The Hooded Man

5 Oct

There have been many screen versions of Robin Hood, ranging from the swashbuckling derring-do of Errol Flynn in the 1930s flicks to the classic 1950s teatime serial starring Richard Greene. The end of the last century saw Kevin Costner don a mullet and a shaky English accent for a film that was nonetheless a box-office smash but more recent incarnations of the legend of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men have unfortunately been rather less well loved. There was the best-forgotten BBC TV version in the noughties, starring Jonas Armstrong as Robin ‘in a hoodie’, and the equally unloved recent Russell Crowe film. Perhaps the reason why latter versions of the Sherwood myth have failed to hit the right note is simply because we have already been given the truest, most perfect re-telling of the old folk tale in the form of Robin of Sherwood, the eighties TV series which remains one of the finest fantasy series the UK has ever created.

When I purchased the complete saga of Robin of Sherwood on DVD I was relieved to find that time had not withered it. The original strengths of the series have endured, resolutely refusing to date. There are no green tights to be found in this version of the legend of Sherwood and precious few reasons to be merry. Instead, the figure of Robin Hood is returned to his roots in Old English myth – he no longer simply robs from the rich and gives to the poor but is the chosen son of nature deity Herne the Hunter, wielding the magical sword Albion in battle against supernatural as well as mortal foes. To call this series fantasy is to do it something of a disservice, however, for the visionary pairing of writer Richard Carpenter and director Ian Sharp take care at all times to ground every episode in gritty, and often very dirty, reality. Thus, while Sherwood forest itself is filled with ancient, sunlit trees, suffused with birdsong and haunted by spirits, the outlaws themselves operate as a guerrilla band hopelessly outnumbered and outmatched by their pitiless Norman adversaries. Gone are the carefully choreographed sword-fights of the Errol Flynn era, to be replaced by sweaty, desperate struggles to the death involving men who have nothing left to lose.

The cast is uniformly excellent and for me are each definitive in their respective roles: Michael Praed’s tenderly heroic Robin, Judi Trott’s beautiful but strong Maid Marian, Clive Mantle’s excellent depiction of the gentle giant Little John and Nicholas Grace’s deranged Sheriff of Nottingham (a portrayal which was shamelessly ripped off by Alan Rickman in the later Prince of Thieves movie). Two actors in particular stand out for me however: Ray Winstone in his breakthrough role as Will Scarlet, memorably played as a borderline psychopath turned ‘scarlet inside’ by his wife’s brutal murder; and Mark Ryan as Nasir the Saracen, an entirely new addition to the Robin Hood legend which has been included with every incarnation since simply because it was such a good idea (I mean, a Moorish assassin in Sherwood forest at the time of the Crusades – brilliant!). The finest episodes are the first season finale The King’s Fool, a necessary debunking of the ‘hero-king’ myth of Richard the Lionheart; Swords of Wayland, which features an epic battle between good and evil and an appearance by the Devil himself; and the heartrendingly moving The Greatest Enemy, in which Robin Hood faces the one challenge which he just may not be able to survive.

Sadly, the quality of Robin of Sherwood was not maintained in its third and final series, which featured an unpopular change of actor in the title role (Jason Connery, seemingly cast for no other reason than because of his famous father Sean) and the needless cranking up of the previously subtle supernatural elements of the show. Despite this the series remains a landmark of eighties television and has influenced the look and feel of a number of films and television serials ever since its run ended in 1985, a remarkable achievement considering that it was only ever aired on terrestrial television once. Only recently, the director of the excellent medieval siege movie Ironclad tipped his hat to Richard Carpenter and said that if he only achieved half the impact on his audience that Robin of Sherwood did he would consider it a job well done. To quote one of my favourite lines in the show “Nothing is forgotten – nothing is ever forgotten”. Indeed.

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