Collector's Corner: Robin of Sherwood (TV programme)

This sporadic return of 'Collectors Corner' was inspired by a small collection based on what is arguably the most fabulous and wonderful version of the Robin Hood legend, the television programme 'Robin of Sherwood' (RoS), which aired in the early to mid 1980s. Written by Richard Carpenter, the series was a heady mixture of serious Medieval legend, mystical silliness in the guise of a pagan shamanic mentor for Robin Hood (Herne the Hunter) and superb attention to detail in the way of costumes, locations and characterisation. Before I introduce the series proper it is enough to say that the collection itself is pretty paltry and a shadow of what it once was; I first watched RoS as a child and at the time I remember having several magazines and pictures which I saved and somehow lost apart from two pictures of Maid Marion. Then as a teenager I saved up diligently to buy the videos which came out in the 1990s, which incidentally meant my first bus trip alone into town to purchase said videos from Woolworths. This collection was given to the charity shop when the DVDs came out a few years ago, which I sometimes regret as there were quite a few of them. There are six books to accompany the programme, aimed at children, but quite different in parts from the TV programme which aired suggesting that they may be based on earlier scripts. Two of the books are adventure gamebooks where you can pretend to be Robin Hood and solve a puzzle based on supernatural elements (something which RoS excelled in). I have rather wrecked these books through drawing pictures in them to accompany the stories; conversely this has also saved them from the charity shop as they are too messy to be given away. My parents also have the soundtrack on vinyl, 'Legend' by Clannad, the Irish folk band who provided all the music for the series. It is awash with synthesisers, which firmly places it in the 80s along with the mullet hairstyle which Robin Hood unfortunately adopted.

The first series of RoS aired in the UK in 1984 on ITV. It starred Michael Praed as Robin Hood, a young man in his 20s who accidentally finds himself imprisoned in Nottingham Castle when his foster brother Much is caught poaching deer in Sherwood Forest by the fearsome knight, Sir Gut of Gisburne. Robin is hardly any ordinary young man however; his father Ailric was cruelly murdered by the Sheriff of Nottingham, Robert de Rainault (played with obvious relish by Nicholas Grace) for a silver arrow after leading a rebellion against their Norman oppressors. Robin himself is subject to strange visions which enable him to see glimpses of the future or display an unusual intuition. In prison however he is just another 'victim' of stringent forest laws established by the Normans against the English peasants. There he meets the tense and angry Will Scarlet, whose reasons for being in prison are very moving even for a Medieval drama where horrible events are the 'norm', played by Ray Winstone before he got really really famous. They help each other to escape, spurred on by Robin's belief that they can survive in the forest. This escape begins the series of events which brings the 'Merry Wo/Men' together. Robin meets Herne the Hunter and is told of his destiny to help the poor and the oppressed as 'Robin i' the Hood'. At first he refuses, thinking it a load of baloney, but seeing the apathy of his companions he perversely changes his mind and accepts that he must rob the rich to help the poor. There is a slightly cringy scene which goes a bit over the top in terms of English nationalism in Robin's impassioned plea for the English to rise up against their Norman oppressors, cringy because of the context of people like the BNP using the so-called oppression of the 'indigenous' English as a reason to peddle their ideology. However in the context of the Middle Ages the Normans are pretty fascist and hate anyone who does not fit into their landowning clique so Robin's call to arms does seem perfectly reasonable. After some diversions, the first episode culminates in a fierce battle against the (boo hiss) Baron de Belleme, a devil worshipper, who is attempting to sacrifice poor Marion of Leaford (fortunately allowed to wear some clothes unlike the poor cold sacrificial virgins in the National Gallery). Robin falls in love with Marion after one glance of her auburn curls and perfect complexion when he rudely barges into her bedroom during his escape attempt. She proves strangely resistant at first to his charms and a cold wet life in the forest, but faced with that or death at the hands of Baron de Belleme she gives in and becomes the seventh member of the small band. The remainder of the first series sees the Merry Wo/Men adapt to their new life in the forest with sometimes hilarious results.

One thing that was special about RoS was that it wasn't afraid to treat Robin Hood as a human being rather than a hero. He argues with his men, he argues with Marion and gets on their nerves at times with his preaching about helping the poor etc. He makes mistakes which causes terrible consequences. In fact all the characters are equally 'real' rather than some stereotype or unrealistic portrait of perfection. There are some rather lovely scenes showing the band messing about, just talking with each other which are completely superfluous to the story but help to develop their characters and sense of being together. There is also a sense of humour running through the seriousness, something which Kevin Costner failed to replicate in his bloated version of the story, 'Robin Hood Prince of Thieves'. This film is also infamous for stealing the idea of a Saracen member of Robin's band from RoS; Nasir, who does not feature in the legends, started off as Baron de Belleme's henchmen and was supposed to be killed but the actor Mark Ryan so impressed the producer and director that they demanded Richard Carpenter write him into the series. Nasir is a man of few words, full of mystery as to his origins; however this was also for practical reasons as he did not appear in original scripts. Interestingly at the time this appeared to cause little controversy about upsetting the Robin Hood canon, less so than the BBC's recent (and absolutely dire) version. But then there was no Internet in the 1980s where people could get together and moan about such things. Instead most of the controversy was directed at the pagan elements and the devil worship, which reached its high point (or low depending upon your perspective) in the second series with the episode, 'The Hounds of Lucifer'.

'The Hounds of Lucifer' is also my favourite RoS episode. I remember watching the programme on a small TV with my Dad in my Nain's house whilst everyone else watched Paul Daniel's Magic show downstairs on the proper TV (even as a child I demonstrated some taste). Without spoiling the plot, Robin and his friends are invited down to some generic Medieval village called Uffcombe which is being terrorised by the 'Hounds of Lucifer', scary red-cloaked demons who fly down into the village and steal people away in the dead of night. Robin accepts the challenge, much to the chagrin of several (Un)Merry men who resent having to trudge across England. When they arrive at the village they are hardly made to feel welcome, another masterful idea from Richard Carpenter. Instead of being welcomed as the people's hero, Robin has to earn their trust. That is just the beginning - it is not easy being Robin Hood in this episode. He is attacked, wounded, drowned, imprisoned, humiliated and covered in flour. He has to be rescued by Marion only to find himself facing a coven of evil-doers intent on raising the devil himself in human form. Everyone should watch this episode even if just as a masterclass to see what they can get away with, which is actually quite staggering when you think that because of its tea-time slot they were not allowed to show certain angles in the sword fights, much blood or even passionate kissing between Robin and Marion, even though they are married.

Michael Praed broke many hearts by deciding to leave RoS at the end of the second series; it seems to me that Richard Carpenter got his revenge by pumping the character full of arrows when the Sheriff of Nottingham finally gets his act together and tackles the problem of Robin Hood in a serious and well-resourced manner. Yes Robin Hood dies... or does he? Killing off the 'peasant' Robin Hood (who, hilariously, is probably the poshest peasant every to grace the screen) made way for another version of the legend to be slotted in neatly. Herne chooses as his next victim, sorry 'son' the Earl of Huntingdon's lazy and spoilt heir, Robert. Marion has inconveniently got herself captured by yet another bad guy, who this time intends to marry and impregnate her in a fate that is probably worse than being murdered by Belleme as her intended is an uncouth lord whose idea of entertainment is getting two men to slice at each other with giant swords. Oh and he also has a mental wizard friend Gulnar played by the majestic Richard O'Brien. Of course Robert falls in love with Marion's auburn hair and perfect complexion after meeting her at a castle party and decides to re-unite the Merry Men so that they can rescue her. Robert's attempts to persuade the cynical and depressed men that their membership of the 'fight against the Norman oppressors club' did not get deleted after the cruel death of their leader is hilarious and the best episode of the third series. You will never think about the town of Lichfield in the same way again.

The promising start to the series was not continued however. Jason Connery who played Robin was likeable enough but he was a bit wooden (to say the least) at the beginning compared to the elvin, fidgety character created by Michael Praed that you feel sorry for him rather than accept him as a suitable heir to the mantle of Robin Hood. Even Marion takes almost the entire series to fall in love with him. Richard Carpenter did not write all the episodes and it shows as there is a noticeable slide in the attention to detail. The Sheriff and bad King John become stereotypes (although they continue to be funny) and the recurrent presence of mental wizard Gulnar as resident 'baddie' gets tiring as he is so over-the-top as only Richard O'Brien can be. Tellingly the third series also turned out to be the last so ends on a rather dramatic cliff-hanger which involves the desertion of a major Merry, a situation which is not so terrible as may be suggested as it leaves it eternally open to debate. This is not something which has ever been rectified either despite various attempts at financing a film or TV series to tie up the loose ends.

After decades of being entranced by RoS I have rarely changed my opinions in adulthood compared to those I had as a child, and I am thankful that my parents were interested enough in historical things to aid and abet my interest in all things Medieval. Oh there is plenty to laugh about it now, including the hairstyles which seem rather too clean and bouffant for the Medieval period and the reliance on wind machines and dry ice to announce the 'mystical elements', however RoS continues to be one of the most interesting interpretations of the Robin Hood legend purely for its verve and energy, its lack of pretentiousness and ability to present moral dilemmas in a way that is not too clunky or forced. So nostalgia of course pervades the reason for my collection but I think there is still much that RoS can reflect today about the way in which interpretations of history can tell us more about the time that produced it then the time it is portraying. However that is another blog post and I have already waffled on far too much!


J said…
Oh, I beg to differ about the Kevin Costner version not having a sense of humour! OK, so Costner himself decided to make a play for the Oscar, but everyone else thought it was a pantomime! Also, I would recommend the special edition re-release of RH:PoT, because it contains all the scenes that were deleted from the 1991 film, and they actually give the movie back its plot! (Sorry, you have touched on a nerve - it is my fervent, and hopefully soon-to-be-realized dream to make a nuisance of myself reciting Alan Rickman's lines from that film in Nottingham.)
Ceri said…
Alan Rickman is the only good thing in a sea of terribleness so i was not dissing the great man himself only the entire sorry mess of a film
Elee said…
I was always a sucker for "Maid Marion and her Merry Men" as a kid. For some reason I can still remember several lines of their pseudo-Christmas song "Father Bloopy"... ("He's nice as pie, and cute as Snoopy, Everybody want's to be his groupie, Super duper doopy, Father Bloopy!").
So that has clearly warped any knowledge I have of Robin Hood.
Ceri said…
I think if I had watched Maid Marian and her Merry men before RoS it would probably be my favourite because it is so damn funny - mud everywhere, rubbish and vain Robin Hood, (very) Little Ron and Marian like a scary school prefect. Sometimes the Sheriff and his guards were more sympathetic. The songs were superb and Elee if you ever want to relive your childhood memory I have the DVD set :)
Jenny said…
Maid Marian was a defining element of my childhood. I'll admit to being very obsessed with anything to do with Robin Hood though!

Popular Posts