Robin Hood on Television
By John Bainbridge
I always find it fascinating that a medieval legend that began as a series of ballads first composed nearly a thousand years ago has survived and prospered through the technologies of today, in ways that the original authors could never have imagined. None more so than with Robin Hood.
There are films, books, computer games and several television series. Robin Hood is still big business. I’ve been a fan of the outlaw since I can first remember. My favourite childhood game was Robin Hood. His adventures inspired me to take up archery, learn how to sword-fight and probably directed me to a life which has been mostly been spent adventuring in the great outdoors.
Recently I published my own Robin Hood novel “Loxley”, the first of four “Chronicles of Robin Hood” that I intend to write over the next couple of years. But here I want to look at a couple of Robin Hood television series. I confess now to not having seen the most recent BBC version, so will concentrate on the 1980s and very iconic “Robin of Sherwood”, the 1955-59 “Adventures of Robin Hood” and the 1975 “Legend of Robin Hood.”
As far as I can discover, the first actor to play Robin Hood on British TV was Patrick Troughton (subsequently the second incarnation of Doctor Who). It was broadcast in 1953 and very little footage seems to have survived, which is a pity because Troughton was a particularly fine character actor.
A couple of years later came “The Adventures of Robin Hood” starring Richard Greene, in a series of 143 episodes over four series. I hold this in some affection, not least because it was my first television memory, watched as a small child. It was regularly reprised in the 1960s, its half-hour format being ideal tea-time viewing for British audiences.
Richard Greene at the time was everyone’s Robin, so much so that the role rather blighted his career – and the careers of a number of his fellow cast members. Greene played the part a bit like one of those war heroes in a British film, a kind of officer and gentleman, a natural leader of men, stiff upper-lip, righting wrongs with his troops in Sherwood Forest. It came with a catchy signature tune complete with lyrics I can still sing to this day, though they are quite amusing if you listen carefully.
And the Sheriff of Nottingham, played magnificently by Alan Wheatley, was a delight. I always felt a slight sympathy for him. When I was writing “Loxley” I decided to make my Sheriff a tad sympathetic rather than an out and out baddie, a bit of a bureaucrat who was doing his best to hold things together under impossible conditions. A man pressured from all sides as he struggled to uphold the peace of the realm. Wheatley does that too and his performance often steals the show.
Seeing some of the episodes again recently I was interested to see how political some of them were. Richard Greene’s Robin might come from the minor aristocracy, but he was very much on the side of the poor and persecuted – as Robin Hood always should be.
The writers of this series were very largely refugees from the United States, scriptwriters blacklisted by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Committee on un-American Activities. For the American showings the writers – who included such literary stars as Ring Lardner Jr, Waldo Salt, Robert Lees, Adrian Scott and Howard Koch were either not credited at all, or used writing pen-names, even on the British transmissions. Lardner in particular, later said that he used some of the episodes he wrote to comment on aspects of American life. Some of the writers learned scriptwriting skills here which were used to good effect in films once the blacklists were very sensibly shelved.
But the politics are not layered on with a trowel. Deeper thoughts on society come second to entertainment and action. And despite the production values of the day, this Robin Hood is worth seeking out and enjoying.
“The Legend of Robin Hood” was a six part BBC television series which aired in 1975 starring Martin Potter as Robin Hood, Diane Keen as Marian and Paul Darrow (later as Avon in the Sci-Fi “Blake’s Seven” – itself a kind of Robin Hood in space) as the Sheriff of Nottingham. This went back to some of the original ballads. Robin is a nobleman, though brought up amongst the poor, and the series takes a chronological view of his development as an outlaw, right up to his death. It was probably the first Robin Hood that had a Friar Tuck who was neither fat nor a comedy figure.
Despite the mixture of studio video and tele-cine film and some dated production values, it is worth seeking out.
In 1984 came “Robin of Sherwood” (RoS) written mostly by Richard Carpenter (he’d already tackled King Arthur in “Arthur of the Britons” and a comedy-drama version of Dick Turpin.) Other scriptwriters included Anthony Horowitz. The stars included Michael Praed as Robin (Jason Connery took over the role later), Nickolas Grace as the Sheriff, Phil Rose as Tuck, Ray Winstone as Scarlet, Judi Trott as Marian, Clive Mantle as Little John, Peter Llewellyn Williams as Much, Mark Ryan as a new character Nasir, a Moor and assassin, and Robert Addie as Guy of Gisborne. Guest stars in major parts included George Baker, Anthony Valentine, Anthony Steele, Rula Lenska, Reece Dinsdale, Phil Davis, John Rhys-Davies and a whole host of British acting talent.
Many Robin Hood fans think of Robin of Sherwood as the apotheosis of the legend as broadcast so far, proved by the huge fan-base who have loved the programme since it was first shown and the many who have come along since. Therefore I intend to deal with it in some depth.
The production values are quite superb, aided by the fact that it was the first TV Robin to be made entirely on film. And it shows. The quality of the photography is quite beautiful. The sets and costumes are very accurate and there is a real feeling of the grime and unpleasantness of medieval life.
It adds magic and paganism to the Sherwood story, bringing in the legend of Herne the Hunter (John Abineri) as a man who is also a forest god. An interesting idea when you consider the presence of statues of the green man on so many medieval buildings and in folk-tales and dances. Herne was an interesting addition because in reality the myths surrounding him are very much tied only to Windsor Great Park in Berkshire. The idea though of a horned man in the wild is widespread in English forest folklore. Interestingly, the idea of adding a Moor – so common a figure in English folk-plays and dances – to the outlaw band was an innovative step. And Mark Ryan played the part so very well.
What was so very good was the emphasis on youth. Robin and his men are young. So is Gisborne and the sheriff. Given that people aged faster then and life expectancy was limited this is very accurate. And the concept of being outlawed, being made wolfshead was dealt with in real detail rather than being skated over, as it was in some earlier productions.
It is unfair to single out any of the cast from what is really an ensemble piece, and I know everyone has their favourites, but here goes. I may deal with some other performances from this exceptional series in later blogs.
A Robin Hood series stands or falls by the actor playing Robin. Michael Praed redefined the way that Robin was portrayed for anyone who had earlier memories of Richard Greene and Martin Potter, and he was a long way away from the many incarnations at the cinema. Praed’s Robin is young, rugged and tough. A political activist determined to really fight the injustices of society. And he really looks the part. You can believe that this Robin could actually cope with living in Sherwood Forest, could handle a sword and a longbow. But Praed brought out a touching vulnerability. His Robin makes mistakes, isn’t always at his best when dealing with the other outlaws, and is shown to learn from his mistakes.
And the character grows throughout the series. Praed’s Robin becomes a confident warrior. Better at dealing with the situations that arise. I have to confess that when I was writing my novel “Loxley” I found it very hard to get the image of Michael Praed out of my head. I deliberately made my character different within, but hey, if you want to know what my Robin Hood looks like think of Michael Praed.
Jason Connery played Robin rather differently when he took over the role. A much more confident character from the start, a nobleman by birth.
For me Connery never quite matched the performance of Michael Praed. At times I think he makes Robin a bit too self-assured. But opinions differ and both actors have their admirers.
I find these two traditional ideas of Robin Hood very interesting. The one tradition that Robin is the (or the son of) the Earl of Huntingdon, a natural leader of men. The other that Robin Hood is Robin of Loxley, more from the peasant side of life. When I was writing “Loxley” I made the conscious decision to have a Robin of Loxley, a peasant, albeit a free man rather than a villein, rather than a scion of the aristocracy. I like the idea of a people’s champion and rabble-rouser. It seems to me that there is a kind of snobbery in the idea that the people need an aristo to lead them. Perhaps more on this on a future blog.
The rest of the Merry (or often not so merry) Men were very well-cast. Clive Mantle as a very sensitive Little John, Ray Winstone as an often mutinous Scarlet, Judi Trott as a Marian who – unlike most previous versions – actually fights alongside the others. Peter Llewellyn Williams as a very young Much who has a lot to learn, and Mark Ryan as Nasir, a smiling and charming killing machine. All brilliantly done.
Phil Rose’s Tuck was a revelation for those of us who grew up often seeing the monk portrayed as a kind of caricature. Too often this vital role is played for laughs, a figure on the side lines who is jolly and gluttonous. Phil Rose for me provides the definitive Tuck. For a start he is younger than most portrayals. He is pretty good at handling himself in a fight, he has a humour and a kindness that you don’t often see. He can be quite the diplomat and peacemaker, often mending rifts in the outlaw band. Phil Rose brings a considerable acting talent to the part, providing a character a long way ahead of the usual stock portrayals. As with Robin himself, I couldn’t help but picture Phil Rose when I was writing “Loxley” and once again I had to make my character a tad different.
The villains in RoS are quite wonderful, an interesting counterpoint to the outlaws. Nickolas Grace is a splendid Sheriff, conniving, out for himself, humorous, rude. (Perhaps a pattern for many a current British politician?) He is also much younger than most previous Sheriffs’ reflecting the reality of the time. A scene-stealing performance of considerable quality. He is matched by the Abbot Hugo, his brother, played with relish by Philip Jackson, and a stunning Guy of Gisborne played by the late Robert Addie. A dangerous though often incompetent Gisborne, as treacherous as his master and just as conniving, and particularly good in the action scenes, for which he was admirably qualified.
The stories of the series are well written. Many of the traditional takes are there, but Carpenter, Horowitz et al took the legends into a great many new directions. It is sad that for financial reasons the project was cancelled – as was a proposed film version. There was room for more. The ending as it stands leaves the characters hanging in the air – our imaginations fill in the missed conclusions. The fact that RoS has so many devoted fans even thirty years later shows that quality of production and great actors are not easily forgotten.
Writing a Robin of Loxley novel means banishing many of the images of these many television series from the mind – though I did nod through a few tributes that fans might recognise. I shall return to all of these series and much more on Robin Hood in further blogs so please do follow and let me know your thoughts, agreements and disagreements, which I shall read with interest.
My next Robin Hood novel will be out in time for Christmas. The First book in the series “Loxley – The Chronicles of Robin Hood” is available in paperback and on most eBook readers. Please just click on the link below for more information: