ROBSON GREEN is ringing me from Hungary. “I’m brilliant,” he says. “Brilliant!”
Having spent the previous evening speeding through Robson’s new book, Extreme Fishing, it’s hard to believe he’s in Hungary for anything other than a particularly challenging stretch of river.
In fact, it’s pretty hard to divorce my mental image of Robson from his many piscatorial conquests, despite the fact that I’ve seen him many times in acting roles on stage and screen.
The book, relating his adventures as the presenter of Channel 5’s Extreme Fishing, is fantastically fishy, which will probably come as good news to those who fancy buying it.
There are loads of photos and Robson’s in nearly every one of them, happily and triumphantly posing with fish like a red carpet groupie snatching self-portraits squeezing bemused celebs.
There are enormous fish, ferocious-looking fish, relatively tiddly (but possibly rascally) fish and fish that look like the products of a satirical cartoonist’s wild imagination.
On the cover, a smiling Robson is cradling the grandaddy of all goldfish.
Clearly it isn’t a goldfish, since that would hardly fulfil the “extreme” remit of Robson’s enormously popular TV series but, equally clearly, this is a fish that has seen no need for camouflage – until, quite possibly, Robson rolled up with his rod and his camera crew, at which point it was too late. But Robson, it transpires, is rodless in Hungary. He is filming Strike Back, the action-packed Sky1 series based on the novels of former SAS man Chris Ryan, another creative powerhouse from the North East.
“I auditioned in LA,” says Robson. “Chris Ryan brought me over because he obviously thought I was the best person to play the lieutenant colonel of a crack SAS unit fighting a terror cell.
“It’s great – a step up for me in terms of production values. All the stunts are real and I love that. What you see is actually happening.
“Yesterday I took out four guys on a Cold War listening post and all four fell 150 feet! The crew went, OK, let’s move on’.”
He laughs loudly. If he’s a trifle bemused to find himself leading an SAS unit at the age of 48, that’s nothing compared to his feelings about fishing.
In jovially confessional mood, he says: “I never set myself up as a fishing expert or even a particularly experienced fisherman.
“This is one of my main failings. I always think, yes, that’s a really great idea, without fully thinking it through. Then, when it’s too late, reality sets in.”
The decision to get involved in a fishing series, he says, reminds him of when he agreed to play Jesus in the York Mystery Plays and the critic Victor Lewis Smith wrote that he couldn’t imagine why anyone would follow him across the stage, let alone Israel.
He looks back on the Jesus episode as one of his “Vietnam moments”, the other being his brief singing career with fellow actor Jerome Flynn.
To be fair, a lot of people bought the records. And to be fair twice in a paragraph, an awful lot of people have tuned into Extreme Fishing. They must have done since there were several series and it spawned a spin-off, Robson’s Extreme Fishing Challenge.
In the book – and on the phone from Hungary – Robson hilariously lays his soul bare, describing himself as “a half-decent actor and a half-decent presenter” and revealing his disastrous early attempts to be an on-screen fishing expert.
He chortles as he recalls the wonderfully descriptive narrative he’d have in his head until the fish he was catching finally emerged from the water, when he would blurt: “******* hell! Look at the size of that!”
He reflects: “I approached presenting with a confidence that was wholly unwarranted.”
There’s much more of this in the book – the nervous waffle and the voice in his head saying things like “Why the hell are you doing this, Robson?”, and “You’re winging it and dying on your a***.”
To me from Hungary he says: “You don’t have to love fishing to like this book.”
He is absolutely right. It’s a book of fish and quips in which he doesn’t spare himself a right old battering. It lifts the lid on how TV is made – the many wasted hours and redundant footage that goes into creating a relative spoonful of prime time documentary.
Robson is generous with his credit for Charlotte Reather who, while not perhaps a ghost writer, collaborated with him on the book that publishers had apparently been pestering him about for years.
“I had a training guy many years ago who looked after me and he was a cage fighter. That’s what he did in the evenings, as you do.
“Charlotte happened to be there one night and we started talking. She worked for a magazine called The Field. Instantly, we had a rapport. She was fun and not stuck up.
“When I was approached again about a book by Simon & Schuster I thought there was only one person who could write it. I rang Charlotte and she loved the idea.
“I’d always written diaries on location so between us we came up with a draft and they didn’t alter a word. I think it’s a really nice travelogue – quite moving, quite joyous and quite tragic.”
As well as the mishaps and the mis-takes, Robson recalls learning of the death of his father while filming in a Buddhist temple in Thailand. “He moved on to a good place, but he is still here with you,” said one of the monks consolingly.
To me, he recalls: “My dad hated being cooped up in the house because he’d spent much of his time underground. I think that’s in my DNA, making me want to do things and experience things around the world.”
The fishing programmes have been a wonderful vehicle for that wanderlust, as you’ll see in the book which flits from continent to continent, from Alaska to Brazil and Papua New Guinea.
Fish, observes Robson, tend to be found in beautiful places, many of which he has now visited.
And he’s not quite the fishing novice he makes out. Tutored by his Uncle Matheson, Robson learned the joys of fly fishing and says that this, above all other pastimes, is where he turns for peace of mind and to escape all thoughts of those Vietnam moments.
When not on his travels, Robson is back living in Northumberland these days. Separated from second wife Vanya, he nevertheless remains close to his son Taylor, who, on the day we speak, is mentioned in The Times, having won an academic scholarship to a very good school in the south of England.
Robson is understandably proud. Taylor, aged 13, is a clever lad, it seems, a budding academic and sportsman.
As for Robson, we’ll be seeing quite a bit of him shortly. Some book signing sessions have been organised to promote Extreme Fishing and he is also in the process of making some documentary programmes which don’t involve fish.
How the North Was Built, looking at the urban landscape of Northern England, is a two-parter going out on ITV in June, while Robson’s Northumberland is an eight-parter destined for the same channel.
“One episode will look at the battle of Flodden but I think we’ll be looking at some of the places that are a bit off the beaten track,” he says.
“We’ll do Bamburgh and Holy Island and the Cheviots, but I think there will be some surprises too.”
In terms of work, Robson says he is now in the fortunate position of being able to pick and choose. Who wouldn’t choose that?
:: Extreme Fishing by Robson Green (Simon & Schuster, £16.99)