He's married the vicar of Dibley, romanced music hall star Marie Lloyd and bared his bottom in Between The Sheets.

None of which matters much to fans of Richard Armitage. They just want to see him back as the man in black, scowling and glowering as Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff of Nottingham's evil henchman, in BBC1's Robin Hood.

The series might have been expected to make a star of Jonas Armstrong, who plays the outlaw. Instead, viewers' attention focussed on Armitage as the best thing in the show.

It cemented his heartthrob reputation that followed his starring role as mill owner John Thornton in the BBC's 2004 production of Elisabeth Gaskell's period drama, North And South. This appearance led to the formation of The Armitage Army, a band of dedicated web-based followers of the actor.

Everyone loves a bad boy and he's a prize Guy among villains in Robin Hood. The black leather outfit helps. It could have been so different as Guy was originally set to wear a chain-mail tabard. The costume was switched to tight black leather shortly before filming began.

The designer opted, he's explained, for a hell-raising biker look - "a kind of heroin-chic, slightly Goth look and it really works for me". It certainly works for his admirers.

Now he's unable to become Guy unless he's wearing his leather. "I can't play Guy in flip-flops. I have to get that jacket on to play him," he says.

He enjoys playing a baddie although, as an actor who guards his privacy, less attractive is the fame that accompanies success. He'd rather talk about the character than his private life.

"You've got to have baddies that you can boo," he says. "While you always have to play your character with truth, at the same time you have to make him dastardly.

"For the purposes of the plot - because he's Robin's great rival in politics and in love - viewers have to dislike Guy. And the music backs that up. It seems to boo Guy every time he comes on screen."

While the series is more romp than tragedy, Armitage's approach appears as serious as if doing the classics with the Royal Shakespeare Company as he did earlier in his career. To sustain the character, he says, you have to find conflict within him. "He's constantly pulled between good and evil, between who he really wants to be and who he actually is," he says.

"He could have been a good man, but is forever dragged down by his fatal flaw - that he wants glory at all costs. That internal conflict works very well because, after all, all the best drama is fuelled by conflict."

Armitage's career had been progressing steadily, if unspectacularly, until North And South made him, to quote the BBC website, "the object of many a woman's desire with his sizzling portrayal of John Thornton". Or, as someone else put it, "the hottest period actor since Colin Firth's Mr Darcy".

The impression is that the Leicester-born actor himself finds this reponse a bit overwhelming. Although he's said of The Armitage Army: "It fills me with confidence to know that if I ever have to go to war, I have an army of women behind me".

Music was an early love. He played cello at school but doesn't feel he was a natural performer, as he used to get nervous before performances. At 17, he joined a circus in Budapest for eight weeks to gain his Equity card.

Later, he studied acting at Lamda in London and went mainly unnoticed until BBC1's Sparkhouse, a modern take on Wuthering Heights, five years ago. Supporting roles in Between The Sheets, Cold Feet and Ultimate Force followed until North And South made his name.

Starring as a flying doctor in ITV's The Golden Hour must have been a conscious attempt to get away from costume roles, but this drama only lasted one series. Since then he's done his best to display his versatility in small screen roles, such as artist Claude Monet in The Impressionists, a biker in detective drama George Gently, the music hall star's husband in a Marie Lloyd TV biopic and as the man that Dawn French's Vicar of Dibley marries in a Christmas special. He also popped up in last week's Marple whodunit on ITV.

For the present, it's back to villainy as Robin Hood returns to BBC1 tonight. Once filming in Hungary is completed at the end of this month, he reckons he'll hang up his leather, wash the black dye out of his hair and shave off his sideburns and go back to being an actor. Somehow I don't think his army of followers will let him fade into the background.