by Mark Greig
When the BBC decided to finally pull the plug on its (frankly rubbish) version of Robin Hood back in 2009, I decided to take a look back into the distant past, to the decade that style forgot, and rediscover another (far superior) take on the legendary bandit, Robin of Sherwood.
Forget what you think you know. This is the definitive interpretation of the popular English myth, reinventing all that came before and influencing everything that would follow. Even the BBC’s naff version, which basically just ripped-off the Kevin Costner movie that in turn ripped-off this series.
Created in 1984 by Richard ‘Kip’ Carpenter (creator of Catweazle), on the surface Robin of Sherwood seemed like just another run of the mill version of Robin Hood, chronicling the adventures of Robin of Loxley (Michael Praed) and his merry band of thieves, Marion (Judi Trott), Little John (Clive Mantle), Will Scarlet (Ray Winstone), Much (Peter Llewellyn Williams) and Friar Tuck (Phil Rose) as they robbed from the stinking rich and gave to the poor. Added to the mix was the Saracen warrior Nasir (Mark Ryan), not a traditional part of the myth, but the producers and cast were too amazed by Ryan’s performance not to keep him around. As a result, every future version of Robin Hood would include a token Saracen character (something that still irritates Carpenter). As always, the bad guys were the Sheriff of Nottingham (Nickolas Grace), his brother, the corrupt Abbot Hugo (Philip Jackson) and their ever so blond lackey, Sir Guy of Gisburne (Robert Addie).
Beside the inclusion of a Saracen warrior, what really set the series apart from all the other Robin Hoods through the years was the way Carpenter presented us with a world that was a perfectly balanced mixture of authentic medieval dirt and grime, historical fact and pagan mythology. This was a Robin Hood who, when not battling Norman soldiers or vengeful Templar Knights, nattered with ancient forest spirits, was the chosen one of Herne the Hunter (John Abineri), fought evil sorcerers, witches, satanic nuns, demons and even Lucifer himself. All with total conviction and sincerity, no room for hokum and cheese.
Amazingly, all the fantasy and magic never clashed with the series' medieval realism. Carpenter was eager to avoid all the usual clichés of previous Robin Hood series and show a realistic and historically accurate 13th century England. Unlike the writers of most Robin Hood films and series, Carpenter actually bothered to read a history book. In this series, Richard Cœur de Lion was not some kind and noble king, but an arrogant brute, more concerned with foreign wars and claiming territory than with the welfare of his own people. His return didn't end the merry men’s troubles, it only prolonged them. His death only allowed for his brother, Prince John, to became king. The series would later chronicle key events of John’s reign including the dispute over the throne with Arthur of Brittany, his marriage to the 12-year-old Princess Isabella of France, and the build up to the Welsh uprising of 1211.
Above all else the series was propelled by an exceptional cast. Michael Praed made for a heroic and decent Robin, trading cocky bluster for an ethereal grace. This Robin was not a disgraced nobleman nor a veteran of the Crusades, he was a simple peasant, an orphan of Norman tyranny. A genuine man of the people. Plus, unlike some other Robin Hoods he could speak with an English accent. Along with Praed's Robin there was never a Marion as gutsy and bewitching as Judi Trott, a woman who didn’t need to dress up as a ninja to prove how tough she was. Elsewhere, Clive Mantle, later of Casualty fame, made for a kind and gentle giant as Little John and Mark Ryan proved that less is indeed more as Nasir. But the real standout was Ray Winstone as Will Scarlet. Yes, that Ray Winstone! Winstone said he based his entire performance on football hooligans and you believe him. His Will Scarlet was a vessel of barely controlled rage, a borderline psychotic, one step away from snapping.
While the series had many great villains, including Anthony Valentine’s demonic Baron De Belleme, Rula Lenska’s satanic nun Morgwyn of Ravenscar, Phil Davis’s unhinged King John and Richard O’Brien’s bog-eyed Gulnar, it was Nickolas Grace’s deliciously Machiavellian Robert de Rainault, Sheriff of Nottingham, that reigned supreme. This Sheriff never became a hammy caricature or shameful scene-stealer, easily putting both Alan Rickman and Keith Allen to shame.
It may seem like a cliché to say this but you do get the sense that these people really did enjoy working together and took pride in making the series. Everyone plays it absolutely straight, no ham or cheeky winks to the camera. Despite all the mysticism and magic this felt real and genuine. Good people died. Episodes didn’t always end with a freeze frame of our heroes looking smug at having foiled another of the Sheriff’s plans.
Along with the excellent acting and some terrific scripts by Carpenter, the series was always brilliantly shot and directed. Just look at the opening scenes from ‘The Swords of Wayland’ as the Hounds of Lucifer ride out of the morning sun and prepare to be completely wowed. The soundtrack by Irish band Clannad may seem dated by today’s standards but a lot of it still stands up and is not as cheesy as some would have you believe.
Sadly all things must eventually pass. At the end of the second series Praed decided to depart for Broadway and, later, Dynasty. Rather than call it quits Carpenter decide to incorporate the other myth of Robin Hood, that of the nobleman Robert of Huntington, into the series and introduce a brand new Robin. In a move motivated more by media buzz than common sense Jason Connery (son of Sir Sean) was brought in to take up Praed's bow and arrow. The producers all but admit he was cast due to his famous name rather than thespian ability. Connery, despite his nice hair, often came across as more wooden that the trees around him. He was fine with the action sequences, but the romance scenes with Marion could be excruciating. Along with the inferior leading man the third series also suffered a downturn in overall quality. Carpenter took a backseat, handing much of scripting duties over to other writers. As a result the third series was more uneven than the previous two, dodgy episodes such as ‘The Inheritance’ and ‘Cromm Cruac’ clashing with classics like ‘The Sheriff of Nottingham’ and ‘Herne’s Son’.
After one series with Connery under the hood the show was cancelled due to Goldcrest, one of the key financers, being forced to pull out of the venture after one cinematic flop too many. But Robin of Sherwood remains a lyrical, elegant and emotional series. A true unsung classic of our times. It has not been forgotten, it will never be forgotten.
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.