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Robin of Sherwood Review

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by Simon Crust Feb 10, 2011

    Robin! The Hooded-Man

    Thus begins Clannad’s haunting score for what many people regard as the definitive version of an English legend that has existed for over seven hundred years. To discover why, we must look back at how the legend developed and has been interpreted through time. Undoubtedly the story of Robin and his band of outlaws existed before the 1300’s, although it wasn’t until around this time that the first recorded references start to appear, however, it wasn’t until a hundred years later when the rhyme Robyn Hode in Scherewode Stod (Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest) established his roots in Nottingham. Bards, poets and singers spread the fables of Robin and his ‘Merry men’ throughout the country, popularising the “robbing the rich, to give to the poor” mythos that found such favour in the drinking houses of the poor, downtrodden serfs during the turmoil of the Crusades and Reformation, and perhaps inevitably the stories became ever more embellished to encompass the changes occurring to the country. One thing remains true, though; Robin was a man of the people, one of the masses, for them and with them – someone that they could aspire to, if only they had the courage. Things were to change in the latter half of the sixteenth century, however, when Robin was given an altogether more regal slant and
    he became the disinherited nobleman Robert Fitzooth, Earl of Huntington. This is, perhaps, the most enduring of the stories behind his genesis.

    His adventures continued to grow unabated during this time as plays and pageants developed in and around the pagan festivals. It is during such productions that it is thought the characters of Lady Marion and Friar Tuck made their first appearance and thus became integral parts of the story. As reading and writing began to be more accessible and print was becoming available, Robin’s adventures began to form more of a structure within the written word – Shakespeare himself would even make reference to him in a number of his plays! As time progressed the Victorian word police (you know, those people that deemed which words became swearing) effectively neutered Robin’s adventures, he became a Saxon leader from Locksley leading the rebellion against the Norman oppressors and later writings wrote out much of the folklore that had hitherto sustained him, yet even this could not diminish his appeal, such was the allure of a rebel and his men against the state, fighting for the people.

    With the advent of film it was inevitable that the legend of Robin would grace the screen, and whilst his first few appearances are nothing to write home about, arguably the most influential characterisation was the Errol Flynn’s 1938 vehicle The Adventures of Robin Hood which highlighted a swashbuckling side and coloured the legend for years to come. Moving forward again and the immergence of television the legend was ripe for another spin, this time repackaged in a formulaic story that had global appeal; it proved to be universally accepted and Richard Green’s Robin saw one hundred and fifty episodes and sealed the lid on anything new for some thirty years, as many felt that it was unable to top such an approach. (I bet you know the theme song too, even though you may not have seen the show - go on, try not thinking about it!)

    That is, of course, until Richard Carpenter got his hands on it. Richard Carpenter was an extremely clever writer, able to skilfully blend mysticism and realism, be child friendly, but aimed at adults, his shows have always been seen as extraordinary, and, in the light of the producers, money makers. During the early eighties the time seemed right for a further exploration of Robin’s adventures. Carpenter’s treatment drew, not surprisingly, upon the legends of old, having grown up with the stories, he also took it upon himself to read through all the original writings and, of course, was already a huge fan of the 50’s TV show and subsequent filmic adaptations. But this being the eighties, and including his own ideals, he wanted to bring more realism to the character as well as delve into the hitherto unexplored aspect of mystery and magic, no doubt inspired by the pagan festivities and his own innate knowledge. His vision was of a young bunch of revolutionaries and this proved to be both inspired and historically correct – life expectancy was much shorter, if one was to be a rebel, one would have to be young, the tempestuousness of youth notwithstanding. With these ideas in place, and finance secured from both the UK and America, in no small part due to the producer, and close friend of Carpenter’s, Paul Knight, the job of script writing and casting began in earnest.

    Robin, contrary to hundreds of years of being an outcast nobleman, was to be, once again, a man of the people – a boy left orphaned while his father and the village of Locksley burned. His father, Ailric of Loxley, prophesising to the future Sheriff of Nottingham, that the ‘Hooded Man’ is coming; now we were provided with a real, if somewhat enigmatic, back-story to Robin himself – he was chosen by Herne the Hunter, a pagan forest spirit, or Merlin character, if you will, to take up arms against the Norman oppressors, to fight for the common man, living and breathing the forest, keeping alive the free spirit beyond that of the Christian values being used to subjugate the lands. By building in a realism to the character and the mysticism of magic, Carpenter managed to tie together both romantic action and historical fact that was until now unheard of in the legend. All those involved with the production of the show knew it was going to be something special, but to realise its full potential everything had to gel, not least the leading man.

    That job eventually fell to the then little known actor of Michael Pread. In him the production found the perfect casting; he was athletic, good looking and able to play the tortured soul that was Robin, almost press ganged into a role he wasn’t one hundred percent happy with, a natural leader but one that often came up against conflicts within his own band of friends due to his inane dislike of killing. There is no doubt that his casting was a positive boon for the show and without him, as time would eventually tell, the show would simply fade away. Next up, the show needed Maid Marion, this proved to be a harder decision, but, as with Pread, once made proved to be genius. In fact, all Marions since have a distinct resemblance to Judi Trott’s look and demeanour – she was not just a simple woman, she was feisty, strong, ‘one of the boys’ but all the while feminine with it, she was not feminist, such attitudes did not exist in the twelfth century, but she was never a push-over. With these two iconic characters in place the race was on to cast the rest of the Merry men and the villains.

    Due to limitations in the budget, the Merry men had to be few, the reasons given were if Robin had twenty followers, there would need to be one hundred Normans so they are convincingly out numbered. This simple restraint proved absolutely fortuitous though, as Carpenter envisaged the Merries (as they came to be known) as a type of guerrilla fighter, constantly on the move and living off the land – a small bunch of men made this entirely possible. As such the characters of Will Scarlet, Little John, Friar Tuck and Robin’s step brother Much were the only ones chosen. Scarlet was cast for the powerhouse performance given in Scum (1979) by the legend that has become Ray Winstone. He was to become Robin’s anger, the side without reason, an insane killing machine hell bend on reeking as much havoc to the Normans as possible, in some unquenchable blood feud for the rape and murder of his family. This often proved to be a sparring point between him and Robin as their often strained relationship was tested to the limits – their mutual distain for the Normans being their only, but over-riding, common denominator. Little John was played by six foot five and a half inches, Clive Mantle, whose sheer size was almost enough to win him the part. His introduction as a hypnotised lackey to the season opener’s main villain encompasses the iconic wooden staff battle atop a fallen tree – but with Carpenter’s mystical twist. Later in the series he would be shown as an almost gentle giant, a caring man not afraid to show his emotions, in much the same what as truly powerful men really are; they have no need to prove themselves. Much was given a far simpler role, he was played by Peter Llewellyn Williams and was a little slow, but this gave him a unique perspective on the happenings around him, often being Robin’s conscience (as well as the expository device) but his utter devotion and loyalty is without question. Tuck was played by Phil Rose and was somewhat older than the rest of the cast, he was tasked with being somewhat intellectual, as, in reality he would be skilled at reading and writing, probably the only one, apart from maybe Marion, that could. So whilst he was one of the lads, he had far more to give and did so frequently. And finally, the last of the Merries, a character not named above since his addition to the team was not until during the filming of the very first episode. Nasir the Sarasin was a late character change and Mark Ryan’s enigmatic portrayal of him proved to be such a success that he was written into the rest of the series – he was an instant hit with the show, a double sword wielding, leather clad, near mute was such a draw that he has since become an integral part of the Merry men, to such a degree that it is as if he was always part of the group, subsequent interpretations have always included him!

    And so to the villains. Robert de Rainault, better known as the Sheriff of Nottingham, was played with absolute relish by Nickolas Grace. A scheming sycophant interested in furthering his own wealth and land at the expense of those in his charge, it is little wonder that he encountered the wrath of Robin and his men. His portrayal was one of sheer menace, an over the top caricature of evil blaming everyone else for their incompetence. It was so well seen that his look, demeanour and mannerisms were stolen wholeheartedly by Alan Rickman in the aptly named Prince of Thieves (1991) which owed more than half its ideas to this TV show. Since the Sheriff could not be seen to be defeated every week (how would he stay in power?) Sir Guy of Gisbourne was brought into the fore to act as Robin’s main protagonist and foil. Played, again, with absolute relish by Robert Addie who managed to show defiance and defeat in a single glance.

    The director chosen to bring this eloquent interpretation to life was Ian Sharp, originally a documentary director who branched into realistic drama with the likes of The Professionals and Minder, and helming the feature film Who Dares Wins in 1982. Both the Writer and producer very much liked his work and his ideas on the show proved to be another fortuitous event. In the first instance he was contracted to film the pilot and two subsequent episodes, but it was eventually decided to let him cover the remaining two and thus give the whole season an overall look. It worked with spectacular results, for with his eye the ethereal quality that Carpenter so wanted came to life. Using a combination of filters, soft focus, smoke and long lenses his shooting style ended up giving an extremely modern look to the dark ages; it was, if you’ll forgive the phase, magical. With this vision, his own and Carpenter’s insistence on realism brought Robin Hood right up to date. Village life was dirty, life was cheap and poor, the gentry starved the land of its wealth, it was little wonder that a figure like Robin Hood would emerge. Also by hitting on the magical edge, the forest spirit of Herne and the ancient pagan lifestyle that many were following, the church were seen as nothing but cruel harbingers of doom (no change there then) and added to the realism in such a way as to become intertwined and inseparable. Then you coat everything in near historical fact (much of the events portrayed in the show actually happened) you have something really, really special. Much of the first, and indeed the second, season was filmed on location utilising the forestland in and around the Bristol production office, this work particularly well due to the numerous valleys and gullies as well as the abundance of British tree fauna and scarcity of American pine that was not, obviously, around in the twelfth century. Filming actual castles for backdrops as well as for internal set dressing proved to give the production an even great feel of authenticity over and above the realism strived for by all concerned. Even the mighty Ridley Scott couldn’t manage this stamp of reality with his abortive attempt at a reboot to the origins of Robin Hood.

    The final ingredient was that of the score. The story goes that Mark Ryan was giving Clive Mantle a lift in his car and they listened to the score of Harry’s Game by Clannad – the pair then insisted that the producer listened to the tape and he too was enchanted to such a degree that he went to see the group, who, after seeing the pilot insisted on seeing the rest of the show and there and then decided to score the whole season. I might have used this word before – fortuitous.

    The initial five (six if you split the pilot into its component parts) episodes proved to be so successful, both domestically and abroad that a second season was commissioned. Ian Sharp having felt he had exhausted his time on the show (he couldn’t think of any new ways to kill someone with an arrow) the directing reigns were handed over to Robert Young (yes he of Vampire Circus fame) and through him a new level of mysticism came through. Carpenter’s writing had lost none of its verve and the cast were still as headstrong and energetic to continue making the best damn TV show of the year. It’s star, though, had other ideas, already an established and stage actor and with offers coming in from all over the world Pread decided that this second season would be his last, as he wanted to re-tread the boards. This, at first, caused a bit of upset due to the excellent teamwork and camaraderie that had built up around the filming of the show but in a rare moment of TV excellence Carpenter decided to kill Robin off and this brought to a close a succinct and eminent show that is fully rounded and complete. The feeling of loss is absolutely tangible at the end of this season, as Pread was, in effect, never coming back. Although the series would continue on with Jason Connery taking the titular role, this time as the fallen nobleman Robert of Huntington – thus encompassing both possible folklores of Robin’s ancestory – it would never quite attain that level of ethereal excellence that made these first two seasons quite so entertaining.

    Few TV shows ever attain classic status and for a variety of reasons, perhaps the foremost of which is longevity – shows tend to try and capitalise on their initial success only to fail due to waning ideas. Robin of Sherwood, like many British TV shows, had a very limited run and that, as much as everything I’ve said above has given the show a unique stamp – this is particularly so of the first two seasons which begin, tell their stories and end. I can probably count on one hand the amount of TV shows that are as instantly recognisable and utterly compelling – Robin of Sherwood is one of them.