I’ve been interested in history for most of my life. My parents both made at least some study of the subject, and I hold a degree in the subject.
And tracing the root of this is a little tricky. As stated, science fiction and I have known each other from the word go.
I went into Early Modern History not least from fascination with the aesthetics of Myst and Pirates of the Caribbean. But the genesis of my fascination with ancientry, swordsmanship, armour and horsemanship of days passed can, I think, have come only from a sadly little-known series from the 1980s. At the time it titled itself Robin Hood, but it nowadays can be found under its title from the other side of the Atlantic, Robin of Sherwood.
Whatever name you give it, it was a British series that ran from 1984-1986. In other words, it began and ended just before I was born. Luckily we had taped copies, and even more luckily somebody invented the DVD.
Robin of Sherwood represents a bit of an upgrade from the the traditional depiction of the dude in tights and a green hat with a feather, popularized by the likes of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks and Disney – a shiny, idealized, generically medieval adventure of derring-do.
In Robin of Sherwood, it’s little more than a hundred years since England was conquered by the Normans, and innocent commoners suffer under the oppression of greedy nobles and officials. As the Normans burn the village of Loxley, the hero of the Saxon rebellion says with his dying breath, “The Hooded Man is coming!”
Years later, the rebel leader’s son, Robin, is a wandering woodsman, living with his adopted brother, Much the Miller. Running afoul of the Sheriff of Nottingham and his chief lieutenant, Sir Guy of Guisborne, he’s thrown in prison with a number of other disaffected victims of the regime, among them Will Scarlet, grieving for his murdered wife and hungry for vengeance. They stage an escape and become outlaws, or ‘wolfsheads.’ On the way, he meets Lady Marian and her chaplain, Brother Tuck.
Having dared to stand up for the little guy as he has, Robin is approached by Herne the Hunter, the Saxon forest god, who says that he is Herne’s Son, the defender of the helpless and hero of the common people.
But all is not as it seems. The Sheriff and his brother Abbott Hugo, Marian’s guardian, are plotting with the sinister Baron Simon de Belleme, a sorcerer who plans to sacrifice Marian and promises to use his arcane knowledge to thwart the prophecy of a rebel, who seems now to have appeared, as one Robin-in-the-Hood. Robin confronts Belleme to rescue Marian and the Baron’s ensorcelled slaves, the giant John Little, and the Saracen Nasir.
Thence begins a series of adventures driven by the ongoing game of cat-and-mouse between Robin Hood and his band of medieval guerillas, and the conniving Sheriff and the tenacious Guisborne, to hold the line against tyranny and uphold the protection of Herne the Hunter. Over the course of the series, they confront many faces of oppression: the Sheriff, and sometimes the wicked Prince (later King) John, evil sorcerers, corrupt churchmen, bandits and even Templars.
Moreso I think than any other version of the tale of Robin Hood, this one seems to me to feel most like how it could really have happened. The clothing is realistic, even the most extravagant costumes understated to modern eyes, the castle is a real, proper castle, not one of those ghastly Bavarian birthday cakes. The class division between Saxons and Normans is still a factor: a lot of the noblemen have French-sounding names – the Sheriff is Robert de Rainault, the King’s emissary is Hubert de Guiscard, etc. – the peasants live a Third-World life but they don’t crawl around covered in manure a la Monty Python; the Crusades are still fresh in a lot of peoples’ minds and names like Richard the Lionheart, Philip of France and Saladin get dropped from time to time. Richard himself appears and is not the kind fatherly figure he traditionally is, but the hard-charging, egotistical autocrat he actually was; a conversation between two noble characters in a late episode foreshaows the Magna Carta. And for that matter, you can tell that we’re seeing into an age where the concept of last names hasn’t totally caught on yet.
The only switch there is the paganistic and magical elements, and even these are compelling: even the Sheriff and his brother (who is an abbott, after all) think Simon de Belleme is creepy, and they respect the old supertitions – or fail to at their peril, as when the Sheriff steals a Kabbalah from a Jewish family in Nottingham. Later in the series we have a recurring villain in the mad sorcerer Gulnar, played by Richard O’Brien (late of Rocky Horror) who calls up pagan gods like the Celtic Cromm Cruach and the Norse Fenris, very much trading on the Christian demonization of these figures (not that Fenris was very nice anyway), plus two cases of flat-out Devil worship. Of course Herne provides a nice counterpoint to it, as Robin Hood is his metaphorical Jesus.
The series is pretty well all episodic, each part a self-contained adventure. The tone changes in the third season when Robin of Loxley (played by Michael Praed) is finally slain, only for Herne to appoint the son of the Earl of Huntingdon as the new Hooded Man (played by Jason, son of Sean Connery), thus finding room for two of the traditional origin stories for the character. The tone changes somewhat, upping the level of supernatural features a little bit, and causing a certain amount of ongoing angst for Marian which creates a rather tacked-on-feeling love story, plus one episode with a rather dopey long-lost-brother twist. At the very least, Much’s character did evolve into something other than a man-child nuisance…
While the look of the Middle Ages is captured, nitty-gritty details, like the number of times Guisborne gets shot in the arm and never dies of gangrene, or the fact that Robin never even accidentally gets Marian pregnant is a bit strange, but that isn’t the story they want to tell, so it’s simply not in there. Marian herself doesn’t get quite as much characterization as the others, being ever this serene, if occasionally feisty love interest, although she can bring down a soldier at a hundred yards with a longbow with the best of them.
Belleme and Gulnar seems a bit more fantastical (not that Richard O’Brien is ever one for the grounded or naturalistic), whereas the Sheriff and Guisborne are pretty believable. Guisborne is a good soldier but not much of a leader, whereas the Sheriff is a conniving bastard who seems well aware, and not particularly unhappy about what he is. King John, in his appearances, is the kind of venal creep he is sometimes remembered as, and fully displays the Plantagenet family’s famous temper. His and the Sheriff’s outbursts are, along with the antics of Robin’s band, a source of much comic relief. Abbott Hugo, while as conniving and cynical as his brother, the Sheriff, still takes his religious station (and its perks) seriously; the writers didn’t take the easy route of making him a lecherous hypocrite.
The actors really nail it: Praed and Connery both bring a neat flavour to the title role. Nicholas Grace as the Sheriff is delightfully good at being bad; King John, who some might also recognize as the cab driver in Sherlock, is an absolute hoot; Ray Winstone as Will Scarlet is a brilliant, scenery-chewing machine; Mark Ryan as the tactiurn, enigmatic (if shamelessly whitewashed) ex-Hassassin Nasir was a trendsetter in the adaptations of Robin Hood, and, for better or worse, the first character I ever saw my mother fangirl over. Not that I can throw stones; I once used him as a character in a game of Dungeons and Dragons…
The special effects are few, cheap and crude, but they do the job. Any Anglophile will relish the views of the English countryside; the choreography of fight scenes is above average for a show this age; the acting is old-school, gloriously hammy, theatrical, and memorable; the actors themselves are perfectly cast; the stories have equal parts action, drama and historical resonance, with lots of little bonuses like playing spot-Eleanor-of-Aquitaine; its award-winning soundtrack by Irish group Clannad is haunting and flawlessly sets the scenes. It’s a perfect example of the British aptitude for making short, memorable series that don’t burn themselves out but also leave you wanting more. It’s a classic which deserves way more attention than it gets, and is easily available on YouTube or your local library.
“Nothing’s forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten.”