Russell Tovey’s quest to tell the world about David Robilliard, ‘the greatest artist you’ve never heard of’

Exclusive: The ‘History Boys’ actor tells ‘The Independent’ about his journey to bring his artist hero to prominence

Nicole Vassell
Friday 24 November 2023 13:06
Life is Excellent by Russell Tovey - trailer

For the actor Russell Tovey, David Robilliard is a name that more people should know.

The artist and poet made waves in the British art scene in the 1970s and 1980s with his daring and heartfelt creations, mixing hand-drawn sketches with written words; his wide-ranging themes included joy, sex, human connection and loss.

Sadly, Robilliard’s life and creative journey was cut short by Aids in 1988, aged 36.

Though Tovey is best known for his work on stage (The History Boys) and screen (Being Human, Years and Years), the Essex-born actor is also a passionate art collector.

Tovey spent two years making the new film Life is Excellent to highlight Robilliard, who he credits with transforming his creative life.

“I’ve never actually met David Robilliard, yet he remains one of the most important figures in my life,” he told The Independent.

“He’s played a significant role in shaping my understanding of queerness and has helped me understand the artist within. That’s what made me want to learn more about him through this passion project.

Russell Tovey holds photo of David Robilliard, who poses with prints of his poetry collection ‘Invincible'

“It was brilliant but hard work, very emotional in many ways.”

Life is Excellent, named after a Robilliard piece, sees Tovey set forth on an unwavering mission to ensure the artist’s legacy is never forgotten. Tovey travels from Robilliard’s birthplace of Guernsey, to his later East London haunts, meeting his close friends, collaborators, and colleagues.

Some of Robilliard’s poems are read aloud by actors such as Susan Wokoma and Harry Trevaldwyn, as well as drag performer and artist Bimini Bon Boulash.

Watching the actor retrace the steps of Robilliard in his former studio, it’s easy to see just how much of an impact the artist’s life and early death has had on him. “It could have been me if I’d have been born 10 years earlier,” Tovey says in the film.

“And I feel like I’m part of the lucky generation. I feel a responsibility to make sure people know who David Robilliard is, because we should put people back into history that disappeared.”

Russell Tovey holds a photo of David Robilliard

As well as the film, Tovey has collaborated with WePresent on a three-day exhibition titled “We Move in Circles”.

The exhibition space in Bethnal Green will screen the documentary alongside a showcase of rare HIV/Aids activism T-shirts curated with PAST Magazine, entitled “Say It with Your Chest: T-Shirts of Queer Protest and Rebellion”.

Together, the documentary and exhibition programme highlights Tovey’s broader mission to raise awareness about the impact of the Aids crisis, educating viewers about the contributions made by queer British and American artists whose lives were tragically cut short by Aids.

“As I said in the documentary, when an artist makes you miss them even though you don’t know them, that’s genius,” Tovey explained. “And I think David Robilliard is a genius.

“There are so many geniuses that we’ve lost to Aids, and I feel a responsibility to help share as many of these stories as long as I have the opportunity to tell them, hopefully to a new audience who may not have previously been aware.”

‘Life is Excellent’ is available to stream now. WePresent and Russell Tovey: We Move In Circles runs until Saturday 25 November at 133 Bethnal Green Road, London, E2 7DG.

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