rolling, and even the history of knitting! Archives rock! (or is that radical geology?!)
Karen Cooke and Kate Maisey, Gloucestershire Archives, Gloucester
As Who Do You Think You Are has shown, genealogy is endlessly fascinating and moving, even if you don't have a glamorous background. Two afternoons on the internet allowed me to track my relatives back to my great great great grandfather, a cabinet maker from Derby. He raised six kids and lost two wives to early death. His last census appearance records him living alone, as a lodger in a pub with no sign of family support. I found that profoundly moving. It does change your view of the world and your place in it.
When I met Tony about 1975 he was touring with an acting group in Bristol, visiting prisons and borstals and the like. So he has never been simply a thespian! He was a really interesting and likeable guy and one occasion he gave me a lift on his motorbike across Bristol to attend an interview. I have always laid claim to the fact that I have been on the back of Baldrick's motorbike!
Ted Wilson, Stockport
I think Tony Robinson and his programmes are fantastic. I got hooked onto history with his programme Blood and Honey, which was on while I was at school. He made things like the Old Testament seem amazingly interesting while the R.E teachers I had made the topic seem dull and wholly uninteresting.
At long last there is a TV series produced that I look forward to watching......Who Do You Think You Are? is one of the best programmes I have ever watched........No bad language, no stroppy self -obsessed, vulnerable adults trying to seek the nation's attention ... well done, everyone involved ... lets have more!
Linda Allen, Belfast
Tony Robinson is quite right when he says "How do you know who you are unless you know where you came from?" I've been tracing my family tree for the past 10 years and have traced my ancestral roots back to the remote parts of Weardale in the north of England in the 1600's. I feel that by knowing who your ancestors were, where they lived, how they lived, what their lives were like, etc certainly explains what makes you YOU! It also gives you a great sense of belonging - especially when you finally come "face-to-face" with a long distant ancestor - such as your Great, Great Great Grandparents - by way of an old sepia photograph as has happened to me. I have also found that my Gt, Gt, Gt, Gt, Gt Uncle was a chap called George Roddam who was King George IV doctor. By finding out such things, you really start to see how you fit into your family's history.
Patrick Linsley, Bournemouth, Dorset
I heartily agree with Tony Robinson's comment that we should look with shame on our current treatment of the elderly. Past generations and other cultures view older people as worthy of respect for their wealth of life knowledge, yet we treat them as if their lives are worth nothing. I hope we wake up to this soon, and reassess the way our society should behave.
I think that TR and the likes (including Bill Oddie, Adam Hart Davies and the Snows) are a new breed of educator. They add that little something extra that was not available in school. In fact they go down to the nitty gritty of every day life from toilet habits right up to political persuasions and they present it in a fashion that is palpable. They tell it as it was, warts and all.
I'm always bemused that the Time Team seem to be able to take a document from a local Public Records Office, and lay it out in the pub and slop beer over it.. they've obviously never actually met a public records archivist.
Pam White, Winchester
I am fascinated by geneology but unfortunately I will find it very hard to trace my ancestors. A lot of the time people find ancestral lines via surnames. In my family, we are from Bangladesh originally, it is usual for a lot of people from South Asia to not carry their surnames to the next generation so it's difficult to find out about past history. Many South Asians give each child a new surname. It is becoming more usual now to carry on the surname but there are generations of people who don't know the names of past relatives past the grandfather/mother line. Shame.
Tony Robinson insensitively spouts "how do you know who you are if you don't know where you came from" - I was adopted at six weeks old and have no knowledge of my birth family, does that mean I suffer from an identity crisis? I don't think so.
Angela Jordan, Stourbridge
Robinson makes a damn good point about the Nazis. There's strong evidence that senior men like Eichmann had a strong Jewish ancestry. It that could have been proven in the 30s the Holocaust could never have happened. The more knowledge we have the better.
My partner is a Phd archaeologist and worked a couple of years back on a site which Time Team were invited on to. I find it amusing that TR apparently gets quite annoyed if anyone talks about his role in you know what (Blackadder) as apparently "he has done other stuff since then". Granted the cunning plan stuff must get a bit much, but if he hadn't done that he wouldn't be doing the stuff he does now. Look at Tom Baker - he considers the Doctor Who stuff the best years of his life.
I totally applaud people like Tony and Adam Hart Davies as they take what has been considered dull and dry and make it live. For me and my children especially, they make the subjects accessible and provide a balance between dry academia and tabloid sensationalism.
Andrew Clarke, Sandbach England
His approach is long overdue and much appreciated as an alternative to the monarchy and military teaching of history. There must be a colossal amount of material relating to the 19th and early 20th centuries that would stand some review and programme development. Running the Somme stories with this piece makes the point. It might be interesting to look into what the returning troops actually came home to in 1918/1919.
Phil Mortimer, Bognor Regis, West Sussex
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