Part Four is where Robin Hood becomes the outlaw of legend. At the start of the episode though, things are quite different. Robin and his small band of followers are virtual prisoners in Sherwood Forest – under constant siege from the Sheriff’s men and forced to eat whatever they can find (which isn’t much).
Hunger drives them to Ralph’s village but what they discover there puts there own hardships into stark context. The villagers are dying from malnutrition, with the children suffering the worst. A third of their food was taken in taxes for Richard’s Crusade and another third was taken by the Sheriff. What they’re left with is simply not enough.
Starving villagers are a familiar sight in many versions of the Robin Hood tales, but there’s often a lack of logic as to why (and there’s no particularly good reason given here). Robin says that it’s the evil preying on the weak, but as the villagers exist to provide the food that ends up on the tables of the Sheriff and Sir Guy (amongst many others) there’s no reason to either work them to death or starve them. If Sir Guy is so cavalier with his workforce how will he replace them?
Logical flaws aside, it’s the sight of the downtrodden masses that fires Robin’s crusading zeal. From now on, he and his men will control Sherwood and levy a tax against all travellers through the forest. This they will distribute back to the poor and needy. One such recipient is the headman of Ralph’s village, Thurkill (William Simons). It’s not a particularly large part for Simons (although he’s an actor I’ve always enjoyed watching – he’s very good, for example, opposite Alan Dobie in Cribb). He does sport a impressive false beard though – unconvincing facial hair is always a feature of series such as these (other examples are easy to find).
Tony Caunter’s Friar Tuck continues to impress. Tuck is a free spirit, roaming Sherwood by himself, but often coming into contact with Robin and his friends. In part four he attacks and kills two soldiers who are pursuing a man who they intend to brand for non-payment of taxes. Tuck’s anger is evident, just as his remorse is afterwards. Life and death is often casually dispensed in Robin Hood’s world, but it’s clear that in Tuck’s case there’s always a debt that has to be paid.
Sir Richard of the Lea is a figure who appeared in several early Robin Hood ballads (such as A Gest of Robyn Hode). He appears here (played by Bernard Archard) and his story is very similar to the one in A Gest. Sir Richard owes an Abbot a debt of four hundred marks and if he doesn’t repay the money today then his lands are forfeit. Robin and his men feed him whilst they listen to his tale. Afterwards Robin asks for payment and Sir Richard says they are welcome to what little money he has (he claims to only have a handful of coins). When they confirm that he was telling the truth, Richard is touched by the man’s honesty and integrity and loans him the money he needs to reclaim his lands.
The one major difference is that here Sir Richard needed the money to equip and send his son to fight with Richard in the Holy Land, whilst in A Gest his son had been arrested for murder and the four hundred marks were used to bribe the local Sheriff.
It’s always nice to see Archard and it’s even better news that the Abbot is played by Kevin Stoney. Stoney oozes with his trademark languid villainy and is a delight, as always, to watch. Apart from his connection with Sir Richard, he’s also scheming with the Sheriff and Sir Guy. All three are plotting to put John on the throne (although the absence of both Michael J. Jackson and David Dixon from this episode means that the political intrigue takes a backseat).
Instead, part four is much more concerned with the emergence of Robin as a leader of men. We also see him start to influence the oppressed Saxons to fight back. Sir Richard offers Robin a hundred longbows – an offer Robin gladly accepts, as he instantly sees how they can be used by the villagers. “They proved their bravery by fighting with their bare hands. No longer peasants whipped by their masters. These will make them into an army.”
But as in any battle, there’s a price to pay. At the end of the episode Robin loses a key member of his band and it’s an early indication that no-one (not even the familiar names) can be guaranteed to still be alive at the end of part six ….