Sir Tony Robinson has achieved so much in his long and successful career that it’s difficult to know where to start. A highly regarded actor whose family come from the East End of London, he’s also a presenter, writer, author, historian, political activist and charity ambassador – often taking on roles that combine his many talents, and earning himself a Knighthood in the process. Not bad for a man best known for playing Baldrick, a witless fool forever coming up with cunning plans doomed to failure in the ’80s BBC hit show Blackadder.
He caught my eye recently as the star of a short film to raise awareness of dementia, written by the brilliant cartoonist Tony Husband, who’s appeared on my podcast – twice. Entitled Joe’s Journey, the film cleverly encapsulates the confusion and fear that engulf not just Joe, who has the condition, but his loved ones and even, to a lesser extent, the kindly, puzzled strangers he encounters.
For just like Tony Husband, today’s guest has personal knowledge of what he calls “the manifold horrors” of dementia as first his dad and then his mum succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Poignantly, even as his role as Baldrick was catapulting Robinson to fame, his father’s dementia was making itself more and more apparent.
Just a few years after his father’s death his mum Phyllis developed Alzheimer’s, and when the condition worsened she moved into a care home where she lived for a further eight years. Shortly before she died, Robinson made a BBC documentary, Me and My Mum, exploring the issues around dementia and care homes. He says the public’s reaction was extraordinary, carers and people with dementia wrote him heartfelt, handwritten letters describing their own appalling situations. He went onto become an Alzheimer’s Society ambassador, believing that, though we can do little on our own, “together we can move mountains”. A sentiment with which I completely agree.
Tony Robinson has been an outspoken critic of the inhumane way in which care home residents were abandoned at the beginning of the Covid pandemic and says that though he still misses his parents – his dad died in 1989, his mum in 2005 – he’s thankful that they weren’t alive to endure the ordeal confronted by many of society’s most defenceless members.
He cites the statistic that there were in excess of 5,000 more dementia deaths than usual in the first four months of lockdown. And says that though he understands the need to protect vulnerable people living in care homes, there should have been more of a balance so that the only way a parent could see their child didn’t have to be through plate-glass, like an animal in the zoo.
“Sometimes,” he says, “the best medicine is the chance to hold the hand of the person we love”.