Robin of Sherwood Blu-ray Review

The Definitive Version

by Simon Crust
Movies & TV Review

1

Robin of Sherwood Blu-ray Review
SRP: £49.99

Robin of Sherwood Blu-ray Review

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 was only around this time that the first recorded references started to appear, however, it was to be a hundred years later when the rhyme Robyn Hode in Scherewode Stod (Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest) established his roots in Nottingham that the myth truly took hold. 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.

Picture

The discs present a fullscreen 1.33:1 1080p transfer newly restored from the original 16mm elements. Due to the inherent nature of the filming process, it’s TV origins, their storage and deterioration over time, the work done on these prints reveals a level of detail previously unseen and brings out a depth of frame and boldness of colour that was never originally planned. I’m not going to state that what we have is absolutely pristine and will stand up to modern day big budget (or even limited budget) theatrical films, it clearly isn’t, but what we do have is a lovingly restored print that is worthy of your time and investment, and one that is streaks ahead of even its original broadcast quality.

Detail, as already alluded to, is generally, quite amazing – the series, when filmed, made extensive use of filters, smoke and other tricks to give it an ethereal, supernatural quality, a kind of haze of soft focus – this is, of course, still prevalent but the crispness of the image is now sharper than it has ever been, the definition of clothing weaves, the edges of distant landscapes, facial and skin detail is now clear – you can make out pores, hairs, damage and wear in clothing – highlighting the attention to detail in the costume design. It does have its slight drawbacks, effects, such has the cable holding Little John above Lionheart before he throws him to the ground is now obvious, as are the plainly fake horses on the rafts in the very beginning shot, but for the most part this higher detail level is extremely welcome.

Colours too have a new lease of life, the greens of the forest are now bolder and stronger, the earthy hues shine through with an added sense of urgency. Blues are clear and bright, the reds and oranges of fires of the various courts' colours are strong and shimmer with life. Flesh tones are slightly healthier, still pale, as they should be, but very natural looking. Brightness and contrast are set to give deeper and more impenetrable blacks, look at the dungeon scene in the first episode, particularly Scarlet’s monologue, an exercise in light and shadow!

Digitally there are no compression problems and all cases of posterization are now long gone, neither is there any edge enhancement, but unfortunately there are still some occasion print defects ranging from inconsistent brightness fluctuations to individual frames within scenes to far edge of frame flares (these can be reduced by using full frame rather than pixel mapping on your display), but for the age of the print and considering its source, I think they are perfectly acceptable, as is the healthy level of film grain that gives the entire image an organic and period look. The second season fairs no better than the first in terms of quality of image, both being incredible for their time. Wonderful stuff.

Robin of Sherwood

Sound

I concentrate on the English Dolby Digital 3.0 stereo track which has, again, been re-mastered from the original recordings and re-mixed by the production’s original sound engineers. A 3.0 track is a stereo front pair and a mono signal sent to the surrounds and for the most part evokes a decent sense of purpose. Stereo effects are rather limited, but galloping horses or the ‘chock, thump’ of flying arrows are well realised. Dialogue is handled very well, sounding very natural, but always from the front. The surrounds help out with some ambient effects, forest sounds, rain, thunder, castle/court mutterings which helps create a sense of immersion, but it is limited.

What does come across with gusto is the wonderfully evocative score from Clannad, with its sweeping melodies and haunting cues, makes far more use of the surround environment. Bass is very limited, but that is to be expected, it does hold everything together well and there are seldom, if any, LF effects, but the sub does spring to life with the odd rumble of thunder and arrow hitting home. More a functional track than one to set your system alight, this is nevertheless a terrific track, considering its age and source, without any noticeable hiss, crackle or distortion.

Robin of Sherwood

Extras

  • Audio Commentaries
The first season has commentaries from series creator/writer Richard Carpenter and director Ian Sharp on episodes Robin Hood and the Sorcerer Parts 1 & 2, and The King’s Fool. Now these two really know their stuff, they talk at length about the inspiration, their interpretation, the developments being both technical and anecdotal about what is happening onscreen, including all the historical references, Carpenter particularly getting to show off his near encyclopaedic knowledge of the period. The chat’s come across as two old pro’s chatting about their work, it is never dull or dry and always engaging.

The second season has commentaries from director Robert Young and series producer Paul Knight on episodes The Swords of Wayland Parts 1 & 2, and in stark contrast to what has gone before is all rather dull, mainly due to the amount of gaps in the talk. When they do strike up a conversation the information is relevant and pertinent with such information about costume design, where ideas came from, the direction the show was taking and how to deal with Praed’s leaving, but it dries up very quickly.

All these commentaries were recorded for previous DVD releases and are therefore a product of their time.
  • Image Gallery
Both seasons get newly scanned in HD images of production and publicity shots than run as a montage for around 15 minutes.
  • The Electric Theatre Show – 35.01, HD
Digitally restored, expanded and presented in HD, this behind the scenes making of documentary was filmed during the making of the very first story and contains plenty of footage and interviews with all the principle cast and crew, who all deliver their uncompromising thoughts on this new adaptation of a classic legend. It is a fascinating period piece and one that is quite historic in its nature being both informative and entertaining. They don’t make them like this anymore.
  • Nothing’s Forgotten: The making of Robin of Sherwood – 1.42.14, SD
This exclusive feature is split into series one and series two but can be watched together with the play all function (even though you get the credits for part one before part two starts up). It is basically interviews with everyone involved with the series, principle cast and crew as they discuss everything about the series’ from conception to post production leaving no stone unturned. The only filler is film clips used to illustrate what is being talked about otherwise it’s just candid interviews and information. Never once is it dull and there is a real sense of camaraderie amongst the cast who are, even now, still firm friends.
  • Outtakes – 08.35, 07.13, SD
Split into series one and series two these comprise of fluffed lines, dropping props, missing arrows, falling, slipping and gags pulled on each other, in what amounts to a great deal of fun for those involved and for us watching.
  • Textless and Foreign Titles – 13.22, SD
The opening titles in various foreign languages showing the international appeal of the series.
  • Prophecy Fulfilled – 10.01, SD
A short, newly recorded, feature on the making of The Prophecy episode with interviews recorded with the director Robert Young and actors Philip Jackson and George Baker. It’s short but to the point.
  • Robert Young Remembers: The Swords of Wayland – 05.55, SD
Obviously filmed at the same time as the above feature this one concentrates on the titular episode, unfortunately contains material already heard in the commentary.
  • Robert Young Remembers: The Greatest Enemy – 07.08, SD
Final piece of these short series’ of newly recorded material, this time concentrating on the season finale and the ideas on Pread’s leaving the show.
  • PDF Material
Includes Richard Carpenter’s original story treatment for the series as well as scripts.
  • 22 page booklet
Covering the conception, casting and filming of the entire three seasons of the show (i.e. beyond what is presented in this set) in the minutest detail and in full colour, an excellent read.
Whilst some of this extra material has been seen/heard before on previous DVD releases it is still well worth time invested, particularly the newly restored making of documentary. The inclusion of newly recorded material is very welcome and goes to show that the show still commands an audience and that the makers are so justly proud of their achievements that they are prepared to contribute to new releases. Shame that everything from the previous “Complete Collection” hasn’t been included. All the SD material is presented on a seperate extras DVD.

Robin of Sherwood
Ethereal, elegant and rightly hailed as a classic of television, Richard Carpenter’s take on British legend Robin Hood is regarded as the definitive interpretation of the myth. By combining mysticism, historical fact, folklore and absolute realism, this classic show is as relevant and watchable today as upon its original airing in 1984. With a stellar cast, tight, action packed scripts that tell terrific stories, this is, and still remains, the benchmark upon which all subsequent interpretations are measured, and for my money none come even close.

As a Blu-ray package, Network has released a magnificent set, by cleaning up the image and sound to a degree that surpasses even its original broadcast and backed up by a fantastic bunch of extras, this set needs to be in your collection. It’s marked ‘limited edition’ if that is so, don’t hesitate - get yours now.

Scores

Movie

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9

Picture Quality

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.
.
7

Sound Quality

.
.
.
7

Extras

.
.
8

Overall

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9

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