It’s part of a poignant storyline that touches on Robin’s loneliness over the centuries, and on him teaching Humphrey the vital skill of listening. It grew though, out of a comic observation about Robin’s speaking voice. The character was always intended to sound slightly non-British, says Rickard.
“We always said he should have come here when Great Britain was part of the continent, it was like he should sound a little bit like he’s from the continent. People have always picked up on that, so he’s sort of got an accent anyway.”
Robin’s fluency in French in series five developed after Rickard delivered a line in his caveman voice during a writers’ meeting and the others remarked on how much he sounded like a stereotypically gruff Frenchman.
“At some point I said something – I think it was ‘Bah, oui, je me defends’ – and because he’s got a rough voice, it just sounds like an old French guy talking! We were like ‘He should know French far better than his own language because it’s a more natural fit to the tone of his voice and his accent than English is!’, so it was one of those silly moments that ends up becoming half an episode.”
In a montage in that episode showing Robin’s loneliness after Sophie has fled Button House following her involvement in a Catholic plot, he sits alone under the tree where he once sat with Sophie while she read poetry including a sonnet by 16th century writer Joachim du Bellay that reflects on love, beauty, and the certainty of death, and begins: “Si notre vie est moins qu’une journée / If our life is less than a single day.” It’s no wonder the caveman develops his philosophical perspective, telling Humphrey in the episode that though he misses a lot of people from over the years, more always come along.
The stinger on Robin’s French-speaking gag comes at the end of the episode when Robin reveals to an audience of no-one that he’s also fluent in Russian. Not bad for a man with a small speech centre. This being the final series of Ghosts, will we ever find out how Robin came to learn Russian? Rickard doesn’t know.