WHEN it comes to learning about their history, Australians apparently like nothing better than having it explained to them by a London-born actor still best known for his role as a bumbling and unsanitary manservant.
How else to explain the popularity of Tony Robinson Explores Australia, the highest-rating series ever on the History Channel?
''It was a phenomenal success,'' says Robinson, 66, who first played the much-loved Baldrick in The Black Adder 30 years ago.
''I say that relatively humbly, as an awful lot of the stuff that I make disappears down the toilet without a trace. It must have just touched a nerve or something with Australian people.''
Robinson clearly has a genuine passion for Australia and that, allied with his humility, seems to make local audiences warm to him in turn. ''It's not like I go around telling people what's what,'' he says. ''I admit my ignorance at the beginning of the programs and it's clear that when I'm not ignorant I'm working off research and I'm making it for the Australian people, not my own ego.''
Documentary work and other commitments, such as the popular historical quiz show Codex, mean Robinson is busier than ever.
He admits to missing acting but presenting factual programs has its rewards. ''The great thing about doing documentaries, as distinct from acting, is that it's your gig,'' he says. ''You're not having to respond to a text that is already written. You don't have a responsibility to other actors or the director - you just get in there and say what you think, which is very liberating.''
Building on the success of Explores Australia, Robinson's latest foray into Australian history is a 10-part series called Tony Robinson's Time Walks. It's a simple concept that involves the host taking a walk around some of the country's best-known cities and explaining the history of the area. And he covers plenty of ground, from Fremantle to Newcastle and Adelaide to Woolloomooloo.
The idea for Time Walks came out of the previous history series and a misguided belief that Australia doesn't have much history to talk about - especially when compared with the rich past of Europe.
''I knew that wasn't true and the story of how a series of penal colonies are transformed into one of the world's most vibrant economies is a fascinating story,'' he says. ''And I thought if that uber-story existed, there must be lots of little stories that bring that transformation to life. I said, 'Why don't I just walk diagonally across any town in Australia and see what is there?' And as soon as we started looking into that, the richness of the history was extraordinary.''
The result is a charming series in which Robinson delves enthusiastically into the hidden urban past and, just as enthusiastically, shares it with the people he comes across. ''I'd walk up to people and grab them and say, 'Did you know blah-blah happened here?' and then I'd go, 'Will you act it out with me?' They'd glance rather nervously at the camera but I don't think anybody told me to bugger off. It's a celebration of the Australian people as much as anything.''
Tony Robinson's Time Walks
The History Channel, Mondays, 7.30pm.