On 28th April 1984 the first episode of Robin of Sherwood was broadcast. I was less than a month from my fifth birthday and, looking back, that show shaped my tastes more than any other. From Hawk the Slayer, Dungeons and Dragons, and LARPing, to my deeply held belief that a good mullet is still the haircut of heroes, the man I am today was born in that child.
But what would a five year old child make of Robin of Sherwood today? In a children’s television world of super short YouTube videos, CGI, and gratuitous product placement, could this series still cast its spell? Not having a five year old of my own, one was promptly borrowed from another Set The Tape staff member and asked if they wanted to be a television reviewer. After a moment’s consideration a question was asked: “Can I have a snuggle toy?”.
Allow us to present Paul’s rewatch and Luna’s first watch of Robin of Sherwood.
The question of “has children’s television changed at all” is quickly answered. The first episode opens ominously with silent soldiers crossing a river, watched by a child. It’s a full minute and ten seconds before there is any dialogue at all. Thirty seconds later and the villagers of Loxley are being slaughtered, their homes burned. The child – a young Robin – and his father escape, but they are the only ones who do.
Leaving his son with a miller, the father, Elric, heads off to a henge where he is ambushed by more soldiers and is brutally shot down in a hail of crossbow bolts. Just over five minutes in and we’ve had some pretty gruesome deaths. And then… that theme. If you’ve not heard the opening titles by Clannad, I really do encourage you to have a listen. BAFTA winning, at the time it felt folky and middle-agey, though listening now it’s very much an 80’s synthesised sound. It doesn’t detract, but it does date.
From that point on the episode progresses at a fair click, with some pretty sophisticated and intelligent storytelling. Richard Carpenter does a monumental job of weaving witty, quick, classic stories from the Robin Hood mythology and giving them a mystic spin.
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Speaking of mysticism, perhaps we should address that. We soon learn that here magic and mysticism are real. We’re introduced to Herne the Hunter. The Herne of legend is actually from Berkshire, but Carpenter shows his flair for drawing on English mythology by transplanting the antlered ghost and turning him into a shamanic character; a man possessed by the spirit of Herne, the mystical god of the forest who fulfils the role of wise teacher, the Obi-Wan to Robin’s Luke.
But the show takes more risks than simply adding some woodland spirits. Satanism and demon worship also feature prominently throughout this first two-parter. After the title credits the next shot the viewers are treated to is a character on all fours, clearly possessed and prophesying, an inverted pentagram painted onto his exposed chest. No wonder Mary Whitehouse was a vocal opponent of the show.
With that shot Carpenter has laid his wares out for all to see. This will be his take on a very well-known tale. Despite this, he still manages to sound many of those familiar notes. We have the fight on the bridge between Robin and Little John. The gang disguised so that they can enter the archery contest and win the silver arrow (you might like to know that the disguise was good enough to at least fool a five year old). And, of course, there is the iconic splitting of the arrow.
There’s little need to focus too much on the plot; this is an origins story. There is a perfunctory bit of business where the devil-worshiping Simon de Belleme wants Marion, ostensibly to marry her but, as is revealed later, to sacrifice her to his demon lord Azeel. Yet really this is all about the gang, affectionately called by cast and crew ‘The Merries’, and how they got together. I’ll talk more about each of them in future episodes, but here we see Carpenter’s twist on familiar figures.
Led by Michael Praed’s equally heroic and gorgeous Robin, we first meet his adopted brother, the naive and uneducated Much the Miller’s Son, played by Peter Llewellyn Williams. Then there’s Will Scarlet. Traditionally something of a young fop, here we meet Will Scathelocke, played with near murderous intensity by Ray Winstone, who has changed his name to Scarlet after his wife was butchered and, it’s implied, raped. He is a vicious piece of work, far from his brightly clothed origins.
Clive Mantle’s John Little starts as a possessed henchman of de Belleme, sent to kill Robin. Luckily, a quick quarter staff to the face knocks some sense into him. A disarmingly sweet Phil Rose plays a Friar Tuck who is closest to the traditional version, being a humble man of God and the people, who joins the outlaws through his loyalty to the Lady Marion. Brought alive by Judi Trott, a trained ballet dancer, this stunning version of Robin’s true love has a delicate, almost otherworldly steel to her. Finally, there is Nasir the Saracen (Mark Ryan). A bad guy who was supposed to be killed, he looked so good and proved so popular that the character was kept. Thank goodness!
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But what is the point of having good guys without some excellent bad guys for them to face off against? Guy of Gisburne is played by Robert Addie with a level of plummy arrogance and privilege impressive even by the standards of a 1980’s British children’s television actor. Phillip Jackson is Abbot Hugo, brother to the Sheriff. Another churchman, he stands in stark contrast to Tuck, all greed, opulence and hypocrisy. At one point he blesses Gisburne: “May God’s peace go with you. Don’t take any prisoners”.
Also, though a schemer, he’s clearly not as smart as his brother. The old adage of the dumber son being sent to the clergy was clearly at work in the Of Nottingham family. Nickolas Grace brings us perhaps my favourite version of the Sheriff. Well read and scorning the superstitions and religion around him, he feels very much like a man out of time. When his brother tells him of de Belleme that “they say a demon took his soul in the holy land” the sheriff sardonically replies “probably sunstroke”.
And so the Sheriff and Abbot conspire with de Belleme to snatch Marion, and it’s up to Robin to rescue her. His men follow, many are killed, but the core group escape, vowing to never forget the sacrifices made, and to fight for the people of England. Though the fight at the end is a rather sad affair when compared to even a minor skirmish on Game of Thrones, it has an authenticity that works, with a few very impressive stunts. However, fight scenes in this story are better when shot in the claustrophobic forest, rather than more open fields and castle grounds.
What stands out throughout is attention to detail. This carries through every aspect. Roughly woven fabrics and smoky sets give an authentic feel on the screen. A pig being urged across the archery field with some kind of bough looks like a traditional blessing. Something I loved is that Robin, a commoner, can’t fight with a sword. This makes sense. Swords were incredibly expensive, he shouldn’t be able to use it. The production values are high, with realistic looking villages. Though I doubt that the knitted chainmail would pass muster today.
It often feels as though the characters are addressing (then) current issues. During an impassioned speech, Robin heaps scorn on his friends for not wanting to fight back: “Villages destroyed so that princes can hunt unhindered. The people bled white to pay for foreign wars. No voice? No justice? No England?”.
With memories of the Falklands war still fresh, and massive unease that would lead to bitter strike action, when you watch this it is impossible not to place it in the time it was being broadcast. Perhaps that is the reason Robin Hood continues to endure? The struggle of the common person against the ruling class is one that transcends culture, language, and time.
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Finally, importantly, there is the dialogue. It’s not full of “thees” and “thys”, yet it feels authentic. Nothing is dumbed down, the audience are never condescended to. It can be surprising to hear Marion being talked of as being a “Headstrong Saxon virgin”, and there were more bastards than at a Byron family reunion. But it’s intelligent. Near the beginning Gisburne accuses Robin of breaking the Law of Venison. He then explains what it means. Having sat through some of the tripe served up to children today, this was a real palate cleanser.
So, what did the 5 year old think? Time for Luna’s review of ‘Robin Hood and the Sorcerer’: “I liked all of it. The soldiers were so cool. The arrow going ‘shooooo’ was so so so so cool. I love the music because it is so beautiful. The voice the baddie used against Robin was really scary because then Robin was a baddie. The skeleton was really good. I liked the skeleton. When the baddies were at the castle I liked it. My favourite character was the baddie who became a goodie. The one with the curly hair.”.
Robin of Sherwood is currently showing on ITV4. Join us next time as we look at ‘The Witch of Elsdon’.