The actor and 'Time Team' presenter Tony Robinson once had a cunning little van

Tony Robinson's holiday job when a student sounds like something straight out of his Time Team series. He was at Central School of Speech and Drama, in training for such future roles as Blackadder's Baldrick, and by the end of the summer term, funds would be low. To keep the wolf from the stage door, he took on employment which, while not qualifying for his C4 series The Worst Jobs in History, certainly weren't easy.

Of all the low-paid positions he took on, which feature in the new DVD of his live show, his favourite was working for a "ship's victualler", a Dickensian-sounding trade involving supplying provisions to small-scale commercial shipping. "They gave me a little van and I drove down to the boats in the London docks, Canvey Island or Shoeburyness. I'd find a ship moored there – not liners but, say, a Newcastle coal boat – and find out what food they wanted from my list, and then go back to the vast warehouse in Stepney.

"It was a seller's market, and I never had to say, 'I've got these fantastic beans'. These were hungry men, and when they said they wanted three tins of beans, they were tins the size of a wrestler's head. The meat was whole sides of beef.

"You'd go into the freezer and scrape the mould and worms off with a penknife. I had – and still have – the physique of an ant, but I would have to carry sacks of potatoes weighing a hundredweight.

"I was there at the end of the glory days of the docks. These were cusping times: I was 17 in 1963, between the austerity of the Fifties and the Carnaby Street of the mid-Sixties. All that life and geography has disappeared. I would be delivering to Canary Wharf when it was still a wharf. It was derelict when I went back for a bit part in a John Wayne film of 1975 called Brannigan. I played some red-herring character; Wayne played an FBI man and threw me into the water. Now, of course, Canary Wharf is the epicentre of 21st-century international capitalism."

Robinson does not consider that it was specifically this work in the East End that propelled him into Labour Party activism. Yet he is concerned that the some of the local people that he met then will not have had a good deal in their later days. "We don't look after our elderly citizens as a prosperous society should," he says. "I am really passionate about pensions."

He is still grateful to his fellow-drivers back then, all men in their thirties and forties, who were very protective of their teenage colleague. And he was very grateful at the time that, thanks to his skill at the poker games that they all played during their lunch breaks, he used to take home £9 a week instead of just his £6 wages.



'Tony Robinson's Cunning Night Out' DVD is released on 5 November

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