Passed/Failed: An Education In The Life Of Tony Robinson, Actor, Author and Broadcaster

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The Independent Online
Tony Robinson plays Baldrick in `Blackadder' and presents the archaeological series `Time Team' on Channel 4. He has just published the `Hutchinson Book of Kings & Queens'

Primary School: It was a little private school with a very posh sounding name, as if it was preparing you for Winchester. In fact, it wasn't a school of "fag" and "tuck"; I later learnt that the teacher I was most terrified of - she was such a bully, with that cold contempt for children - died penniless because they hadn't paid her stamps.

My mum and dad were a working-class family who desperately wanted their son to pass the 11-plus. In my neighbourhood the exam was about shame: whether you passed or failed. It felt like a class distinction: there were people who could make it, and those who couldn't.

Secondary School: I thought that Wanstead County High was so sexy; it was a mixed grammar and the older blokes looked so cool and all the girls looked like Audrey Hepburn. I suspect that the staff were very progressive people but I was probably the worst kind of pupil. I was disruptive in class. I was in the A-stream because I was good at IQ tests but bottom of the class: I got eight out of 100 for Latin.

Last week I was sorting out my mother's papers; she had saved my reports and they were dreadful - horrible things like: "Both staff and prefects have had quite enough of Anthony's sense of humour. He seems to be getting more childish." At 11, that's such a put-down.

Half the time I was going up to London and being a child actor. I was always good at acting and what was called "elocution" - a word which does not spring much to the lips these days - and my mum and dad saw an ad in the newspaper for the original production of Oliver! with Ron Moody. After auditioning, I got in and became a marketable commodity. One day I would be carrying a plate of oranges on to a rugby field for Judy Garland and Dirk Bogarde in the film of I Could Go On Singing, and the next day I would be reading Isaac Asimov in class behind my French textbook, then going to a CND meeting in the evening.

I was a bookie at school; if somebody had threepence-ha'penny at 11-to- 4, I could tell you instantly what their winnings would be. But I was completely useless at maths. English was a doddle, not like working. And history was like football; I couldn't understand why other people didn't like it. In Woodford, which was Winston Churchill's constituency, you were forced to have a historical perspective: I remember seeing his statue on Woodford Green and people saying, "This great man" and "This great war". And my view was, "How can I know who I am if I don't know where I come from?"

I've got four O-levels - which should actually be taken away from me. I cheated. (I had played the Artful Dodger...) I took in a Robert Graves novel in case I finished early during the exams - and in faint pencil there would be written some French vocabulary.

Drama School: They said, "We want to put you into the Oxbridge set." I panicked. This would mean Latin O-level, maths O-level and three A-levels. I said, "I want to go to drama school." The Central School of Speech and Drama was the making of me. Round about the time I left there, I began to understand that working - rather than preventing me from living life to the full - could be the rocket fuel enabling me to do just that.

One of the great things about being Baldrick was that, because I was associated with glittering Oxbridge characters, everyone assumed I had three good A-levels and that I failed to get a Cambridge first only because I was too busy at the Footlights.