The return of Robin
PUBLISHED: 11:14 18 November 2014 | UPDATED: 11:14 18 November 2014
Veteran Ipswich-born actor Robin Ellis is returning to the screen in a remake of the period drama that made him a household name. Peter Robertson talked to him about it and his new career as a cookbook writer
Veteran actor Robin Ellis is probably most associated with Cornwall. That’s where the 1970s hit BBC TV series Poldark, in which he starred, was set. But his Suffolk connections are even stronger.
Robin, who at 72 has been working on a remake of Poldark to be screened next year, was born in Ipswich (on January 8, 1942) and has been a fan of the town’s football club all his life.
“My father was in the RAF [during World War II] and, for three months he was based in Ipswich, and that coincided with my birth at St Mary’s nursing home, which I believe has been demolished so I’m afraid I can’t expect a blue plaque there!
“From Ipswich we went to Edinburgh and elsewhere in the UK before moving permanently to London in 1946. But it has meant that I’ve supported Ipswich Town ever since they were in the Third Division South.
“I remember them winning the FA Cup in 1978. I once sat next to Bobby Robson [the club’s manager from 1969 – 1982] at Lords and he was a very nice man.
“I check each week to see what’s happening with them and, although I couldn’t name the current team, that attachment is deep.
“My paternal aunt Mary lived just outside Saxmundham for about 30 years until she died aged 92 about five years ago. We used to visit Mary there regularly and take her to eat at some of the excellent restaurants in the area. Also, in the 1950s, we had family holidays in Southwold.”
‘Happy and privileged’
Robin describes his childhood, which included 14 years based in Hampstead Garden Suburb, as ‘very happy and privileged’. His younger bothers are the actor Jack Ellis and the late director Peter Ellis. Partly because their father Tony, who worked for British Railways, was adopted, Robin is not aware of any family history involving the arts – except for his Aunt Mary’s connections.
“She was PA to Walter Legge, founder of Columbia Records, and Peter Brook [the distinguished director]; the latter for a short spell in Paris. She worked for ABC TV in the late 50s as the director’s PA and was involved with the iconic groundbreaking series Armchair Theatre. She helped my brother Peter to start his career in TV – he went on to direct TV drama in Hollywood. Her last job was as the much cherished secretary to Richard Shepherd MP.”
After appearing in plays at Highgate School, Robin joined the likes of Ian McShane, Martin Jarvis and Simon Ward in the National Youth Theatre, and continued performing while studying history at Cambridge University. John Cleese, with whom Robin was in a Trevor Nunn production of Much Ado About Nothing at Cambridge, cast Robin in the first episode of Fawlty Towers in 1975.
The Poldark years
From the early 1970s, Robin made his mark in several period dramas – Sense & Sensibility, Elizabeth R, and The Moonstone – before landing the one that made his name. Poldark was a bodice-ripper based on Winston Graham’s books, set in late 18th century Cornwall.
The Downton Abbey of its day, Poldark became compulsive Sunday evening viewing, watched by 15 million people at its peak, and sold to 40 countries. He became an international heart-throb as rugged Ross Poldark and was considered as a replacement for Roger Moore as 007 in the Bond films.
“I turned up in a very smart suit and thought I looked pretty Bondish, but I’d played a character in The Europeans [a 1979 movie] who was diffident and couldn’t make up his mind about anything, and I think one of the Broccoli family saw me in that and thought “Oh, we can’t have him!”’
Robin played diverse roles on stage and screen here in Britain, and did many memorable voice-overs, most notably the Nescafe Gold Blend series featuring Anthony Head and Sharon Maughan.
In fact, he reckons his endless workload was the main reason he didn’t marry until he was 48. He and his American wife, Meredith, had a church wedding in Hampstead followed by a reception at London Zoo during which fellow actor Jim Carter (Carson in Downton) interrupted their first dance dressed as a panda bear.
That same year, 1990, they bought an 18th-century former rectory in Lautrec, south west France, which became their permanent home nine years later. With six cats for company they are a very contented couple.
“We both wanted children but couldn’t have them,” Robin explains. “Meredith re-trained as a psychotherapist and her specialism was women with fertility problems, and she practised successfully for nine years. She’s a gifted photographer and takes the pictures for my books – we’re working on the next one now.”
Robin is referring to cookbooks, Delicious Dishes for Diabetics. He’s had two published (by Constable & Robinson) since being diagnosed with the condition in 1999. Cooking and eating healthily has become central to his life and, keen to show others how they can do it, he runs classes in simple, healthy cooking based on the Mediterranean diet.
Robin’s most recent television work was Heartbeat on ITV and Wallander on the BBC. But eight years on he’s making an eagerly-awaited return to Poldark – not as Ross, of course, but Reverend Halse – in the BBC remake scheduled for screening next year.
“Actors play all the ages. Meredith keeps saying my white-hot period is about to happen, so who knows I may have a white-hot period in my 80s. I hope I reach my 80s. I’m glad to wake up every morning. I’m very contented with what I do now.”
And even though Suffolk played a brief role in his life, Robin Ellis proudly admits it was a significant one.