Masterpiece Theatre to Master Chef: The Robin Ellis Interview
Fans of British TV remember Robin Ellis as the title character in the classic costume drama series Poldark. In recent years, the actor has also turned his attention to blogging and cooking. Kieran Kinsella recently had the opportunity to speak with Robin and began by asking him about his memorable appearance in a famous sitcom.
You had a major role in the first ever episode of the British comedy classic Fawlty Towers. What was that experience like and did you have any idea that the show would become such a hit?
“The episode I was in was actually the pilot episode and it was filmed six months before the rest of the show so it was a bit surprising that it became a huge hit. Obviously, John Cleese was very well known from Monty Python and was almost a national icon even then. You could tell from the writing that it was going to be funny so I thought it had a good chance of being a success but the phenomenal success that it had was surprising. I think it was partly because they kept it to 12 episodes so the quality of the writing was very good.
John Cleese is a very serious character so it was a hard week of work just before Christmas in 1974. I remember that I had to say one line of Spanish to Manuel, after which Basil was rather more impressed with me. Well, I did not know a word of Spanish and it was in front of a live studio audience to it was pretty hairy because as an actor you have an instinct to look at the audience but because it’s TV you have to look at the camera instead. Anyway, I said my Spanish line with my fingers gripping the inside of my palm and I actually got it right but the director said ‘Sorry Robin we’ll have to do it again because there was a camera in the shot.’ So I had to do the whole ghastly business again!
I am glad I did it though as it was very enjoyable. I actually had to re-shoot one bit with Polly because after the pilot they changed her character a bit. By that point, I had dyed my hair so it was dark with copper tints for Poldark. So they had to pin it up because it looked rather different but if you look carefully you can still see it in the restaurant scene.”
Poldark is probably your best known work. You filmed the show down in Cornwall. What was that like?
“Well we filmed in London but then we did four sets of two weeks down in Cornwall and that gave the show its authentic feeling because Cornwall is very atmospheric and brooding. It was nice for us because we got a break from studio work and we got to know Cornwall which was nice because I had not been there since I was a kid. It was a heavy schedule as we did 16 episodes in nine weeks. We had five days of rehearsals, two days in the studio and then two days off.
I did my own riding which my wife Meredith seemed to doubt but at some point, I did manage to convince her that I did it myself and I was rather proud of that. I had a wonderful horse called Dennis in the first series and he was a 12 year old steeple-chaser. Since the show was outside union limits, they got horses that weren’t used to filming and Dennis was very lively. He was a bit of an actor and I am convinced that he would smile when we were filming. He did throw me a couple of times.
I also remember one time we were crossing Bodmin Moor in a stage coach and they tied the camera man to the roof as the TV company were trying to hurry things up and get as much filming in as they could. Well, as usually happens when you rush things, the coach went over a boulder and turned over on its side and broke the cameraman’s leg. He was very lucky that was all that happened. I remember that for two or three hours after that, I wept every time I went to speak just from shock.”
It is now more than 30 years since Poldark was on TV but it has a Facebook fan page with a thousand fans and it is still one of the best loved British shows to have been on PBS in America. Why do you think the show is still so popular?
“It’s true it is still very popular. We were just over in the States actually and met with people from a firm called Acorn who are distributing a box set of Poldark on DVD later this year. Clearly there is a market for it otherwise — they would not be releasing it. I can tell from the blog that I write each day — which is not solely Poldark targeted — that the audience is still there. It is not even just the older audience, it is a younger generation now too. I think it’s because the quality of Winston Graham’s writing is wonderful. The show came out of the seven books that he wrote about these amazing characters. They are emotional and real. He was a very emotional writer and that kind of writing does not age or date. The production values may date a little bit although I think it is very noticeable when you watch the show that there is not much use of music. That means the audience have to think much more whereas now there is too much use of music and people use music as a way of telling the viewers what they are supposed to feel. I like it the old way with less music and I think that also gives it its appeal.”
In 1980, you were in a CBS TV production of The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb. The show had an all-star cast that included Raymond Burr, Eva Marie Saint, Harry Andrews and Tom Baker. What were they like to work with?
“It was absolutely extraordinary. Ian McShane had been given the part and then one Sunday I was painting a bedroom in my home in Kensington when my agent rang and said ‘Can you go to Cairo?’ They had been filming in Lord Carnarvon’s house and they were in an old car above the valley but the brakes went wrong and it went over the top. Ian McShane threw himself out of the window and broke his leg while Eva Marie Saint was in the back but survived. Ian then had to withdraw from filming so I came in to replace him.
We did a bit of filming in England at Carnarvon’s house which was Highclere which they also used in Downton Abbey, and then we went back to Egypt. It was wonderful. We filmed in the Valley of the Monkey’s in January when it was incredibly hot. I had to wear a three-piece suit which is what the Edwardians wore as they made no concessions for the weather. We stayed in the Winter Palace hotel where Carter stayed and we crossed the Nile every morning to go to work.
I had always admired Harry Andrews from a distance and Eva Marie Saint was incomparable. She had won an Oscar for her first film, On the Waterfront so it was thrilling to work with her. Raymond Burr was playing an invented character who was a wicked Arab guy. He was dressed in what seemed like 400 yards of colored silk every day. Tom Baker came out for a few days. I had no scenes with him but I remember having a drink with him at the hotel bar.
Funnily enough, I just ordered it on VHS as it’s not on DVD. I have never seen it actually and although it’s not the greatest piece of work, it was great fun to do.”
Away from TV. A few years again you discovered that you were diabetic. What kind of impact did that news have on your lifestyle?
“Well at first I just had the usual reaction which was shock. Then I thought ‘Why me?’ but I knew about Diabetes because my mother had type one when she was in her thirties. She died at age 68 of a heart attack which was associated with it so I knew how serious it was. My French doctor took it very seriously too and though I wasn’t tremendously over weight, I adapted a bit. I cook, so we have always eaten well but I changed various things that I was used to eating like white bread and white rice and other quickly converted carbohydrates. I read a book by a very clever man called Michel Montignac. He said that to have a healthy weight, you should not diet but you should develop a way of eating. In my case, I paid attention to the glycemic index and the foods that quickly affect your blood sugar levels. We live a few hours away from the Mediterranean and the markets are very good so our way of cooking tends to include tomatoes, olive oil and garlic.”
In August, you are releasing a cook book called Delicious Dishes for Diabetics–A Mediterranean Way of Eating. Have you always been interested in cooking?
“Yes I have. My mother was a good cook, a traditional cook. We never had a huge amount of money but she was a very skilled cook so I learned to like good food. When I was living on my own before I got married, I would spend 40 minutes cooking in the evening and make something that took just a few minutes to eat so I have enjoyed cooking for years.”
Is there one recipe in the book that you would particularly recommend?
“Well there are several that stand out but one is a whole wheat pasta dish. It has a tin of tomatoes with about four very thinly sliced cloves of garlic. You cook it in six or seven table spoons of olive oil and two sprigs of rosemary. You heat the olive oil and rosemary first and then when it sizzles, you add the tomatoes. When you add the pasta, you make a small hole in the middle of the mix and add a two teaspoons of balsamic vinegar. You mix it all very well so that all of the tastes mix together. It is very simple really but we love it and it works well for me because the sugar converts very slowly.”
A lot of celebrities have endorsed the book and your cooking. Now that you have gone from cooking for friends to becoming a published chef, do you feel an extra pressure when you cook?
“I guess we’ll see because we have a succession of guests coming down here over the next six weeks. I think you always feel a pressure when you are cooking. The recipes in the book are one’s that I have picked up over the years and have adapted and changed but the pressure is always there. That is where the link is with the theatre because you do your preparation but then you have to perform. There is always a certain amount of anxiety but I think you need some nerves to get that extra edge”
Looking ahead, do you see yourself focusing on writing, cooking or acting?
“At the moment I cook every day and I write every day on my blog. I will never give up acting and I will always be available for acting but it is very difficult now because the television work is much less these days due to the advent of reality TV. I don’t really want to go to London and spend six months in the theatre as I am very well occupied here. I am also updating a book I wrote called Making Poldark and it is going to be reissued by Acorn in E-book form so people can get it if they buy the box set DVD. Now with technology and everything I don’t feel cut off living out here in the South of France and it is very enjoyable here.”