An outsider's view

Tony Robinson explores Canberra's history for his TV series Time Walks, Hamish Boland-Rudder writes

Short on time on their final day of shooting, a small film crew walk briskly through the cool air and lunchtime bustle of Canberra's Garema Place towards King O'Malley's pub.

A stern director tries in vain to pry his star away from fans who frequently stop the group for photos and handshakes.

English actor, Tony Robinson, is in Canberra to record an episode of his Time Walks program.
English actor, Tony Robinson, is in Canberra to record an episode of his Time Walks program. Photo: Graham Tidy

Thirty years after Blackadder first went to air starring Tony Robinson as sidekick Baldrick to Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder, Robinson is as recognisable as ever.

Wearing a nondescript, practical red jacket, and with no airs or graces that often accompany stardom, Robinson is approached by fans of all ages, who offer him kind words and enthusiastic grins.

Tony Robinson is in Newcastle filming Time Walks for his history TV show.
Tony Robinson is in Newcastle filming Time Walks for his history TV show. Photo: Jonathan Carroll

''It's really cool, isn't it,'' he says. ''I love the people. I've got so many fans here, as you can see it really pisses my director off.''

But much to his pleasure, Robinson, with his gentle smile and wrinkled eyes, is recognised as much as ''the guy from Time Walks'' as he is the character with a ''cunning plan''.

''I now have the extraordinary privilege of having made the two most successful series on the History Channel ever,'' he says, referring to Time Walks, and Tony Robinson Explores Australia.

''I don't think that a performer can get a nicer reaction than someone coming up to them and saying, 'I like your work.' It's a very sophisticated notion somehow that you do have a body of work … and for people to recognise that, it's lovely.''

Robinson was in Canberra for four days this month, exploring the city's history for the second series of Time Walks. But with just 100 years under its belt, does Canberra really have enough stories to fill an entire episode? ''The fact is that the history of the whole of Australia can be distilled into what's happened in Canberra because so many of the significant decisions that have affected the nation have been made here. I could have done a whole series here, really, of the various activities and plots and machinations that have happened,'' Robinson says.

It's hard to tell if he is just being polite. But his enthusiasm for history is undeniable, an attribute Robinson happily credits to his parents and their stories of living in war-time Britain.

''It was so vivid, and they were clearly, from their stories, so young, that I think from a very young age I got this sense that I was part of that continuum of human history. I wouldn't have said it in those terms when I was four, but I believe so,'' he says.

''History has never actually been an academic discipline to me. History has been as real to me and as close to me as eating or breathing or sleeping or looking at people in the street. And so when I discovered that you could actually get marks for that at school, I just thought they're stupid - why would they give you marks for that, you want to do it any way.''

In addition to Time Walks in Australia, the seemingly tireless 66-year-old will jet back to Britain at the end of the month to make some specials for Time Team. He also pens children's history books.

Robinson's passion for the past shows in the way he works. Standing in the cold outside King O'Malley's pub, he stops and consults his researcher, and quizzes a man coming out of the pub, before forming his own understanding of the colourful tee-totalling politician for whom the pub is named, and who played a significant role in Canberra's early history.

When it comes to delivering his piece to the camera, Robinson is flawless, and speaks convincingly. The shot is finished within a handful of takes, and after capturing some extra vision in Garema Place, the crew is off to the next location.

Robinson says his knowledge of history is not academic in the strict sense of the word - instead he likes to delve into people's understanding of the past, and translate that into a fresh, interesting story.

''I try to make it clear that I don't come to Australia as somebody who knows more than you guys do, or even as much as you guys do. But I'm somebody who likes to interrogate the environment that I'm in and I have this belief if I can find out enough and get enthusiastic and excited enough about a place then I can hopefully infect the viewers with that enthusiasm,'' he says.

''And by and large people say to me 'Oh, I enjoyed that program about my town, I didn't know this, that and the other' which is really great.

''I don't think of myself as a presenter … as far as I'm concerned I'm an investigator with some acting skills. [But] you wouldn't want to bill yourself as that, it's cumbersome and sounds a bit pretentious too.''

Of his favourite moments in Canberra's history, he says he remembers being a young man in Britain and being astonished to hear news of Gough Whitlam's dismissal in 1975.

''I was extraordinarily puzzled by how such a thing could happen, and have been asking that question ever since,'' he says.

But he readily admits that coming to Canberra - his third and longest visit to the capital so far - he had been warned by other Australians that it was a boring city that lacked spirit. Rather than ignoring that reputation, Robinson made a point of challenging it.

Robinson asked local groups what they thought of the accusations, and says about three in every four people were able to laugh them off and rebuff them.

''One of the charges that I had written down that I'd heard was that Canberra's got no soul. And a little girl in the crowd said 'We've got solar panels!' I just thought that was really sweet,'' he says.

But as we drive from the relative bustle of Garema Place during a weekday lunch hour, to the comparative emptiness of the Parliamentary Triangle around the National Gallery, Robinson concedes more needs to be done to convince him of Canberra's vibrancy.

''When you build a utopian city, quite justifiably there is an innate conservatism with a small 'c' to make sure that it remains as beautiful and as clearly defined as it does on the planning table,'' he says.

He says some business, or some food vans could inject some life into the vast vacant spaces between Canberra's mini-village centres.

''I still feel that I would like to see more evidence of human life …There are so many of those really big buildings, which are so colossal, and so little bits of small activity in between them to make them breathe. Maybe with all these utopian cities it takes quite a long time before that happens. I hope it will one day.''