When the laughter has to stop

Comic turned campaigner Tony Robinson tells Simeon Brody why he wants to see 100,000 older people and their carers blockade Downing Street

He may be best known for playing loveable buffoon Baldrick in TV comedy Blackadder or presenting the good-humoured archaeological antics of Time Team but there is one issue Tony Robinson is very angry about.

“My dream would be to see a hundred thousand elderly people and their carers outside 10 Downing Street not allowing anybody entrance or exit until they’ve had a conversation with the prime minister. Not once, but every week until the issue has started to be addressed properly.”

That issue is the way older people are cared for in the UK, which Robinson describes as “patchy and at worst abysmal”. He experienced at first hand the “tick box” approach to care, with little concern for dignity or happiness, when both his parents reached the end of their lives.

He made a television programme, Me and My Mum, about the care of his mother, who was suffering from dementia and died during filming.

He describes the experience of “finding that strong and capable people no longer have that strength or capability any more and finding that support networks which one might have expected to be there, the traditional ways of looking after the elderly have long since gone and been replaced by not much of quality”.

To make matters worse, it is always considered a “private tragedy” one must face alone rather than something to be tackled collectively, as with many other issues.

Robinson says it is impossible to exaggerate the scale of the problem and the “cruelty” inherent in the system, not just in nursing and care homes but “what’s laughably called ‘the community’.”

“There’s a kind of low-level abuse which isn’t to do with theft or assault or sexual attack but is actually to do with not recognising that someone is a human being like you are.”

Even the smallest things, such as allowing older women to have access to cosmetics and have their nails painted could make a big difference, Robinson argues.

But funding priorities also have to “change enormously”, he insists. The government’s dignity campaign (news, page 11, 16 November) is “a rather ridiculous, cosmetic response” falling on poorly paid care staff, when what is needed is politics on the scale of Labour’s late 1990s drive for better education. Robinson gained election to the party’s national executive committee in 2000, stepping down in 2004.

Robinson says he has met many care workers who are “caring and loving”. He stresses he can only describe his own experiences, but adds: “I met some who seemed appallingly badly trained with a grasp of care and often a grasp of language which left them unable to communicate with those they were supposed to look after. I felt there wasn’t much sense of the potential of the job.”

The situation may be dire but the comic believes humour has a crucial role to play. “If you go into an elderly people’s home, once you’re able to wrest them out of the institutional torpor you will find extremely funny people and often extremely rude people. There’s nothing better than a dirty joke from an 80-year-old. So much of the stuff around old age is quite difficult – to look at these problems with defiance includes a big role for humour.”

“I’ve made a conscious decision not to have idols any longer; they all turn out to have feet of clay. People I have invested faith in have turned out to have not only feet but knees,  thighs and bottoms of clay.”

WHO WOULD PLAY YOU IN A FILM OF YOUR LIFE? “The young Steve McQueen because we are so hip and similar and also small and ride motorbikes.”

● Tony Robinson is the guest presenter at this year’s Community Care Awards.

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Simeon Brody



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