“Mid-day your time,” says Robin Askwith, when I ask what time I should call him. “I’ve got long-distance swimming training in the morning…”
I’ve known Robin for a few years now, during which time we’ve subjected listeners to a string of radio interviews that have occasionally skirted around the edges of acceptable broadcasting standards. He’s fantastic company, a brilliant raconteur, and – I’ll venture – one of the most versatile and underrated actors that Britain has ever produced. Sure, there’s Confessions and Carry On, but there’s also Lindsay Anderson’s If and Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales. And this is a man, remember, who has toured with both Ray Cooney’s Run For Your Wife and Berthold Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. In recent years, he’s been entertaining crowds with his frequently jaw-dropping one-man shows: freewheeling riots of scurrilous showbusiness gossip and self-deprecating hilarity.
I was intrigued to discover that he also makes an appearance in Stewart Lee’s acclaimed new documentary, King Rocker. Debuting on Sky Arts this evening, the film tells the story of Robert Lloyd, frontman with Birmingham post-punk band The Nightingales. I was baffled by any potential connection between Askwith and Lloyd, and delighted when Robin got in touch, keen to explain a little more about it. As it happens, I’m still slightly baffled – but I’m looking forward to finally discovering the truth when the documentary airs tonight.
Robin lives on the Mediterranean island of Gozo, a 20-minute ferry ride from its sister island, Malta. As requested, I phoned him there at 12pm yesterday. Asking Robin Askwith a question is sometimes like dropping a tiny snowball down a deceptively steep slope: the process starts out with innocuous intentions but can swiftly roll out of control, gathering a dangerous momentum that occasionally puts innocent bystanders at risk. So our conversation, as TV announcers would undoubtedly put it, contains “strong language” and “scenes of a sexual nature”. And, in the unlikely event of it being released on DVD, would almost certainly have a warning about “mild peril” on the back.
But it’s very, very funny. Here’s how it went:
Bob: You have actually been swimming this morning, then? Are you training for anything in particular?
Robin: I just like to keep moving! I’m a like a shark… if I stop, I’ll die. Particularly with the old polio leg. I’m lucky enough to be a good swimmer, and there’s a pool that I go to. Because of Covid, I have to book a lane – and then I swim up and down in the sunshine and I feel a lot better for it. It’s either that, or attacking a bottle of whiskey. Which would be a negative thing to do, really…
I’ll send you a picture of the pool!
The way you put it in your message to me, I wasn’t sure if you were training for a triathlon or something.
No, I can’t run any more. I trained for a triathlon in my forties, but the legs have suddenly gone! I can cycle, and I can swim huge distances, but at my age I can’t do the triathlon. Swimming’s good for my head, really… I get up in the morning, get in the car and put Pink Floyd on, cross on the ferry, have a cappuccino, drive down the coast, pull up to the swimming pool, swim for an hour, sit in the sun for half an hour, then put Pink Floyd on again and drive back. It’s a good day! And I feel great for it.
Which Pink Floyd album have you currently got in the car?
That’s a very good question. I’ve actually got two – there’s a cheaty one, which is Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets. And then A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets is a personal one, because I was there for the second night of them doing it in London, at the Half Moon in Putney. Nick Mason and Guy Pratt are friends of mine, and Gary Kemp I know quite well, too – and they sort of embraced me that night! They seemed pleased that I was there, and now I try to hook up with them wherever they are. They came to Malta the year before last, and I got a phone call saying “You’ve got to come!” So I went over and watched them, and they said “What are you doing tomorrow?” I said “Nothing,” and they said “Well, we’re going to Italy… come in the jet, and we’ll fly you back afterwards!”
I love that era of music. The late 1960s, and early 1970s… I used to go to the Marquee and the 100 Club and watch Pink Floyd there. Nick Mason and Dave Gilmour say “Oh yeah… we remember you!” But of course they fucking don’t. I was a 16-year-old kid! But the music has those attachments for me… very romantic attachments. In 1987, when they reformed without Roger Waters, I was in Perth in Western Australia, doing a show. On the Sunday, they were performing at the Subiaco Oval – a huge, great stadium. And Nick and Guy said “We’ll sort you tickets,” so me and my friend went along, and we were in the VIP lounge… which was basically the dressing room, with a bar. And, as I was telling a story to Nick, the bouncer came along and said “I’ve got to take him away now…”
I said “But I haven’t finished my story!” And, from the stage, I suddenly heard “Dumdumdumdumdumdum…” The beginning of ‘One Of These Days’. The security guys had to push me away to grab Nick Mason…
I’ve heard your stories. I’d have stayed for the end of it.
[Laughs] So would Nick, I think…
Well, while we’re on the subject of 1960s rock stars, you posted an amazing entry from your diary on Twitter the other week. Saturday 11th January 1969… did Jimi Hendrix really think you were Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones?
Yes! I was in Hamburg doing the The Silver Skates, the film in which in I played Hans Brinker. It was rehearsal week, and we were doing a lot of skating. And as a present, the producers said “We’re going to take you to the Musikhalle to see Jimi Hendrix”. I was a huge Hendrix fan, and I sort of knew Mitch Mitchell too. Anyway, we went to see him, and at the end this girl came over… she had a split skirt with laddered stockings, and a tight blouse with a little bit of sick on it! She was smoking a joint… I fell in love with her. Just the aroma of puke and tobacco! And she came up to me and said “Jimi has spotted you – would you like to come backstage?”
So I thought “Well he’s spotted me because I’m starring in a film in Hamburg!” You know? And I was there with a couple of the other actors, David Auker and Michael Wennink – who, rather bizarrely, is the pilot who taught Nick Mason to fly. But that’s another story! So I was taken backstage, and Hendrix was wearing purple velvet trousers with a huge belt and a silk shirt. And I was similarly dressed. He offered me the biggest spliff I’ve ever seen, and I just sat there and got stoned. And it wasn’t until the end, when he said goodbye and called me Brian, that I thought – “What was all that about?” And yes! He thought I was Brian Jones.
So staying in the music world – how did you get involved with King Rocker?
I’ll tell you exactly what happened. I did a gig down in Brighton for a friend of Michael Cumming, who directed Brass Eye and Toast of London. It went really well, and for some reason I’d referenced Stewart Lee in the show, who I didn’t know at the time – but I absolutely loved his stuff. This got back to Stewart, who – coincidentally – was making this documentary, King Rocker. A film about Robert Lloyd, from The Nightingales and The Prefects. And, as Stewart does, he was comparing Robert with a statue of King Kong that Nicholas Monro had stuck in the middle of Birmingham in the 1970s. And Birmingham decided it didn’t want it! Stewart thought that was an allegory for Robert’s career – he was the post-punk rocker that Birmingham didn’t want.
So out of the blue, via Michael Cumming, I got this message: “My name’s Stewart Lee, I’m a stand-up comic and writer”. I thought it was a joke! “Who the fuck’s this?”
I don’t want to give too much away about my involvement with the film, but the story involves nudity! Stewart said “Robert Lloyd claims this situation happened with you. Presumably it didn’t, but could you do something where you deny it?”
I said “Stewart, I’m going to write a scene for you, and if you like it – I’ll film it.” He was going to come out to Gozo with Michael Cumming. So I wrote it, and he said “This is fucking great…” then obviously they couldn’t get over here. But I managed to find someone else who could film it, and it’s in the finished documentary. And the film is gaining so much momentum – Mark Kermode has raved about it, it’s had some great reviews. And I’m just a small part of it, even though I’ve got a very heavy billing! It’s typical Stewart – for no reason at all, he’s got “ROBIN ASKWITH” all over the publicity. People keep asking me on Twitter, “What the fuck have you two got in common?”
It was the connection with The Nightingales that flummoxed me – I just had no idea what your link with them could be!
There is another slight connection, actually – my brother Dave played drums in a band called Fractured, and they used to support The Nightingales. But when you see the film, you’ll see why I’m involved. It’s typical Stewart Lee, it’s so obtuse. But hopefully, very, very funny!
Since then, Stewart and I have become friends, which is terrific. He took me out for lunch, and he said “You couldn’t do me a favour, could you?” And he brought out a copy of the Queen Kong book. He said “It’s one of my favourite books, would you sign it?” I said “Fucking hell, Stewart. Jesus Christ alive…”
He’s a fan of the film, then?
Yeah, we were going to do a night as a fundraiser before Covid happened. We were going to show Queen Kong, then Stewart and I were going to do an hour together. Which would have been terrific. Then Richard Herring got jealous, and said “I want you to come and do my podcast…” [Laughs] But that got cancelled as well! He wants to do it properly, onstage. We were going to do it at Alexandra Palace last April, but obviously it didn’t happen.
I’ve got such fond memories of watching Queen Kong at Darlington Film Club, when you came up to introduce it…
I put on Twitter “Do Not See This Film!” It’s the worst film ever. And it still sold out!
And Stewart intellectualises it. He said to me: “The lyrics in the song… they’re very post-feminist”. I said “Stewart, what are you talking about? It was rubbish.”
He said “No, no – it wasn’t, and I’ll tell you why…” and then gave me twenty minutes on Queen Kong, which was brilliant. But honestly, the film is absolute twaddle. It’s me and a bunch of naked girls running around. And a gorilla with big tits.
I bet you haven’t even seen it all the way through, have you? I know you can’t abide watching your own performances.
No. But every now and again someone puts a scene up on Twitter, and I watch it and I think “Jesus fucking Christ…”
It gets a massive reaction. But here’s a great quote from Stewart… when we went for lunch, he said “I’ve been talking to Julian Cope about you. And Julian said ‘I’ve got a theory about people like Robin. You’re very famous… then you’re a has-been. But, when you get through that, you become a legend…’”
I thought that was so profound. But seriously, Bob – I think there’s more love for me now than there ever was in the 1970s.
I think people love you because a) you have these incredible ancedotes that you can drop into any conversation, and b) you will happily talk about any aspect of your career, good or bad. Not everyone is willing to do that.
[Laughs] Yeah, and hopefully when I say Cool It Carol! is a really good film, people will say “Well it must be good… because he definitely knows which films are the crap ones…”
Even the Confessions films… I would say Confessions of a Window Cleaner was a story that was perfect for 1974. It had a narrative. It dealt with class issues, me falling in love with a middle class girl, and it showed a beta male and an alpha male going about their business – me and Tony Booth. And it had high end comedy performers, too. But I’d argue that the other three, really, were crap. I won’t be popular for saying that, and they made a lot of money, but I’m quite realistic about what was going on.
But we’ve spoken a lot about this – those times were tough. And I was very, very lucky, because if there was a film, then I was in it. Whether it was Pasolini or Pete Walker.
But it could be very difficult to get work. You know, there were only two and a half television channels. And there was no stand-up work either, although I’ll tell you something interesting: Barry Cryer was a friend of mine, and I used to tour a live show. It was a bit meta, actually. I chatted to the audience, then went into the show – which was dreadful – before coming out of it again. It was very popular, I did it for five years and toured the world. It was called Further Confessions Of A Window Cleaner, then Who Goes There?, then Confessions From A Health Farm… then I rewrote it as a period piece, called Casanova’s Last Stand. It was twaddle, but I went out and told the audience it was twaddle before we started. It was like Garry Shandling’s show, but ten years before that!
And that was the only work I could really get at the time. But the public still seemed to really like me, and would turn up in droves to see the film and the stage shows. Until I did Arturo Ui… which came to Darlington, actually. Mark Gatiss asked for my autograph there, and I told him to fuck off… [Laughs]
You didn’t, did you?
[Laughs] No, I didn’t! I didn’t. I’m joking. He was only about 16. But no-one came to see that, you know? It was a very strange and difficult time. The start of the has-been years. But I worked through the has-been years, and did a lot touring in Australia and New Zealand. And Barry Cryer said to me, “Have you thought about being a stand-up comedian?”
I said “I don’t want to be a comedian. I don’t tell jokes”. At that time, there wasn’t really much stream of consciousness comedy. Billy Connolly, Mike Harding, Jasper Carrot and Max Boyce… that was it. And I had nothing to talk about anyway. But now, with all the stories I’ve accumulated throughout my life, I have developed a kind of stand-up routine. Which couldn’t have happened had I not led the life I have, and it’s just great that I can do it now. It’s good to be a bit older, to just walk onstage and chat. And alright, some of the stories get a bit out control, but there you go…
Your 1970s horror films fascinate me, and I think they’re maybe a little overlooked. I watched Tower of Evil this week and it’s terrific fun. And people like Richard Gordon, who produced it, and Pete Walker – who you mentioned – were almost one-man film studios at a time when, as you say, the British film industry was maybe struggling a little. How was Richard to be around?
He was terrific. He sort of regretted not casting me as a the protagonist in Tower of Evil. I’d auditioned for that part, the part that Gary Hamilton played, God bless him. He wasn’t really very good – although he was a lovely bloke, he was in Hair at the time.
And I was re-voiced, because I wasn’t available for the ADR. But, you know… it was work, it was filming…
But then Anthony Balch phoned me up, and said “Look – we do want you to be a leading man”. And he had the idea for Horror Hospital, which was a bit of a spoof, slightly tongue-in-cheek. And it’s now a cult film!
And I did The Flesh and Blood Show too, which has 3-D. Pete Walker, bless him… we’d done Four Dimensions of Greta, which also had 3-D. And me having sex with Lena Skoog, which I saw somebody put up on Twitter the other day! The late Richard Warwick and I went to see that at the Classic Cinema in Piccadilly Circus. And Richard, who was gorgeous, sat with the 3-D glasses on, and kept ducking…
You worked with Ray Brooks on The Flesh and Blood Show too, who is an actor I love. And I’ve seen you refer to him as the “British Steve McQueen” – which I once told him about, and he said that was ridiculous!
[Laughs] Well that’s what’s so nice about Ray, he’s so modest and laid-back about everything! But I remember when The Knack came out, thinking “Fucking hell, this bloke is going to be huge. He’s so cool…” He did Taxi! with Sid James as well – he was a bit of a hero of mine, was Ray. And he was a friend of Pete Walker. In fact, Ray originally wrote the title song for Cool It, Carol!…
He’s a really good singer-songwriter, isn’t he? He put a lovely album out in the early 1970s.
That’s right. So it was a joy to work with him on The Flesh and Blood Show.I told you to ask him about the Little Dancing Box, didn’t I?
Are we allowed to talk about that?
What did he say about it?
He initially said that he had no idea what you were talking about, but then told me a story about you indulging in some recreational herbal cigarettes when a police car pulled up…
Yeah, that’s it – we were under Cromer pier! And the herbal stuff was kept in a little box, which fascinated Ray. It had Swiss dancers on the top, and he actually offered the police the information! “Oh, you’ll find it in the Little Dancing Swiss Box…” Fortunately, everything had spilt out onto the beach and the box was empty, so nothing ever happened…
And then I moved in a few doors down from him in Kew, and I used to play for Kew Cricket Club. He was a great supporter – his son played as well. There’s a lovely story, actually – Ray was going to take over from me in Run For Your Wife. This was 1984 or 1985. I’d been doing it for 15 months, and they were looking for a replacement. So Ray came to see it in the West End… and as soon I walked onstage, his son puked up! Paul Elliott, the producer, said “What did you think of it?” And Ray said “Well, Robin Askwith came on and my son threw up, so I’m afraid I didn’t see it…”
Everyone’s a critic, aren’t they?
I know, it’s great!
I really wanted to ask you about Hide and Seek too, which is a lovely Children’s Film Foundation movie. I watched it the other week, and it has you and Alan Lake as fake coppers, bundling the aforementioned Gary Kemp into the back of a van!
Brilliant! [Laughs] Gary tweets about that every now and again, he’ll put a picture up of me punching the living daylights out of him. And I do about 20 minutes about Alan Lake in my live show…
Alan Lake is one of the unsettling screen presences I’ve ever seen. There are only a handful of actors that I think come over as being genuinely scary, and Lake is one of them.
You would have been unsettled if you’d met him. The scene in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, where they set fire to the bloke at the bar? That was Alan Lake. It was real, I was there. He’d just come out of prison and was standing at the bar in a pub in Sunningdale. And a bloke said: “Oh, just come out of the nick have you, Alan?”
“So I can say anything I want to you, and you can’t hit me because you’d go back inside?”
“That’s correct, kid”.
“So I could say your wife is a fucking slapper, and I fucked her, and you couldn’t do anything about it?”
“You could, kid. You could. Barman – could I have a quadruple brandy, please?”
So the barman says “Yes, Mr Lake,” gets him a quadruple brandy, then goes around the front of the bar, gets the fire extinguisher, and puts it on the bar. And the whole pub goes quiet.
”I can’t hit you, kid… but I can burn you”. And he throws the brandy over him and sets fire to him.
Oh my God…
I know. So don’t talk to me about his frightening presence… [Laughs]
I’m guessing you worked hard to stay on the right side of him, then?
I didn’t have to, he loved me! Me and Warren Clarke, for some reason. Warren used to say “Don’t fucking go round there! Never stay the night!”
Isn’t there a weird story about Alan Lake saving up a load of Green Shield stamps for you?
Yeah! Hundreds of them. “Enough to get a motorbike, kid…” [Laughs]
And speaking of Gary Kemp, was there ever a moment when you saw Spandau Ballet on TV, and thought “Blimey – that’s the kid me and Alan Lake bundled into the back of a van”?
Well, I’d seen him in a few things, because he’d worked a lot as a child actor. But yeah, when he was up there it was suddenly – “Oh, my God!”. There are a lot of people like that – you work with them when they’re young, and then suddenly they’re huge. He’s a very good actor, as well – Harold Pinter thought the world of him. I’ve seen him onstage doing Pinter – he was exemplary.
So what’s next for you? I guess you don’t know…
Well, I’m very lucky that I can ponce about here! Panto went out of the window, but I’m hoping to do it this year – one last panto. And I’d like to stir up the one-man shows, and get back out there. I think people are gagging for entertainment… [Laughs]
And, at that moment, there was a curious “bing-bong” noise in the background, followed by the unmistakable sound of a muffled tannoy announcement. And I realised – for the first time – that Robin was still at the side of the swimming pool! “I’ll have to go,” he said. “They’re clearing the place out…“. But I’m hugely grateful, as ever, for his time and company. King Rocker is screened on Sky Arts at 9pm tonight, and the film’s official website is here: