Sitting on the Hexham stage where he made his acting debut, Robson Green is reminiscing. Back in 1992, he flicked through a copy of the Evening Standard to see what Victor Lewis-Smith had to say about his portrayal of Jesus in the York Mystery Plays. It was somewhat less than glowing.
‘I don’t know what Robson Green was playing at,’ Lewis-Smith wrote, ‘but it was hard to believe anyone would follow him across the stage, let alone Israel.’ It was the last review Robson bothered to read.
While not all the Greens were perturbed by the criticism (‘My mum loved it. She thought the photo was really nice,’ he says), and even he laughs about it now, it clearly stung; hence, he doesn’t have much time for critics (‘Critics think they’re somehow connected to our industry and they’re not; they’re not creative individuals, in any shape or form. Personally I just think they’re embittered people who’d like to be involved’). However, if he read the reviews, professional and amateur, he’d find that pretty much everyone likes Tales From Northumberland.
Now in its third series, Tales From Northumberland is an anthology of life and lives in the county, and 51-year-old Robson is its roaming presenter who combines a deep and abiding love for and knowledge of the area with appreciation and enthusiasm for what he finds. Robson waxes lyrical about his filming experience – waxing lyrical is his default mode, with occasional gear changes into earnest reflection – but reserves particular praise for the landscape and wildlife.
‘The sounds you hear – be it the oystercatchers, kestrels, ospreys – or spotting deer, badgers, otters, or dolphins and seals off the Northumbrian coast, people would pay a lot of money to have that on their doorstep. We’re very privileged.’ That word, ‘privileged’, crops up a lot in our conversation, and he really does mean it. Whether he’s talking about his swimming sessions off the coast of Bamburgh (‘If you can swim in nine-degree water, with Iceland just around the corner, you can swim anywhere,’ he points out, not unreasonably) or wandering around College Valley, there’s a reverence in the way he talks about his home county.
A country boy from his earliest years, Robson readily admits that he’s ‘very uncomfortable with crowds and concrete jungles. I tried to survive in London, but I just couldn’t.’ In fact, he’s sure city living takes a physical toll on people.
‘For people who survive in a city for a long period of time, their sight lines bounce off concrete; after about 20 metres, your sight goes as far as a concrete building, then you turn left, there’s another concrete building. If you’ve had that all your life, and you suddenly hit the countryside and you say to somebody, “Oh, look at the deer, look at the rabbits,” they don’t know how to focus on it; it’s so alien to them.’
These days he spends his time in the places which have fulfilled him since he was a boy: ‘I go to Seahouses and have fish and chips at Pinnacles with Mum and the family, and I’ll go to Beadnell Bay and Boulmer. I go to all the places I went as a child. Some people may think it’s kind of isolationist, but it’s not; I’ve been to 132 countries around the world during my career, and it’s always beautiful to come back here and remind myself of how wonderful it is. I not only see it with a new kind of clarity, but it reminds me of why I love this place so much.’
Having explored Northumberland since he was a boy, he benefitted from gaining a new perspective in the new series of his show by flying a glider over the Northumberland National Park, a marriage of two passions: as a young man, Robson had wanted to join the Royal Air Force, and he still has a yearning ‘to wear the gear and fly at Mach 2’. The glider didn’t quite hit that velocity, though his brief spell at the controls is great to watch.
‘Telling the stories from the air was just a great way to see home,’ he says. ‘You get a sense of history, because you see the hill forts, you see Hadrian’s Wall, you see the scale; it’s gargantuan.’
You can only see so much from the air though: to understand Northumberland properly you need to get your boots muddy and meet its people, which is exactly what Robson did with Joss Naylor, a 79-year-old fell runner with whom he ran across the Cheviot Hills. Or, rather, with whom he attempted to run across the Cheviots. ‘I was being incredibly patronising to him. I said, “Joss, are you okay to walk up the hill and then run down it?” He said, “Nah, let’s run up.” Man, I lasted five minutes. He’s got an extraordinary engine on him.’
As a man who generally feels he could always have a bit more mud on his boots, Robson also launched himself into the Shrovetide football match at Alnwick. His admission that he ‘used to play a bit’ perhaps makes him overqualified to play in a mob-handed, Medieval brawl of a game played on marshland which involves an unlimited amount of players on each side, no pitch markings and a relaxed attitude to hacking, gouging and other no-holds-barred tackling methods not seen since Giant Haystacks hung up his leotard. Given his career could have been imperiled by an overzealous assailant, did he hesitate to get properly involved? ‘Oh, I got involved, mate. With Shrovetide football they really go for it. Steve McLaren would have been impressed.’
He was slightly more reticent to get involved with other activities, though; meeting Willy Robson, a beekeeper at Chain Bridge Honey Farm so in tune with his charges that Robson describes him as ‘a walking bee’, was a case in point. ‘I said, “Do they sense fear?” He said, “Yes: they sense fear, stupidity and incompetence.” I thought, “Well, I’m definitely going to get stung then.” The honey was beautiful, just stunning.’
Having survived the experience without major injury, Robson started ruminating on the experience as a whole, and realised that it was the self-possession of the people he met while filming which made the biggest impression on him: ‘They’re very humbling because they’re so good at what they do, but they’re not pious with it, and I like that.’
Even if the call-up doesn’t come from his beloved Newcastle United, Robson’s quite busy anyway: there’s more of his television detective drama Grantchester to film, and work overseas to prepare for. So is Jerome Flynn, his former screen and singing partner, currently starring in Game of Thrones, likely to invite him to get the old band back together in Westeros? ‘I turn it down every week, mate,’ he jokes. ‘I love the man, he’s a great actor. My son keeps asking, “When are you going to get a call, Dad? Jerome’s brilliant.”’
The truth is, Robson is more than happy in wild, bleakly beautiful landscapes of a much more real variety. ‘Northumberland has a real sense of identity,’ he says. ‘I don’t think that the values of the people who live here have disappeared; they’re as strong as ever. It’s all about self-sufficiency and generational knowledge.’ It’s in this spirit that Tales From Northumberland is made, and which, perhaps, explains its popularity. As Robson says, ‘The story of Northumberland is one that will be enjoyed for generations to come’.