Robin of Sherwood is for many, myself included, the definitive take on Robin Hood. There are many reasons why, which include the quality of Richard Carpenter’s scripts, the excellent ensemble cast and the stylish direction. As we work our way through the series I’m sure there’ll be other reasons that I’ll pick out.
Robin Hood and the Sorcerer has to fulfil the task of introducing all the main characters. This allows Carpenter to set out his stall – many elements will be familiar, but he also takes the opportunity to subvert some familiar aspects of the legend.
We open with a flashback, some fifteen years previously. Ailric (Wayne Michaels) is unable to prevent his village of Loxley from being burnt to the ground by the Sheriff’s men but is able to hide his young son, Robin, with the Miller’s family. The burning of Loxley is an early indication of the visual sweep that the series will employ – Ian Sharp’s direction favours deep filters on the skyline and plenty of hand-held camerawork during the fight scenes, but there’s also care taken that most of the deaths occur off-screen.
One notable exception is Ailric, who’s run to ground by the Sheriff Robert de Rainault (Nickolas Grace) and his men in the middle of a stone circle. The location, and the prize (a silver arrow), which the Sheriff plucks from Ailric’s dead body are early indications of the series’ mystical edge. Ailric’s death – filled full of arrows – is a brutal one and it can hardly be a coincidence that Robin of Loxley would later suffer a similar fate (although that happened off-screen). Ailric’s dying words (“the hooded man is coming”) is a nice tag into the credits, although the question has to be why it took so long for him to arrive.
We then flash forward fifteen years to the present day, where Much (Peter Llewellyn Williams) has just killed one of the King’s deer, much to Robin’s (Michael Praed) displeasure. So although it becomes clear later that he’s inherited his father’s rebellious fighting streak, to begin with he seems to want a quiet life. Of course, the wise thing to do would have been to have left the deer where it was – but Robin decides to carry it out of the forest, running straight into Sir Guy of Gisburne (Robert Addie). Oh dear.
The shooting of the deer and Sir Guy are familiar parts of the Robin Hood legend, so there’s no surprises to be found in this part of the story. Sir Guy is every bit as superior as you’d expect and Addie is perfect in the role (essentially he plays him as a public schoolboy with a very mean streak).
The first major diversion from the familiar comes when we’re introduced to Will Scarlet (Ray Winstone). Robin and Much join him in the castle dungeon, where he emerges from the shadows with a real sense of menace. He quickly fills them in on his backstory – his wife was raped by soldiers and then trampled to death by their horses – which means he now only lives to kill. Although as he’s shortly due to be hanged, it doesn’t look like he’s going to live for too much longer. Not that that seems to bother him unduly. This radical recreation of the character (previously Will tended to be a cheerful chap in tights) is a gift for Winstone who hits the ground running and never lets up. In retrospect it’s easy to see that his star quality was already in place.
Also lurking in the shadows are Tom the Fletcher (Paul Duggan) and Dickon (Mark Audley). They’ll also escape along with Robin, Much and Will and will be members of Robin’s outlaw band. If you’ve watched Blakes 7 (which itself had nods to the Robin Hood legend) then it’s possible to guess that Tom and Dickon won’t be terribly long-lasting characters.
Marion (Judi Trott) and Friar Tuck (Phil Rose) are also introduced. Marion is the ward of the Sherriff’s brother, Abbot Hugo (Philip Jackson), whilst Tuck spends his time attending to Marion. When Hugo first appears, he’s upset with his brother because he’s been ordered to drain his fish pond! He’s also shown to be keen for Marion to enter a nunnery, so that the church can obtain her lands. The greed and corruption of the church is a familiar theme in the Robin Hood legends and Carpenter maintains that here. Jackson (although not a very central figure) is always a delight and his scenes with Grace are a joy.
But if Hugo wants Marion to take holy orders, then the Baron de Belleme (Anthony Valentine) wants her for his new bride. From the opening scene it’s plain that the arts the Baron follows are black ones. It takes an actor of class and distinction to play a part like the Baron without it tipping over into either melodrama or parody and, of course, Valentine is perfect. Even when he has little or no dialogue he exudes a real sense of menace.
Robin and Marion meet for the first time – he bursts into her bedchamber as he’s attempting to escape from the castle. Love at first sight? Possibly. Again, the audience will be primed that Robin and Mation will become an item, so their attraction to each other doesn’t need to be overstated, as it’s plain they’ll meet again. Trott is delicately beautiful, although she also manages to show that Marion’s wilful and rebellious nature is already present and correct.
Robin has another meeting. This happens in the forest where he encounters Herne the Hunter (John Abineri). This was another of Carpenter’s additions – mixing the legend of Herne the Hunter with the legend of Robin Hood. Having Herne around is handy – since he can pop up at important times with a sage piece of advice (like Yoda, but with antlers). His initial appearance is fascinating – Herne asks Robin if he fears him. Robin replies no, because he’s only a man. As we’ll see though, Herne is more than a man and Abineri was exactly the right man for the part. It’s another fairly small role, so it needed someone powerful who could hook the audience’s attention straight away and Abineri certainly delivers this.
Herne’s first job is to make Robin the saviour of the poor and the oppressed. In most versions of the Robin Hood legend there comes a point when Robin decides to champion those most in need of help. In Robin of Sherwood, Herne is shown to be the driving force behind this. “They are all waiting. The blinded, the maimed, the men locked in the stinking dark all wait for you. Children with swollen bellies, hiding in ditches, wait for you. The poor, the dispossessed, they all wait. You are their hope.”
We’ve yet to be introduced to Little John (Clive Mantle), although he’s been seen several times in the story to date. Little John is under the spell of the Baron and is sent out to Sherwood to kill Robin. This then sets the scene for one of the most famous elements of the Robin Hood legend – the quarterstaff duel between Robin and Little John on a narrow bridge above a stream.
Because of John’s possession, this is not the jolly, light-hearted trial of arms we’re used to seeing. It’s a brutal fight (albeit one that takes place in a gorgeous setting – with a cascading waterfall behind them). Robin comes out on top of course, and breaks the Baron’s spell on John, earning his thanks and loyalty.
A second meeting with Herne is enough to convert Robin. This is something of a leap, since he was (at best) very undecided just a short time before and Robin’s subsequent stirring speech to his men about freedom is a tad overwrought. Had this conversion happened after he learnt that Much’s father had been brutally murdered by Gisburne then it would have seemed more natural. Since the Miller had been his stepfather since Ailric’s death, he would have had a very personal reason to fight.
Some of the motifs of the series (“nothing’s forgotten”) and Robin’s sword, Albion (“charged with the powers of light and darkness”) are already present and correct and with Marion extracted by Robin from Gisburne’s clutches the story is nicely poised.