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A Dark and Scary Place
Every so often a TV programme emerges that is head and shoulders above the remaining mediocrity in both quality and style. Robin of Sherwood is a prime example of British Telefantasy at its best. It is over 35 years now since this was first screened in April 1984, on ITV, but as Robin was fond of saying, "Nothing is ever forgotten." It was definitely something different, a new mystic reality slant on the Robin Hood legend.
This adaptation was created by Richard Carpenter and his writing partner Paul Knight, also the series producer. They had already proved themselves a winning combination with the fondly remembered Catweazle, the Richard O'Sullivan Dick Turpin, The Baker Street Boys, and the highly successful Black Beauty - all aimed primarily at a young teenage audience of London Weekend Television. Backing for Robin of Sherwood came from Harlech Television (HTV) and Goldcrest. It was a professional and visually-striking package, polished and sold overseas to America before any completed film was in the can.
Previously, the long-running Richard Greene 50's series had dealt with the oppression almost as a minor inconvenience, and Errol Flynn in the movie was all acrobatics, thigh slapping and belly laughs, played more for lighthearted entertainment than gritty reality. This Robin was more earthy and realistic. He was a leader through necessity rather than any wish for martyrdom. Far from perfect, he was both an idealist and a dreamer, simply doing his best and muddling through. Michael Praed's character was based on the myth of a peasant from Locksley, whose village was burned to the ground by the Normans whilst searching for the boy's father, who in this case was the keeper of a symbol of great power - the Silver Arrow. The adult Robin rarely erupted with verbal outbursts; instead he sat back quietly summing up the situation while the outlaws argued among themselves, before calmly announcing his decision. Rather than solving the dilemma it often prolonged it, with the outlaws calling him all the fools under the sun. They regularly questioned his course of action, which was invariably so extremely bold as to be foolhardy, but they never questioned his authority as their leader and guiding light. As the Lady Marion put it in Cromm Cruac, "He's more than a leader, he's the reason we stay together." The only question raised at this point was how an uneducated peasant managed to speak such eloquent and poetic English!
In these stories, the legend preceded the man, and it is this that the peasant people revered. Nevertheless, the peasants lived in fear of their villages being burned by the Sheriff's soldiers, and their families killed before their eyes as a lesson in obedience, and so were reluctant to shelter the outlaws. The band were often turned away from villages that simply refused to help themselves by helping Robin.
The central characters, particularly the outlaws themselves, were completely different in their mannerisms, reactions and background. The oppression of Norman rule and their shared experiences kept them together; the outlaws were comrades rather than close friends, although they saw themselves as a unit and so went to any lengths to help one of their own. In the 100-minute pilot episode, Robin Hood and the Sorcerer, Robin and Much (Peter Llewellyn Williams) were imprisoned in the Nottingham Castle dungeon when his dim-witted companion killed one of the king's deer. There they met Will Scarlet (Ray Winstone) and two other men and formed the initial nucleus of the outlaw band.
Much was a young man almost perpetually afraid, but he was far from being a coward; the fact that he was prepared to constantly enter dangerous situations with the others made him perhaps the most courageous of the band. Scarlet was the most interesting of the outlaw characters aside from Robin himself. He wore a brash, angry exterior, and sported an argumentative cockney-like voice, but nevertheless proved to be a good and true man, although his heart ruled his head on numerous occasions.
There was a new angle on the established legend of Robin encountering Little John (Clive Mantle) on the log river crossing. The big man was fighting in an all-out attempt to kill Robin, because he was bewitched by the dark sorcerer, the Baron de Belleme (Anthony Valentine). Once the spell was reversed, Little John emerged as a gentle giant, a quietly spoken man, calm but powerful in battle.
Tuck was a brother at Nottingham Castle. He saved the Lady Marion's (Judi Trott) life when he overheard the sheriff and the baron planning to take her from the abbey and wed her to the sorcerer, when she would then be sacrificed to the dark god, his master. Tuck was fat and greedy like all the legends tell, but he was also at times serious and solemn. It was never established for certain whether he still considered himself a valid servant of god after adopting a life of violence. His best scenes were the fight sequences, wherein he was often seen to cross himself immediately before or after striking out, as if attempting to absolve himself from guilt. Sometimes the gesture was used to lull the soldier into a false sense of security, making him believe he was about to be blessed. Although the Lady Marion was of the gentry, she was also made of stern stuff, allowing her to easily make the change to forest life. Having said that, this character seemed to exist only as a love interest for Robin, and to look concerned when heembarked on another perilous escapade.
Nasir (Mark Ryan) was a renegade Nadir warrior, employed by the baron. When the sorcerer was seemingly killed with the recovered Silver Arrow, Nasir joined the outlaws. Alan A Dale, the bard of legend, appeared in only one story; it's just as well because his character came across as a pitiful love-forlorn creature.
The Sheriff of Nottingham (Nickolas Grace) was a man with a temper and general lack of vision. He was made to look increasingly incompetent when each plan to capture or kill the 'wolf's head' failed. Sir Guy of Gisburne (Robert Addie) saw himself as the intelligent one, trapped under the wing of a fool who possessed the power to have him killed with a word, and simply awaiting his chance to prove his worth.
The most innovative twist to the legend was the introduction of Herne the Hunter (John Albineri), the spirit of the forest. Herne was revered as a god by the commoners and dismissed as superstitious mumbo-jumbo by the nobility, and in particular the Sheriff and Gisburne. Although the other outlaws had all seen him, he usually appeared to Robin himself, chosen as his spiritual son to lead the fight against oppression. Spectacularly garbed in the skins and antlers of a stag, it was never quite established whether he was a supernatural being or merely a man. Whichever, he garnered sufficient respect to be taken seriously when he popped up to tell of a premonition or to issue Robin and the outlaws some perilous task. Albion, one of the Seven Swords of Wayland, was presented to Robin by Herne. Although it was imbued with certain mystic powers, including the inability to be used against him, his prowess with the bow didn't transfer to his sword arm and he was forced to undergo swordsmanship tutoring courtesy of Scarlet. This was a nice touch that displayed a vulnerable side of the hero. However, this seemed to be forgotten in the many stalemates with Gisburne who was supposed to be reasonably accomplished.
The magic and mysticism was ever-present but generally understated, making it appear a regular occurrence of life with one or two exaggerated exceptions, such as The Swords of Wayland, and Cromm Cruac. People were superstitious in the Middle-Ages and believed in the powers of Light and Darkness in the same manner that we treat technology today.
Terry Walsh was the Stunt Coordinator. Richard Carpenter worked closely with him to achieve the realistically choreographed action sequences. A Bradford-upon-Avon protected barn was used for the interior shots of Nottingham Castle, until finally the Department of the Environment withdrew permission, explaining that tourists were being prevented from visiting the historic site.
The majority of location filming took place in or around the West Country, where the countryside is suitably changeable. In fact, the period atmosphere was excellent; you could almost feel the dank chill of the castle, and smell the cloying smoke and the stench of death when a peasant village was put to the flame. However, this description should not be taken as an indication of a generally depressing atmosphere, because this just wasn't the case; there were humorous moments too. This realism was further fortified with the addition of Clannad's BAFTA award-winning theme and incidental music, which turned to chanting rhythms more fitting to medieval times with series III.
At the conclusion of series II, after 13 episodes, Michael Praed announced his decision to leave the peasantry and join the nobility of the big budget American soap, Dynasty. Praed was given an excellent send off with The Greatest Enemy, arguably the most outstanding story of the serial, in which the outlaws were captured and Robin sacrificed himself to save the lives of Marion and Much.
Carpenter and Knight were now in a quandary. After much deliberation they decided to continue with the programme. It had received rave reviews, and was even praised by the then BBC Controller who stated that he would like to see the same production standards used for Doctor Who. But how to write in another actor as the same character? Finally, they decided to add an alternative existing legend. In Elizabethan times they found it difficult to accept the notion of a peasant as the people's hero, so Robin Hood became Robert of Huntingdon, who abandoned his titles and lands to take up the cause.
Enter the fair-haired Jason Connery, son of Sean. Hooded to hide his identity, he freed the outlaws from captivity and then disappeared, even shunning Herne when the spirit of the forest made the man his new spiritual son. Believing the quest for justice to be over, the outlaws disbanded. Series III commenced with Robert returning to his fate after a year, and therefore having to seek out the regular characters and convince them that what they were doing remained worthwhile. The outlaws began by calling their new leader Robert, before reverting to Robin after a few stories.
This change of actor attracted the attention of Mary Whitehouse, who complained about Robin's rebirth taking place at Easter!
Connery failed to convince in quite the same way as his predecessor, though it is hard to reason why. His acting was near faultless. Perhaps it was a definite lack of charismatic presence, missed from Praed's performance. Still, it was a small price to pay when all other high standards were maintained.
One continuity note of interest worth mentioning is that Marion, initially reluctant to become too closely attached, quickly came to love the new Robin, which suggests to me that she loved the legend and what it stood for, rather than the man behind it.
Guest villains included the aforementioned Anthony Valentine, resurrected for a sequel story in The Enchantment, Gemma Craven, Rula Lenska, Lewis Collins and Richard O'Brien, whose portrayal of Gulnar, the evil sorcerer in the stories, Herne's Son, Cromm Cruac and The Time of the Wolf, was outstanding.
Carpenter was already heavily involved in scripting stories for series IV, when Goldcrest suddenly withdrew its half of the financial support, leaving HTV £5m down. The programme was shelved until 1990, when there was another attempt by Carpenter and Knight to continue with Michael Praed again in the lead role. Praed had by now hung up his shoulder pads at Dynasty, and Connery was unavailable due to work commitments. In the Autumn of the same year, there were rumours that a $10m film of the series was due to enter production. Subsequent news of this project quickly became conspicuous by its absence.
There were 26 enjoyable episodes, each lovingly constructed with a serious and professional attitude. In this adventure the heroes did not always win. Comrades died and missions went awry, forcing the outlaws to compromise certain issues. This is confirmed in the final episode; in The Time of the Wolf, Gulnar constructs a copy of Robin to kill the real legend. When the copy is dispatched, Marion discovers the body and, thinking she has lost her love for the second time, returns to the abbey and takes her vows. Thus, we have the unusual situation of an unhappy ending, proving that when all is said and done a hero always stands alone.
The Hooded Man returns!
In 2016 long-time fans of the show were astounded and delighted by the announcement that the original cast would return to record a brand new dramatisation for audio of Robin of Sherwood's final two-part story The Knights of the Apocalypse. The two-hour audio was produced by the British Spiteful Puppet company, and directed by Robert Young, who was connected with the series. It was great that the entire cast reformed, and it proved to be a momentous occasion. Other stars who were found parts in this classic included Anthony Head and Colin Baker. See below for a nice picture of Ray Winstone in the sound studio.
Robin of Sherwood The Complete Series is available to buy on Blu-ray, with plenty of behind-the-scenes extras. And very stunning it looks too. This is one of my favourite TV dramas of all time. It is a high quality work of art, with acting, production values and writing of the highest degree. I would recommend it to anyone. Order it now; you won't be disappointed.
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